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Jesus washing feet of the Apostles


Since the people walked barefoot or wore sandals, washing of feet was the practice before entering a residence. They used to eat the meal reclining so the feet might be on the sofa and close to the face of the person reclining nearby. So, they needed to wash their feet before entering a house. A slave, servant, or host (Lk 7:44) would wash the feet of the guest as a traditional gesture of honoring and welcoming the person (Gen 18:4).

Since the apostles had no host or servant to wash the feet, they skipped the ritual. Ostensibly, none of the apostles wanted to be at the service of others, not even to wash the feet of their Lord! So, they might have commenced supper by washing themselves and without the ceremonial washing of feet. Jesus had noticed it and taught them a lesson by making himself a humble servant of theirs. According to the Jewish practice, the washing of feet should take place before the Passover celebration and not during the supper, as Jesus did.

The evangelist gives a graphic account of how Jesus taught the lesson of Servant Leadership to his disciples. While serving, the servant used to take off his outer garment and tie a towel around his waist for practical reasons. Jesus needed the towel to wipe the wet feet of the apostles after having washed them. The apostles were amazed when they saw Jesus dressed like a servant. They did not understand what he would do. Jesus used symbolic and dramatic actions, like some prophets of the past, to convey strong and memorable messages to the people. He was fulfilling what he had said earlier. “I am among you as the one who serves” (Lk 22:27). “Be like the Son of Man who has come not to be served but to serve, and to give his life to redeem many” (Mt 20:28). Thus, the incarnate God did the menial job of a slave for his subjects.

The family used to keep a towel, a washbasin, and a jug of water inside the house for repeated washing of hands in between different courses of food during the meal. Jesus used them for the feet washing. He did not seek the help of anyone in this service, like pouring water into the basin. He did everything himself, like a humble slave. According to the custom of the time, if there was no slave or servant, an inferior would wash the feet of a superior—like a wife to her husband, children to the parents, disciples to the master; but not vice versa. By doing this act, Jesus touched the hearts and minds of his disciples. Besides washing their feet, Jesus affectionately wiped the feet dry with the towel girded around his waist.

After having washed the feet of his disciples, Jesus had the intention of establishing the Holy Eucharist. So, by this action, Jesus also symbolically cleaned their souls. That is a lesson for us to clean ourselves spiritually before receiving the Holy Eucharist.

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