Footwashing, rituals and the monarchy

12When he had finished washing their feet, he put on his clothes and returned to his place. “Do you understand what I have done for you?” he asked them. 13“You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and rightly so, for that is what I am. 14Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. 15I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. 16I tell you the truth, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. 17Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them.

Why isn’t footwashing an accepted church sacrament? The Anabaptists thought it should be. In John 13, Jesus clearly indicates it should be. Of course, more important than the ritual is the attitude of servanthood, but I think the ritual could remind us of the attitude.

My wife and I washed each other’s feet at our wedding; I don’t think I even knew it was an Anabaptist practice then. Our old house church did it a few times too. Did it do any good? I’d like to think so. The other day, I suddenly recalled the ritual and it made me decide to try to be more servant-ish.

But then last night I read this in Roy Strong’s History of Britain:

It was customary for the monarch to wash the feet of as many poor people as their age each Maundy Thursday, thus emulating Christ washing those of the disciples before the Lord’s Supper. This ceremony… emphasised the sanctity of the ruler. (192)

The miniature above is of Elizabeth I preparing to wash the feet of paupers. My first reaction is that it illustrates how little the ritual could mean, when it leaves the social inequalities and un-servant leadership unchanged. But I wonder if it did some good, if just a little of Christ’s original intent got through to the people watching and participating?

Oh, it’s complicated!

3 thoughts on “Footwashing, rituals and the monarchy

  1. Hi Nathan,

    Thanks for the post. The footwashing passage of John is one of my favorites.

    Footwashing has become quite important for Peace Tree. It marks the entrance of people into community. Bring back footwashing!

    Peace to you,


  2. The Anabaptist Mennonite congregation I am part of practices foot washing several times a year, during our communion service.


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