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We see in John 13:1-17 Jesus washing the feet of his disciples prior to the Passover meal as an example to be followed by them. He then institutes the Holy Eucharist. While the second part is celebrated as Holy Mass every day, the Foot Washing ceremony is restricted to Maundy Thursday in most of the denominations. In fact, foot washing was practiced in the early centuries of post-apostolic Christianity, with Tertullian (145–220) mentioning the practice as being a part of Christian worship in his De Corona (Courtesy: Wikipedia). That implies that Foot Washing was a part of regular Liturgy and was not restricted to a once-in-a-year ceremony. Of course, there are practical difficulties in the celebrant washing the feet of some of the faithful, during the day-to-day Mass. But then, the example set by Jesus could have been remembered through reading from John 13, or by short prayers.

My question is: Was Foot Washing practiced in early Christianity as a part of Liturgy on regular basis?

Inputs from scholars of different denominations are welcome.

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    By "regular", do you really mean "frequent" or "weekly"? Once a year on the same date every year is regular; Halley's comet appears regularly, once every 75 years. Nov 14, 2023 at 3:02
  • We have no record of the frequency in which Mass was celebrated in early Christianity. My question is whether every Mass said had a part in memory of the foot washing that the Lord had done. Nov 14, 2023 at 3:36
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    The symbol (washing the feet) was performed by Jesus only once (that we know of) in his lifetime upon earth. But he constantly washed the feet of his disciples in practice when he spoke to them, ministered to them, exhorted them, warned them and comforted them. Jesus does not require us to repeat a ritual which was a memorable symbol. He wants us to do the thing itself, in love.
    – Nigel J
    Nov 14, 2023 at 22:57
  • I'm not sure if your question is a duplicate of this, but it's certainly related: Is there any historical evidence for the practice of "foot washing" during the first centuries of Christianity?
    – JBH
    Nov 16, 2023 at 2:38

1 Answer 1

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Was Foot Washing a regular practice in early Christianity?

The short answer seems to be no!

I am sure some Early Church Christian communities may have had some sort of foot washing ceremonies, but evidence is quite sparse on this particular subject matter.

However there existed a monastic tradition of doing so under St. Benedict. The Rule of St. Benedict directs that it should be performed every Saturday for all the community by him who exercised the office of cook for the week; while it was also enjoined that the abbot and the brethren were to wash the feet of those who were received as guests. This no longer is done in Benedictine monasteries, in part, I think because of modern sensitivities. Many visitors may feel uneasy with this monastic tradition!

Liturgically this started in the 7th century.

The liturgical washing of feet (if we can trust the negative evidence of our early records) seems only to have established itself in East and West at a comparatively late date. In 694 the Seventeenth Synod of Toledo commanded all bishops and priests in a position of superiority under pain of excommunication to wash the feet of those subject to them. The matter is also discussed by Amalarius and other liturgists of the ninth century. Whether the custom of holding this "maundy" (from "Mandatum novum do vobis", the first words of the initial Antiphon) on Maundy Thursday, developed out of the baptismal practice originally attached to that day does not seem quite clear, but it soon became an universal custom in cathedral and collegiate churches. In the latter half of the twelfth century the pope washed the feet of twelve sub-deacons after his Mass and of thirteen poor men after his dinner. The "Caeremoniale episcoporum" directs that the bishop is to wash the feet either of thirteen poor men or of thirteen of his canons. The prelate and his assistants are vested and the Gospel "Ante diem festum paschae" is ceremonially sung with incense and lights at the beginning of the function. Most of the sovereigns of Europe used also formerly to perform the maundy. The custom is still retained at the Austrian and Spanish courts. - Washing of Feet and Hands

Today we call the washing of feet, the Mandatum.

Mandatum

The washing of the feet in the Liturgy of Holy Thursday. In the revised ritual the washing of the feet takes placed after the Gospel, which narrates the same event at the Last Supper. The men who have been chosen are led to chairs prepared for them. Then the priest goes to each man, pours water over each one's feet, and dries them. Meanwhile the choir or congregation sings a number of antiphons from the appropriate Gospel account in St. John. The ceremony is called the mandatum because it was on the occasion of washing his disciples' feet that Christ gave us the new commandment (novum mandatum) to love one another as he has loved us (John 13:4-17).

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