A Catholic Looks at Adventists and Foot-Washing

The blog, Re-Inventing the Adventist Wheel, has invited cradle Catholic Stephen Korsman of South Africa to be a contributing writer. In yesterday’s post, he looks at foot-washing, a ritual that Catholics do once a year (the priest washing the feet of twelve “select men”) and that Adventists do as part of every communion service (with members pairing up).

He opposes “symbolic” and “real” in describing foot-washing, and I’m not entirely sure what he’s getting at. Of course it is a symbol–a symbol of humility. And when you get down on your knees you are humbling yourself before another person–you can’t get more real than washing someone else’s feet.

But he uses “real” in another sense, in which “We partake of the act of Christ washing his disciples’ feet.” He uses this to make the action a sacrament, a means of Grace, God acting towards us, God offering us something.

There are, of course, two parts to what Adventists call the “ordinance of humility.” One is washing the feet of another person, the other is letting your feet be washed. Let’s look at each in turn.

Stephen says, “We cannot make ourselves humble.” I disagree. We can. We can let go of our pride and go outside of ourselves and do acts of service towards others. Non-religious people do that all the time. The washing of feet is something that we do–something that Jesus commanded us to do. Yes, it can be an “empty ritual” (and even an occasion of pride!), but I think (and perhaps this is Stephen’s point) it can also be a ritual act that moves the heart, and brings about within us the very thing that it symbolizes.

The washing of feet also involves letting our feet be washed. That’s the part that was difficult for Peter; when Jesus insisted, he flipped the other way and insisted he be washed completely. Jesus said, “Whoever has bathed has no need except to have his feet washed, for he is clean all over.” Adventists see this as a reference to baptism; if you are baptized, you don’t need to be rebaptized each time you sin or as preparation for communion, only your feet. It’s like a “mini-baptism”–we might compare it to the Catholic Sacrament of Reconciliation (aka Penance or Confession). Luther referred to Confession as a “return to baptism.” Here’s where we could see foot-washing as, in some sense, “sacramental”–God cleanses us from the dirt we’ve picked up along our journey since we last shared this meal.

For Adventists, the ordinance of humility isn’t an extra rite, or “sacrament,” in addition to the Lord’s Supper, but is part of the celebration of the Lord’s Supper. It is preparation for our sharing in the body and blood of Christ.

Here’s what happens. After the sermon the men and women separate. The deacons and deaconesses have prepared water, towels, and chairs. You choose a partner (the deacons can help), and while one person goes and sits, and removes his shoes and socks, the other takes off his jacket, gets a basin, fills it with water, gets a towel, and kneels before his parter, washing, and then gently drying, his feet. You dump out the water, and then reverse roles. You may share encouraging words with one another. If you’ve wronged the person, this is a time to ask for forgiveness. When you are done, you pray together, taking turns praying for the other person. When everyone is done, all may join in song together before returning to the sanctuary.

Stephen links to an article in the Adventist Review by Ed Christian, who quotes Ellen White, The Desire of Ages. I’ll quote from this at length, because I think she makes some of the points Stephen wants to see in the service; she also pulls out implications for beyond the service, as well:

Now, having washed the disciples’ feet, He said, “I have given you an example, that ye should do as I have done to you.” In these words Christ was not merely enjoining the practice of hospitality. More was meant than the washing of the feet of guests to remove the dust of travel. Christ was here instituting a religious service. By the act of our Lord this humiliating ceremony was made a consecrated ordinance. It was to be observed by the disciples, that they might ever keep in mind His lessons of humility and service.

This ordinance is Christ’s appointed preparation for the sacramental service. While pride, variance, and strife for supremacy are cherished, the heart cannot enter into fellowship with Christ. We are not prepared to receive the communion of His body and His blood. Therefore it was that Jesus appointed the memorial of His humiliation to be first observed.

… There is in man a disposition to esteem himself more highly than his brother, to work for self, to seek the highest place; and often this results in evil surmisings and bitterness of spirit. The ordinance preceding the Lord’s Supper is to clear away these misunderstandings, to bring man out of his selfishness, down from his stilts of self-exaltation, to the humility of heart that will lead him to serve his brother.

The holy Watcher from heaven is present at this season to make it one of soul searching, of conviction of sin, and of the blessed assurance of sins forgiven. Christ in the fullness of His grace is there to change the current of the thoughts that have been running in selfish channels. The Holy Spirit quickens the sensibilities of those who follow the example of their Lord. As the Saviour’s humiliation for us is remembered, thought links with thought; a chain of memories is called up, memories of God’s great goodness and of the favor and tenderness of earthly friends. Blessings forgotten, mercies abused, kindnesses slighted, are called to mind. Roots of bitterness that have crowded out the precious plant of love are made manifest. Defects of character, neglect of duties, ingratitude to God, coldness toward our brethren, are called to remembrance. Sin is seen in the light in which God views it. Our thoughts are not thoughts of self-complacency, but of severe self-censure and humiliation. The mind is energized to break down every barrier that has caused alienation. Evil thinking and evil speaking are put away. Sins are confessed, they are forgiven. The subduing grace of Christ comes into the soul, and the love of Christ draws hearts together in a blessed unity.

As the lesson of the preparatory service is thus learned, the desire is kindled for a higher spiritual life. To this desire the divine Witness will respond. The soul will be uplifted. We can partake of the Communion with a consciousness of sins forgiven. The sunshine of Christ’s righteousness will fill the chambers of the mind and the soul temple. We “behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world.” John 1:29.

To those who receive the spirit of this service, it can never become a mere ceremonial. Its constant lesson will be, “By love serve one another.” Gal. 5:13. In washing the feet of His disciples, Christ gave evidence that He would do any service, however humble, that would make them heirs with Him of the eternal wealth of heaven’s treasure. His disciples, in performing the same rite, pledge themselves in like manner to serve their brethren. Whenever this ordinance is rightly celebrated, the children of God are brought into a holy relationship, to help and bless each other. They covenant that the life shall be given to unselfish ministry. And this, not only for one another. Their field of labor is as wide as their Master’s was. The world is full of those who need our ministry. The poor, the helpless, the ignorant, are on every hand. Those who have communed with Christ in the upper chamber will go forth to minister as He did.

Yes, foot-washing is symbolic, in a very rich–and very real–way. We stoop in humility before another person to wash their feet, an act of service that symbolizes our love for one another and our service to one another, but it also symbolizes our commitment to serve all those Jesus did, in the manner in which he served them. We also let someone wash us, perform this act of service for us. We acknowledge we’re not fully clean. And in this we let God wash us, and forgive us, and renew us. Then we’re able to join hands and go and share the body and blood of Christ in his sacrament, and from there, to go as members of his body into the world.

6 thoughts on “A Catholic Looks at Adventists and Foot-Washing

  1. Thanks, Bill – a good review. The reason I said “We cannot make ourselves humble” is because it’s not our work, but God’s work. God makes us humble.

    Sacraments, to use the Catholic word, are real in that they are God’s act, not ours. We decorate them in thanks, and we can choose to respond or not respond.

    “it can also be a ritual act that moves the heart, and brings about within us the very thing that it symbolizes”

    My reasoning is that it is not a subjective act we perform alone, and bring God into the equation only if we do it in the right spirit … but rather an objective act of God, which makes it real. God is real, and present all around us, not only when we call on him. We can respond or not respond to that presence, but it’s there either way. The same is true of specific acts of God – sacraments, ordinances, or whatever they get called.

  2. Question: How often is the communion service?
    Comment: Augustine discusses the relationship between the outward sign (=symbol) and the inward attitude (City of God, bk 10.19-20) in connection with the Eucharist; Thomas Aquinas picks up on it in his discussion of sacrifice generally (ST 2-2 q. 85 a. 2): “The sacrifice that is offered outwardly is a sign of that inward spiritual sacrifice in which the soul offers herself to God.” Perhaps this might point a way forward regarding “real” and “symbolic” meanings?

  3. Adventists have generally celebrated it quarterly (though it is sometimes done on other occasions, too). This follows what has been a prevailing Protestant practice in America.

  4. The “Ordinance of Service” should be officially designated for what has been called called “foot washing” or “Ordinance of Humility”. Gabriel warns Daniel not to bow himself before another created being, but only to God. Bowing is not necessary to participate in the “Ordinance of Service”. Many seniors cannot get on the ground and rise again without great difficulty. They stop participating! At Vallejo Drive SDA church we have instituted a senior “Ordinance of Service” room with counter chairs and stools. They pour water from a small pitcher over each others elevated feet. The foot washer does not need to get on the ground, but sits while they wash the feet of their partner. This has helped many seniors start participating again.

    In Jesus time, feet brought dirt & dung into the home. Today dirty hands cause much more disease than feet. I believe we should recognize this change in culture and offer a mutual hand washing service as fullfilling the ritual “Ordinance of Service”. It would fullfill a REAL neglected need. Such could decrease flu spreading through a church.

    • Jesus did not wash their feet because they were dirty. This is never said in John–and in fact, John takes care to point out Jesus washed their feet AFTER they had eaten. Dirty feet would have been washed before they reclined at the couches.

      There is nothing in John 13 about disease–it’s about sin, and forgiveness, and how, once washed (baptized) we resume our Christian walk after a stumble (through footwashing, not rebaptism).

      Your point of practicality for those who can’t kneel is well taken–but your theological rationale is misguided. Jesus, the Creator, stooped and knelt before his creatures and said, “Do the same.”

  5. Thanks for your response. John 13 :1 NIV says” “It was just BEFORE the Passover Feast”, then in verse 2: “The evening meal was BEING SERVED”. This meal was to be eaten in an “upper room”. The disciples were the cooks. Please correct me if I am wrong, but Jesus and his disciples were probably in an outdoor courtyard where the lamb roasted over an open pit. It was the custom to wash feet before entering any home. We do not know where this washing area was, maybe in the courtyard, maybe a porch landing at the top of the stairs, maybe inside the upper room in a designated area where the sandals were kept. This custom was not just Jewish, but Romans also washed feet before entering a home. This custom spread to the entire East and even today our Chinese friends leave their shoes at the door.
    It was already a custom with Abraham who offered foot washing to the angels. Jesus waited till the last moment for one of his prideful disciples to step up to the plate and wash feet before entering the room. Thus at some point after the meal was placed on the table, before they said the blessing and broke bread, Jesus steps up to the plate to do a necessary job that had been neglected.
    Jesus had apparently sat down and in verse 4 “Jesus got up from the meal” which had been served or placed on the table. I suspect that if Jesus had dirty feet when he came to the upper room and wanted to sit down and talk with a few of his disciples while the others were cooking down in the courtyard, He would have washed his own feet before entering the upper room. I suspect many people who did not have servants or were by themselves washed their own feet. Please tell me if you disagree. If a homeowner walked in some dung on the way back from the market, a bucket of water, a rag on the end of a stick, a 2nd bucket of rinse water would do the job without assistence. I suspect that the washing of others feet was just a gracious hospitable thing to do, but was not absolutely necessary. I don’t think Jesus would have walked into anyone’s home or the rented upper room with dirty sandels and feet.
    When Jesus wanted to go and wait for the feast in the upper room, either alone or with other disciple(s) someone should have noticed and offered to help Jesus wash his feet, but even that was a job that the volonteering disciple might feel lowered his status in the group.
    We know the tradition of washing feet continued in the Christian community ie: an elderly widow requesting church financial aid must have “washed the feet of the saints.” I suspect that after Jesus instruction, that Christians no longer told the servant to wash their guests feet, but the members washed each others feet. Homeowners stopped hiring servants to wash guests feet, but humbly did it themselves.

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