It’s Easter, and Christians around the world are celebrating the resurrection of Jesus. Oddly, though, in the past few years the biggest surprises of the Easter season have come three days earlier, on Holy Thursday, the day when Christians celebrate the Last Supper. This year Pope Francis washed the feet of 12 young refugees. Traditionally, Popes would wash the feet of 12 Catholic men, but Francis has broken with tradition. The first year of his papacy he outraged some conservatives by choosing to wash the feet of criminals, women, and Muslims.
The choice of refugees is deliberate. Francis is trying to make the point that we are called to serve the weakest members of society who, right now, are refugees. It’s a commendable gesture that has made news but you may wonder: How did a spa treatment become first a religious ritual and then a political statement?
The basis for washing feet on Holy Thursday is the account of the Last Supper. According to the Gospels, Jesus washed the feet of the disciples before his final meal with them. At the time, the disciples were debating their relative position in the kingdom of heaven. By taking on the role of a servant and washing the feet of his followers, Jesus was highlighting their pride. It was a subversive act that threw shade on the apostles’ ambitions. It was absorbed into Christian ritual almost immediately, being incorporated into baptismal practice across the empire from the second century onwards. And, in the 16th century, radical reforming Protestants tried to re-create the faith of the apostolic era by reintroducing foot washing into their daily lives.
Feet are a bodily focal point in the Bible. The first thing that God commands Moses to do in Exodus is to take off his shoes. He was in a holy place, God said, and he was muddying the place up. Jesus is on the receiving end of the gesture on several occasions. In John, when he visits Lazarus, Lazarus’s sister Mary washes his feet, and in Luke an unnamed woman washes Jesus’ feet and anoints them with oil. Both women use their own hair to pat his feet dry.
The practice was taken over not only by popes but also by priests in general and even monarchs. Until 1689, English monarchs personally washed the feet of the poor. The ritual was often accompanied by the distribution of alms and clothing. But in 1689 the custom was suspended by the Protestant co-regents William and Mary, who elected to distribute coins instead. (To this day Elizabeth II still honors the custom and gives special minted money to a carefully selected group.)
As a practice, Christianity had inherited foot washing from Judaism. According to more than one rabbinic opinion, foot washing was a service that a wife was expected to render to her husband, regardless of however many maids were on hand to perform the service. Foot washing was prohibited on the Sabbath, Yom Kippur and Tisha b’Av, but if a person had recently arrived from a journey caked in dirt the prohibition was lifted for them.
All the same, foot washing isn’t an exclusively Judeo-Christian practice. In Buddhism, feet are considered the most unclean part of the body; even pointing one’s feet in the direction of an altar or one’s teacher is considered disrespectful. Ritual ablution is one of the eight offerings traditionally made to the Buddha. These offerings allow the believer to purify negative karma. In India, the parents of the bride habitually wash the feet of the groom as a means of demonstrating respect to the man who is marrying their daughter.
Even beyond Francis’s gestures of humility, religious foot washing continues to be socially subversive and politically sensitive. Muslims traditionally engage in wudhu (ritual washing of various body parts, including the feet) before praying—in other words, five times a day. Because of the frequency of foot washing, public footbaths are common in Muslim countries. Their availability means that observant Muslims don’t have to resort to washing their feet in the sinks of public bathrooms. The installation of footbaths has met with resistance here in the U.S. To the consternation of some, a growing number of universities have installed them on their campuses.
If washing one’s own feet is a gesture of respect toward the deity, and washing the feet of others an act of humility and servitude, then kissing the feet of others was the ultimate act of obeisance. The 12th-century Pope Innocent III required that kings and fellow clerics kiss his right foot. It certainly put uppity monarchs in their place. While Francis doesn’t encourage it, even today some attempt to kiss the feet of the Pope.
The sociological roots of the practice and its association with ritual purity are relatively easy to identify. In the ancient world from which the practice sprang people would wear sandals constructed from hard-to-clean animal hides. In a dusty, agrarian world feet would become caked in dirt and mud, and it was a gesture of hospitality to provide basins of water (and even a helpful servant) to travel-fatigued guests.
In its origins, then, foot washing was a gesture of hospitality, but it quickly morphed into a ceremony about social status. As ritual theorists and anyone who has ever gotten a pedicure before a hot date know, those washing feet are socially inferior to those being washed and those being washed are inferior to those for whom the ritual is performed. But for those wanting to subvert social order there’s an opportunity to draw attention to injustice. When important people like Pope Francis wash the feet of the marginalized they shine a spotlight on inequality. Ultimately, if you want to aim high, stoop low.