This article first appeared on Catholic Stand.
With Lent underway, a period of ascesis (rigor/self-discipline) is being observed by the Catholic faithful. In addition to ascetical practices, clergy will continue the tradition of washing feet on Holy Thursday. Typically, when we think about washing another person’s feet, we rightly see it as an act of love, service, and of following the supreme example of humility displayed by our Lord and Savior on the night before He was crucified.
John 13:1-20 (RSV-CE) presents us with the details from that night. It tells us that after the Last Supper, Jesus begins to wash the disciples’ feet. Then, in verses 6 through 11, after describing the disciples as those who are “in the world” (vs. 1), Jesus has a conversation with Peter.
He came to Simon Peter; and Peter said to Him, ‘Lord, do you wash my feet?’ Jesus answered him, ‘What I am doing you do not know now, but afterward you will understand.’ Peter said to Him, ‘You shall never wash my feet.’ Jesus answered him, ‘If I do not wash you, you have no part in me.’ Simon said to Him, ‘Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!’ Jesus said to him, ‘He who has bathed does not need to wash except for his feet, but he is clean all over; and you are clean, but not all of you.’ For He knew who was to betray Him; that is why He said, ‘You are not all clean.’
A few things are going on here. We know that Jesus is giving His disciples and us an example of humility because He says as much in verses 12 through 17. But His words also seem to imply a deeper meaning and even contain some irony.
A Deeper Meaning
First, let me draw your attention to verse 10 in which Jesus informs Peter that one who has bathed does not need to wash except for his feet. Although Scripture does not explicitly state that the disciples were baptized, this verse implies that they were. Jesus says the one who has “bathed” is “clean all over” except for his feet. By the way, the reason feet were not clean in Jesus’ day is because they came into direct contact with the world and were constantly covered in the world’s muck.
Second, Jesus says that not all in the body of followers are clean. We know He is talking about Judas in particular because He tells us this in verse 11. And Jesus is talking about others in general because He exhorts the disciples to continue this practice (v. 14-15). I use the phrase “body of followers” because Jesus says, “you have no part in me,” implying that those who separate themselves from Jesus have walked away from their baptismal grace and concomitant (along with) incorporation into His body.
Thus, I believe Jesus is using the feet as a metaphor for those baptized individuals who are covered in the muck of the world due to selfish pursuits. So, foot washing is a subtle rebuke of these people and a call for the Church to pray for their return. It also seems to be a request for God to continue perfecting His body of followers, a continual cleansing of the Church that meets the world through evangelization and other charitable acts.
The Irony of It
Additionally, I find it ironic that Jesus says in verse 18, “I know whom I have chosen; it is that the Scripture may be fulfilled, ‘He who ate my bread has lifted his heel against me.’” Context tells us that Jesus is talking about Judas here.
First, I find Judas’ opposition to Jesus ironic because God says to the Serpent (Satan) in what is commonly referred to as the protoevangelium (the first good news), “he [the woman’s seed] shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel” (Genesis 3:15).
Accordingly, the Messiah raises his heel against Satan, not the other way around. But in Judas’ case, he is filled with such pride (remember, he is the son of perdition, John 17:12) that he presumes to lift his heel against Jesus, an anti-Christ hubris if there ever was one. Perhaps this is another reason for foot washing, namely, as a rebuke of Satan who irrationally strikes at the Son’s heel but ultimately bruises his own head.
Second, I envision Judas, who represents all who lift their heels against Jesus, lifting his foot as an act of betrayal and defiance, and Jesus refusing to wash his feet because Judas is full of pride. Conversely, Jesus takes hold of the feet of those who love Him. Then He lifts their heels and washes them.
In one depiction, we see a baptized but separated member of Jesus’ body lifting his foot toward Jesus as if to assert, I deserve this. Now, wash my feet! In the other depiction, we see a baptized follower saying, Lord, I am not worthy, and our Lord responding, I know, but you are one of mine. Let me do this for you. For I have beheld this day in my heart for eternity.