An Episcopal Dictionary of the Church

Foot Washing

The washing of feet was a menial act of hospitality in the OT (see Gn 18:4, 19:2). It was often performed for guests by a servant or the wife of the host. The Gospel of John (13:1-17) records that Jesus washed the feet of the disciples at the Last Supper. Jesus urged the disciples to follow his example of generous and humble service. They should wash one another's feet, as their feet had been washed by Jesus, their Lord and Teacher. Jesus' washing of the disciples' feet was a lived expression of his teaching that "whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all" (Mk 10:43-44). The foot-washing also expressed Jesus' "new commandment" for his disciples to love one another, as he had loved them (Jn 13:34). The washing of feet continued in the early Christian church. The requirements for enrollment on the list of widows includes the expectation that a widow would have "washed the saints' feet" (1 Tm 4:9-10). The ceremonial washing of feet is mentioned by Augustine of Hippo (354-430). The foot-washing has been associated with the Maundy Thursday liturgy since the seventh century in Spain. The name "Maundy" is from the Latin antiphon that was used on this day, based on Jesus' "new commandment" of love on the Thursday before his death. The foot-washing has also been associated with baptism. In the ancient Gallican rites, the feet of the newly baptized were washed by the ranking prelate after baptism.

The early editions of the Prayer Book did not provide for the foot-washing. The 1979 BCP restored the washing of feet as an option for the Maundy Thursday service. The foot-washing follows the gospel and homily. Representatives of the congregation may be appointed to have their feet washed by the celebrant. The celebrant may be assisted by other ministers or acolytes. The BCP provides anthems that may be sung or said during the ceremony (pp. 274-275). Musical settings for these anthems are available in the Appendix of The Hymnal 1982 Accompaniment Edition, Vol. 1 (S 344-S 347). It is also traditional to use the hymn "Ubi Caritas" at the foot-washing (see Hymns 576, 577, 581, 606). The BOS provides a brief address that may be used by the celebrant to introduce the ceremony of foot-washing. This statement recalls Jesus' teaching that "strength and growth in the life of the Kingdom of God come not by power, authority, or even miracle, but by such lowly service" as the washing of feet.

Glossary definitions provided courtesy of Church Publishing Incorporated, New York, NY,(All Rights reserved) from “An Episcopal Dictionary of the Church, A User Friendly Reference for Episcopalians,” Don S. Armentrout and Robert Boak Slocum, editors.