An intimate act of love

Chris McDonnell  

“An intimate act of love” was first published in the Catholic Times on 10 March 2017

At the end of a long day there is something very satisfying in kicking off our outdoor shoes and finding a pair of slippers for the evening. Only when it is bedtime will we remove socks or tights as we prepare for a night’s sleep.

In the Judea of Roman times, the shoes would have been sandals and they would very likely have been worn on bare feet. In consequence, on arrival at a house, your own home or that of a friend, the prospect of a good foot washing would have been welcomed.

It was a lowly job, undertaken by a servant. Given the attitudes of the time, that servant would more than likely have been a woman. It was an action placed firmly at the bottom of the social pile.

That is why when we are told in John’s Gospel account of the Last Supper that Jesus knelt and washed the feet of those who had shared the meal this action went against the grain of the times. The one who was Lord undertook an action totally out of place within the social custom of the time. Even Peter protested the experience.

Yet when all is done, we are told that those present are instructed to do the same for each other.

This ritual of washing feet made its modern appearance with the reform of the Easter Liturgy in 1956. It had not been seen since the Middle Ages, save in monastic communities. From the time when Canons of the cathedral washed the feet of beggars, through to the substitution of a gift of money instead of washing (still preserved in the UK when the Sovereign hands out the “Maundy Money” to pensioners, their number matching the years of her reign), to the Rite we now use on Holy Thursday, our appreciation of this action has become somewhat blurred.

As a liturgical action it has been closely associated only with Holy Thursday and has been adopted in a ritualised form that has lost much of its original significance. The Washing of Feet is an action of gentle kindness, an act of service and an intimate act of love. It is above all a mutual action of sharing, not a mime of an event from many centuries ago. Liturgical actions are not re-enacted memories but a living development from an earlier time that is both real and purposeful.

In foot-washing, there is an exchange between participants, a giving, each to each, that is important. Too often we see in our experience of Liturgy, that we ‘get’ something. How often did we once hear, and maybe still do, the phrase “Did you get Mass this morning?” No, this liturgy is very much something we share. It is also an action that is not necessarily ‘done’ to us by the priest, enacting a role, reinforcing the mime. It is something we give and administer to each other. In this instance, it should be quite acceptable for the priest to have his feet washed as a member of the group. Liturgy that is alive is not a spectator event but asks for, needs, participation by those gathered together, a real sharing in a sacramental act.

It is also a liturgy that can be shared without raising contentious issues in an ecumenical setting. There need be no divisions in this mutual giving, no barriers of race, age or social status. It fundamentally cuts through these restrictions and offers an example of Christian love in a simple yet powerful manner.

The shared experience is born out regularly in the practice of the L’arche Communities. I received this short description in an email a couple of years ago.

“I took part in a retreat lead by Jean Vanier at Trosly last October. He is an inspiration. In his book: Becoming Human, which I recommend, he says: “Community life with men and women who have intellectual disabilities has taught me a great deal about what it means to be human.”

Towards the end of the retreat we sat in small circles of about eight people and washed the feet of the person next to us. As it worked out the youngest person at the retreat had her feet washed by Jean. It was a beautiful ceremony. Jean based the retreat on John’s gospel”.

This was not a pre-selected group of men, but a gathering of those who had shared community with each other, women and men, young and old. It was a simple yet profound action shared by the group without the need of prescribed words. Unfortunately our translation of “viri” has led us to understand that this action is restricted to a re-enactment of Jesus washing the feet of the Twelve, rather than a significant sign of love within a broader community.

It came to prominence again when Francis visited the juvenile Remand Centre in Rome on Holy Thursday, 2013, shortly after his election. What sparked interest and created a stir was the inclusion of two women in the group. For some bishops and priests this was just too much and strenuous efforts were made to suggest that this particular action was not-liturgical. Francis has repeated this action in subsequent years, encouraging the practice of accepting both men and women within the celebration of the foot-washing liturgy. Sad to say, there is still opposition in various quarters to the example set by the bishop of Rome in following the Lord’s instruction that what he did, we should do to each other.

If it is to be encouraged and celebrated in a real and meaningful manner within our parishes and dioceses, then there must be preparation and explanation. It is not good enough to say that this is just a re-enactment, a mime, of a Last Supper event. The giving one to another, the sharing of intimacy in an action of service, must be discussed understood and appreciated by those who participate. Better to start small with an indentified parish group, maybe the choir, the liturgy group or some similar gathering. In this way an understanding of the action can be developed in a simple and familiar setting. How well it would fit with a small group retreat, a simple yet profound conclusion to the words and prayers of time together. It need not, and in fact should not, be restricted to the first day of the Triduum. Why not as a Lenten activity leading to Easter? Why not at other times of the year on specific occasions?

We should discuss and think carefully about arrangements, what is needed, how the group is formed, in what context it is placed. Like so many things, careful thought and sensible planning will help understanding and practice.

A full and detailed explanation of Foot Washing can be found in the book of that title, recently published by Tom O’Loughlin, professor of historical theology in the University of Nottingham. It is well worth reading and would make a very useful contribution to our Lenten journey.


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  1. Kevin Walters says:

    A post @Grace Ann on another site.

    “Would certainly be wonderful IF the “princes” of the church could get on board by remembering the lesson/mandate that was given at the Last Supper to those who would lead in His name”——————————————–

    My vision for the leadership of the Church

    If I were a Sheppard what would I do
    In trust a bowl and towel I would bring to you
    A Bondsman to the one above
    To All, this must be truly understood
    In poverty we only serve love
    Water with grace to clean your heart feet and face
    As I wash your feet the Masters heart I will seek
    Your heart to mine will surly speak
    No one can divide if in the light of the Spirit we reside
    Our opinions are no longer truly our own
    The Word(Will) of God is all we own
    To Bishop on his throne we will take our towel and bowl
    As we wash his feet his heart we will seek
    No one hides from where Christ truly resides
    With tongue and flame give us unity again.
    kevin your brother
    In Christ

  2. Great article. I have a friend who is Muslim and who felt very inspired by Pope Francis’ brave decision to wash the feet of people on the margins of society, (women and men, Christians and non-Christians).
    Who would you consider are on the margins of Irish society? Refugees? People in second relationships? Gay Priests? Bankers?
    Maybe we play it a bit safe when it comes to foot-washing in the Church in Ireland.

  3. In our culture, washing a person’s feet is not an intimate act, not an an act of love. It is not done at in our culture, nor is it necessary, except in the case of a person physically incapacitated. People wear shoes, not sandals, with socks underneath; the roads and pavements are not dusty; people do not normally walk between towns – they take public transport or drive and they do not get their feet dirty or dusty during the day. If a service is looked for, I would suggest that it is far superior to talk to a person and listen with respect; to speak the truth and to be realistic. Perhaps listening and speaking the truth should be incorporated into Easter events. It’s rare enough.

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