Reflections on the Meaning of the Washing of the Feet By Bishop Hovakim Manukyan


Dear brothers and sisters in Christ,

Today is one of the most significant days in the Church calendar. We commemorate and relive through a series of services the most profound last few days of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ’s earthly life. We remember Jesus’ ministry and live through the beautiful services the accomplishment of his mission: our redemption.

In the morning, we went through the canon of repentance and participated in the Liturgy of Institution of the Eucharist in remembrance of the Last Supper of Jesus Christ with his disciples. And now we will be conducting one of the most beautiful rites in the Christian liturgical tradition: the washing of the feet, which is recorded in all four Gospels.

John the Evangelist gives us deep insight and opportunity to reflect on the meaning of this important event:

Now before the festival of the Passover, Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end. The devil had already put it into the heart of Judas son of Simon Iscariot to betray him. And during supper Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him. He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?” Jesus answered, “You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand.” Peter said to him, “You will never wash my feet.” Jesus answered, “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.” Simon Peter said to him, “Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!” Jesus said to him, “One who has bathed does not need to wash, except for the feet, but is entirely clean. And you are clean, though not all of you.” For he knew who was to betray him; for this reason he said, “Not all of you are clean. (John 13:1-11).

Even as the passage is self-explanatory, I would like to draw your attention to Jesus’ dialogue with Peter. When Peter said, “Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!” Jesus said to him, “The one who has bathed does not need to wash, except for the feet, but is entirely clean. And you are clean, though not all of you”.

Reflecting on this subject I used some ecumenical resources and particularly the ideas of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI. In his book “Jesus of Nazareth” he writes, “the washing of the feet is not an individual sacrament, but it signifies the whole of Jesus’ saving ministry: the sacramentum of his love into which he immerses us in faith, his love, which is our true bath of purification.” He underlines the significance of the event by pointing out that the “washing of the feet acquires another more concrete meaning, over and above this fundamental symbolism, one that points to the practicalities of the life in the early Church.”

Dear brother and sisters in Christ,

Indeed, although we are baptised into the Church, we are human beings and we are prone to sin. Through this act we are invited to confess our sins and be cleansed. St. John writes:

If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word is not in us. (1 John 1:8-10).

Church Fathers have established a special rite of confessing our sins before participating in the liturgy of Institution on Holy Thursday. The service of the washing of the feet reminds us of the need for confession and helps us to be cleansed and “purified from all unrighteousness.”

When Jesus washed the feet of His disciples, he said: “And you are clean, though not all of you”. Judas was the one who was not purified. No doubt, we do not wish to be Judas, who is a symbol of death, punishment and failure. Rather, we would like to identify ourselves with the rest of the disciples who followed Jesus.

As we minister the sacrament of Great Love, we are constantly reminded that Jesus “did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). He did it to cleanse us from our sins and save us; that we may“have life, and have it to the full” (John 10:10).

The humility of Jesus humbles us as our Lord did all this for us. In the first century, it was the task of servants to wash the feet of the guests. Jesus did it himself, setting a prime example. His act was a self-emptying act: Christ Jesus “being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant” (Philippians 2:6). This is a virtue that we cannot easily understand. However, Jesus helps us to understand.

We are called to make room in our hearts for Jesus to dwell within us. We are called to put aside our sense of self and our pride and make room for our Lord and Savour Jesus Christ, as St. Paul says: “Don’t you know that you yourselves are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in your midst?” (1 Cor 3:16).

May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.

Photos copyright © Dr Sos Grigorian Ph.D

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