Humble ritual begins holiest Christian days

Ancient church rite of foot-washing based on Last Supper account

April 02, 1999|By John Rivera | John Rivera,SUN STAFF

The Easter triduum, the observance of Jesus' death and resurrection that comprises Holy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter services, begins with an act of profound humility.

In a ritual commemorating Jesus at the Last Supper, Cardinal William H. Keeler put an apron over his vestments and bent forward to bathe the feet of 12 people last night at the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen.

The washing of feet is a Holy Thursday ritual of service and humility re-enacted in Roman Catholic churches and some Protestant congregations. It is an ancient ritual that was lost for centuries, restored in the Catholic Church in the 1950s and more recently in some Protestant denominations.

"It's a sign and an invitation to humble service," Keeler said. "It's an example that we need to take very much to heart in our relations with one another. For this reason, it is very special."

The practice is based on the Last Supper account in the Gospel of St. John: Before the meal, Jesus girded himself with a towel, poured water into a basin and began to wash his disciples' feet. When the apostle Peter objected to Jesus performing the work of a servant, Jesus replied that if he did not wash Peter's feet, "you have no part of me."

"Lord, not my feet only, but my hands and my head!" Peter replied.

Jesus then told his disciples that they should follow his example.

The practice has its roots in the ancient Near East, where it was the custom for a host to wash the feet of guests who arrived after walking in sandals on dusty roads. The ritual was practiced in the primitive church, and it became a part of the Holy Thursday service.

Rite restored in 1955

After falling out of favor, the practice was restored in the Catholic Church in 1955, when Pope Pius XII brought the triduum back to prominence.

Keeler said he was intrigued the first time he saw the washing of feet in the 1950s.

"I can remember as a seminarian in Rome going to participate in the liturgy at the Ethiopian College, where they celebrated the Ethiopian Rite. And they did have the foot-washing then, and I found it very meaningful," he said. "So since it was restored in our church, I've always participated."

In the Catholic ritual, the priest washes the feet of his parishioners. In many Protestant churches, members of the congregation wash each other's feet.

"It's something that has come back into the church as the result of the liturgical movement of the last 20-plus years," said the Very Rev. Van Gardner, dean of the Episcopal Cathedral Church of the Incarnation in North Baltimore, where the washing of feet occurred at the conclusion of Maundy Thursday service last night.

"It is a very touching thing, especially when you see a mother wash the feet of her child or a child wash the feet of a parent. An elderly person being ministered to by a retarded child," he said. "We think it's a very powerful symbol of Christ's servanthood."

In the Church of the Brethren, an Anabaptist church with a much simpler liturgy than Catholicism, the washing of feet has been part of its service since its inception in 1709. The act is done twice a year, during the Love Feast service, which is held during Advent in December, and the Thursday before Easter.

The need to serve

Theologically, foot-washing symbolizes the need for Christians to serve others and be cleansed of sin, said the Rev. David A. Leiter, pastor of Friendship Church of the Brethren in Linthicum and a professor of biblical studies at the Ecumenical Institute of Theology in North Baltimore.

"In addition to the service and the cleansing, it's a humbling act," Leiter said. "There's something about feet. Feet are sticky, sweaty and smelly. To wash someone's hands is more acceptable, but the act of foot-washing more awkward.

"We have newcomers who come to church and say, `I don't want to do that.' I try to talk them into it," he said. "And once they do, they come up to me and say, `That's one of the most meaningful things I've ever done.' "

Pub Date: 4/02/99

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