Saturday, March 31, 2018

The curious custom of ceremonial foot washing

According to the Scriptures, the first thing God said to Moses was ‘take off your shoes’
"Then He said, “Do not draw near this place. Take your sandals off your feet, for the place where you stand is holy ground.” Exodus 3: 5, 6.
The significance of bare feet to Judo Christian believers is profound and they are not alone for other religions also hold bare feet in high regard. Why remains a mystery. Certainly in Biblical Times shoes and sandals made from animal skins were difficult to clean and in agricultural societies likely to become caked in dirt. The emblems of filth were left outside homes and temples but bare feet also required to be purified and this responsibility fell usually to the lowest house servant. Having the feet bathed signified the status of an honoured guest and foot washing was considered as an honour or service and became a common Jewish custom at formal banquets. Foot washing took place either on arrival or before the feast. In the New Testament there are two accounts of the feet of Jesus being washed by women.

In John 12 1-3, "Mary" sister of Lazarus washes the feet of Jesus. This takes place at a feast and Mary takes perfumed oil (nardin), and greases the feet of Christ before wiping them dry with her hair. In the second account, Luke 7:36-48, unnamed women (thought to be a prostitute) washes his feet after he dines in the house of Simon, a Pharisee. She bathes the feet in perfumed oil, and, while she is washing his feet she weeps with her tears rolling onto the feet. She then dries his feet with her hair. Bathing feet in oil was also taken as a prospect of wealth. Most experts recognize this humble action was a deliberate act of humility and mark of respect.

At the Last Supper however Jesus subverts the ceremony by washing the feet of his disciples. Despite their protestation he reminds his devotees of the significance of foot washing. (John 13:1-17)

14. "If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also
ought to wash one another’s feet.
15. For I have given you an example, that you should do as I have done
to you.
16. Most assuredly, I say to you, a servant is not greater than his
master; nor is he who is sent greater than he who sent him.
17. If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them."

Theologians believe Christ's action demonstrated service rather than status represented greatness in the Kingdom of Heaven. This action prepared his disciples (and their converts) to walk in the path of righteousness.

Christians adopted the Hebrew foot washing ceremony and in some religious faiths this is still considered as one of the three ordinances (sacrament) i.e. baptism, the Lord's Supper, and foot washing. Foot washing acts as a renewal of baptism and commitment to living God's way of life. Foot washing is still practised in one form or other throughout the world on the Thursday before Good Friday.

Popes, religious leaders, and monarchs have all honoured the commitment to faith and humanity. Ceremonial foot washing usually involved marking the toe with blood or oil to symbolize either consecration or the cleansing of the entire person. This type of ritual was considered important before entering God's house. In the UK the ceremony was often accompanied with the distribution of alms in the form of food and drink, clothes and money. Until 1689 monarchs personally washed the feet of poor people. In the reign of William & Mary (1689-1702), foot washing was replaced by specially minted coins, called Monday Money. To this day the custom is still celebrated on the day before Good Friday. Her Majesty the Queen distributes specially minted money to the poor. A man and woman are chosen to represent each year of the monarch's life and given the special coins in a church. The specially minted coinage is worth much more than its face value.

Proskunew is an ancient Persian custom and involves kneeling and putting the face to the ground. Sometimes kissing the ground is part of the custom. It too was considered an act of submission, respect, gratitude, supplication, neediness, and humility and was used on all sorts of occasions. The custom is thought to have originated as a non-verbal greeting where men of equal rank would kiss each other on the lips. An inferior kissed his superior on the cheeks, and where one was much less noble rank than the other, he fell to the ground in homage. It became ritualized at the oriental courts, and according to rank, visitors would prostrate themselves, kneel in front of, bow for, or blow a kiss to the king. In days gone by there may have been practical reasons for blowing a kiss as halitosis was thought to be common. When Alexander the Great (327) spread his empire to incorporate others lands he naturally took his countrymen (now Iran) to serve at his court. As ruler supreme he commanded all subjects showed respect in his presence and that of his representatives. Conquered people like the Greeks despised the thought of prostration, bowing or kneeling, to anyone other than their Gods. However, proskynesis continued to be practiced at the courts of his successors and remnants remain today. We still bow for kings and queens. By the time of the Old Testament the custom had passed in judicial behaviour and when an accused was brought before the judge, he lay prostate. If found guilty, the judge would place his foot on their neck. If innocent the judge would stoop over and lift their face with his hand. To the Hebrew lifting the face was a declaration of innocence in a judicial, proceeding. When Muslims bow towards Mecca this is another reference to proskynesis and by contrast the posture of early Christian worship was standing.

According to Brasch (1989), kissing the feet was a gesture of homage and deference, far removed from its erotic roots. Millions of pilgrims with loving pressure have worn down the feet of the statue of Saint Peter in Rome with their lips. At the beginning of the Holy Roman Empire it was the custom for the faithful to kiss the right hand of the Papal Father. In the eighth century, a rather passionate woman took liberties and according to legend, the Pope cut off his hand in disgust. The custom of kissing the Pope’s right foot was adapted as more appropriate. Pope Innocent III (1198-1216) had kings and churchmen kiss his feet. Today the act of homage involves kissing the Pontiff’s right shoe. Lips are aimed at the cross-depicted on the shoe. This is either taken as a tribute to his authority or the simulation of servitude.


  1. this really answered alot of questions i had about washing feet ceremonially; however, i do believe you missed one key concept. Feet washing is also about the love you have to someone not only are you humbling yourself before them but you are showing love and adoration to the person of whom the feet are being washed.

  2. This is just a disgusting tradition, washing other's feet, not to mention that it sounds and look humiliating.

  3. Juvenile reply to stir up dissent. It's funny, this is the same game my 7 year old plays. It's just as juvenile, I suppose, for me to respond.