The Catholic Encyclopedia
Washing of Feet and Hands
Owing to the general use of sandals in Eastern countries the washing of the feet was almost everywhere recognized from the earliest times as a duty of courtesy to be shown to guests (Genesis 18:4, 19:2; Luke 7:44, etc.). The action of Christ after the Last Supper (John 13:1-15) must also have invested it with a deep religious significance, and in fact down to the time of St. Bernard we find ecclesiastical writers, at least occasionally, applying to this ceremony the term Sacramentum in its wider sense, by which they no doubt meant that it possessed the virtue of what we now call a sacramental. Christ's command to wash one another's feet must have been understood from the beginning in a literal sense, for St. Paul (1 Timothy 5:10) implies that a widow to be honoured and consecrated in the Church should be one "having testimony for her good works, if she have received to harbour, if she have washed the saints' feet". This tradition, we may believe, has never been interrupted, though the evidence in the early centuries is scattered and fitful. For example the Council of Elvira (A.D. 300) in canon xlviii directs that the feet of those about to be baptized are not to be washed by priests but presumably by clerics or at least lay persons. This practice of washing the feet at baptism was long maintained in Gaul, Milan, and Ireland, but it was not apparently known in Rome or in the East. In Africa the nexus between this ceremony and baptism became so close that there seemed danger of its being mistaken for an integral part of the rite of baptism itself (Augustine, Ep. LV, "Ad Jan.", n. 33). Hence the washing of the feet was in many places assigned to another day than that on which the baptism took place. In the religious orders the ceremony found favour as a practice of charity and humility. 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. The act was a religious one and was to be accompanied by prayers and psalmody, "for in our guests Christ Himself is honoured and receive". 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.
The liturgical washing of hands has already been treated in the article LAVABO. It may be noted that possibly in consequence of the words of St. Paul (1 Timothy 2:8): "I will therefore that men pray in every place, lifting up pure hands", the early Christians made it a rule to wash their hands even before private prayer, as many passages of the Fathers attest (e.g. Tertullian, "Apolog.", xxxix; "De Orat.", xiii). The multiplied washings in a pontifical Mass probably bear witness to the practice of an earlier age. Let us notice also that the "Caeremoniale episcoporum" enjoins the use of the credenza or tasting as a precaution against poison even for the water used in the washing of hands.
THALHOFER in Kirchenlexikon, s. vv. Fuss-washung: Handwaschung; Carrol, Dict. d'archeol. et lit., s.v. Ablutions; THURSTON, Lent and Holy Week (London, 1904), 304 sq.
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Obstat, Nihil. Lafort, Remy, Censor. Entry for 'Washing of Feet and Hands'. The Catholic Encyclopedia. https://www.studylight.org/encyclopedias/eng/tce/w/washing-of-feet-and-hands.html. Robert Appleton Company. New York. 1914.