A story of humility

footwashingHumility, for Christians, is a difficult thing to maintain. Those who talk about their humility are by definition not very humble. The attribute of humility is best when it is practiced, but unfortunately, Christians in the public spotlight are in a tough spot when it comes to demonstrating humbleness.

I am a week late in posting on this excellent Washington Post article on foot-washing and how it relates to being humble. Reporter William Wan portrays in vivid detail the lowly nature of following Jesus’ model in washing feet:

As they prepared for the holy ritual, the churchgoers had all the essential items: latex gloves, nail clippers, chlorine and antibacterial soap. The only things missing were the feet, and soon enough they poured into the church by the dozen.

Many were callused and cracked from cold nights spent on the streets. Some were sore and infected. What they needed was some old-school — we’re talking centuries here — Christian doctrine in action. So volunteers at Centenary United Methodist Church in Richmond got down on their knees and scrubbed.

The practice of foot-washing, rooted in the biblical account of what Jesus did for his disciples, has ebbed and flowed throughout church history, abandoned at various times for reasons of dogma or embarrassment. But in recent years it has grown in popularity as an act of submission, both at Easter season services and in many other settings.

The article, as part of the Post‘s monthly On Faith feature, took me back to an honors class I took in college called “Hands-on Spirituality.” In it we discussed and practiced everything from yoga to meditation to totai chi.

While I learned little in the class, largely because I was too busy with the school newspaper and other duties, I did appreciate it. The thing I remember most vividly was the one week we devoted to an exclusively Christian practice, which was foot-washing. Simply put, washing a classmate’s feet was probably the most humbling school-related action of my four years in college. All in all the experience was quite moving spiritually.

A brief history on why the foot-washing rite has gone in and out of style among Christians is explained in the article. The reporter makes a very good case, by nailing the spiritual significance of the practice, that this is something that should be practiced more often by followers of Christ.

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  • Christoph S.

    This practice, by the way, is still done in the Orthodox Church by bishops on Holy Thursday, and often in monasteries. I visited a monastery once where the abbot, as a sign of humility, washed all the brothers’ feet on Holy Thursday during Matins. It was a very touching and moving sign – this man in charge of the whole community and having some prestige in his church, down on his knees, without any gloves or anything, washing and kissing the feet of his spiritual sons. Not a few tears were shed by those present.

  • Chad

    I’ve had my feet washed very unexpetectly at Church Camp one year. Let me tell you I know I didn’t deserve that.

  • Scott Allen

    DPulliam states that “…this is something that should be practiced more often by followers of Christ.”
    If so, why didn’t Christ himself call for it, or Paul, or Peter, or James, or Jude (etc.)?
    I get it. Let’s supplant the actual worship of God and study of his Word with rituals. Things we can do to make us feel better, more “spiritual” about ourselves.
    Perhaps the point that Christ was making to the Disciples, including Peter, was that they needed a washing by Him? That is, we CANNNOT be washed by other believers, nor by a minister/priest, nor anyone else other than the Lord.
    I know it’s narrow-minded of me to point out the explanation provided by our Lord, Himself, in the Bible.
    FYI, we conducted foot washing in my PCUSA youth group in the 1970s. It was really great for introducing physical intimacy in the group. Perhaps this and other pseudo-spritual practices inspired us to explore each other’s sexuality more than Scriptural spirituality and true friendship. Perhaps not. I mention this as a warning that as you try to emulate our Lord’s service to others, you do not end up serving other than our Lord.

  • Michael

    There was a story recently on NPR, I think, about a church on the East Coast that has a foot clinic as part of its outreach to the homeless. People can come in and get their feet washed and cared for, while also getting new shoes and socks.

    The volunteers talked about how footwashing was connected to Christian humility. It was quite lovely.

  • Juliet

    The Holy Thursday mass is one of my favorite liturgies for this very reason. I never really thought about foot-washing before I became Catholic, but now I wonder why it’s not a more common practice among other Christians.

    Scott Allen: See John 13:14.

  • http://dpulliam.com dpulliam


    The idea that somehow I am advocating for the replacement of anything with rituals in an attempt to reach some level of feeling is ridiculous.

    Also, I don’t know where you get “pseudo-spritual practices” out of washing the feet of the homeless, but I think that’s a bit of a stretch.

  • http://www.geocities.com/hohjohn John L. Hoh, Jr.

    The practice is a good one if the lesson is learned and applied. However, is the lesson ingrained if, after having one’s feet washed and leaving church, we ignore the hungry we pass on the street?

  • Scott Allen

    Sorry that I’ve been away from the web site for a while, and didn’t respond in a timely fashion to Juliet and DPulliam.
    Juliet, see John 13:10 for the whole point of the foot-washing. Or, if you really believe that John 13:14 isn’t pointing to John 13:10, that is, if you believe 13:14 should be taken literally, then start a ministry dedicated to it. I look forward to the establishment of this VERY IMPORTANT MINISTRY. Perhaps you can get Desenex or Gold Bond to sponsor you?
    DPulliam, by “pseudo-spiritual” I, of course, mean fake spirituality. Example: you and Juliet and others missing the whole point of the passage.
    And every time you recommend a new ceremony it squeezes out study devoted to reading the Word and understanding it in context. Now, I know I’ve been insulting thus far but let me finish it by saying that you’re certainly free to recommend any practice you wish. However, it’d be more credible for you and Juliet if you could point to some passage in Acts, the apostolic letters, or the entire Old Testament that reinforces the view that this ritual cleansing is of real value to the Christian. Because the immediate context of John 13 is “If I wash thee not, thou hast no part with me.”
    Also, you contend that my general attack of this footwashing rite as an “attempt to reach some level of feeling” is “ridiculous.”
    Hey, read the descriptions used by your supporters on this site: “touching” “moving” “tears” “quite lovely.” Sure sounds like “feelings” to me. Now, I don’t have a problem with feelings, obviously we have them all the time. But you’re right, I claim that if we practice footwashing as a rite, the result will be to psyche yourself into some level of false holiness. It serves no purpose, unless as noted it is done for the homeless, and even then it’d be better to accompany this foot care with other health care, eh?
    In sum, you can claim that you don’t mean for this rite to supplant genuine Biblical mandates, but as a practical matter it will. This is not a “stretch” you may want to give this some thought the next time you’re getting your feet washed.