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  Is Foot Washing a Legitimate Rite of the Church?

This week we look at the age-old custom of foot washing. I received this unusual question by e-mail: "My friend is getting married in February 2000, and she wants to have a foot washing during her wedding ceremony. I am not very familiar with this practice, and . I would like to know your opinion, do you think a foot washing is appropriate for a wedding ceremony?"

Although I dealt with the issue of foot washing in a column some years ago, it seems appropriate to revisit the question in a new light-is foot washing a rite of the church and when/where is it appropriate to practice it?

The practice of foot washing was common in ancient days. Since most people in the Middle East wore sandals, and because the Middle East tends to rather dry and dusty (and when the weather in inclement the land and roads became wet and muddy), people tended to get rather dirty feet as they traveled from town to town or even from their home to the marketplace and back. Those wealthy enough to have servants generally had their feet bathed when they returned from a stroll. Further, it was the custom to provide water for visiting guests when they dropped in.

There are only a few instances of foot washing found in the Bible. In the Old Testament foot washing is considered part of good hospitality and etiquette. However, in all but one of the cases the host simply brings a basin of water for the guests to wash their own feet. The one instance of true servanthood and foot washing is found in 1st Samuel 25.41 where Abigail makes a magnanimous offer: "She rose and bowed down, with her face to the ground, and said, 'Your servant is a slave to wash the feet of the servants of my lord.'"

In the New Testament examples of foot washing are recorded three times. In the first instance a known prostitute visits Jesus during dinner. She weeps profusely and washes Jesus' feet with her tears and dries them with her hair (Luke 7.38). The second instance is quite similar and could arguably be a retelling of the first story. In this instance, Mary opens a jar of costly ointment and anoints Jesus' feet with it and then dries him with her hair (John 3.3).

The third report is the most commonly cited passage regarding foot washing. In John 13 we read that during the last supper before he was crucified, Jesus rose and began to wash the disciples' feet. The disciples responded with horror, but Jesus replied, "So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another's feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you" (John 13.14-15).

With such a forceful reminder one would think we would read of the early church practicing foot washing regularly. But this isn't the case. Foot washing is never again mentioned in the Bible, nor is it found in any of the Christian writings for nearly 300 years.

So, what happened? Did the disciples simply dismiss Jesus' command? Probably not. It seems clear from the lack of historical discourse that Jesus' act was considered an example of servanthood, not as a new rite to be practiced. Indeed, from that last supper the early church instituted the rite of Communion with its remembrance in bread and wine of Jesus, but the church left out the foot washing ritual because the early church leaders understood that Jesus' act was an example, not a command.

Which is to say foot washing is not a standard practice of the church. The question is, is it appropriate to practice it at all?

Given the many other rites that have arisen from scripture and from the tradition of the church, the answer would have to be yes-this rite is every bit as valid when practiced as an example of humility as any other. Indeed, from the fourth century onward we find several references to churches practicing the rite in a variety of settings, though most often it has been associated with Communion.

So, is it appropriate to practice foot washing at a wedding? It seems to me weddings are a human construct-marriages may be of divine origin, but the process of getting married has no specific commands nor even examples in the Bible, with the exception there's always a lot of food at a wedding. And so, if the nuptials incorporate a religious ritual into the ceremony, such as Communion, foot washing, Bible reading, hymn singing, etc., it is helpful to remember, after all, it is their wedding. And if someone isn't comfortable with the humility it takes to have ones own feet washed, well, they could always just show up at the reception with a smile and a nice gift.

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