The New International Encyclopædia/Foot-washing

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FOOT-WASHING. An Eastern custom of very early times, having its origin in necessities produced by climate and modes of dress, and in the obligations attached to the rites of hospitality. In the most primitive times the feet were without covering, and sandals afforded protection only to the sole. Consequently, after any journey in the heat and sand, bathing the feet, if not absolutely required, was at least convenient and refreshing. From Scripture and other sources, we learn that the servants of a household were accustomed to perform this work for the guests, and thus it became a significant sign of humility. In memory and imitation of the example of Christ at the Last Supper (John xiii.), the earliest Christians were accustomed to regard it as a praiseworthy act of piety. By the end of the fourth century it was specially connected with the observances of the Thursday before Easter, when, at least in the churches of Africa, Gaul, and Milan, it was the custom for the bishop to wash the feet of the newly baptized with solemn ritual observances. When infant baptism became the rule, foot-washing was dissociated from the administration of the sacrament; but as a liturgical custom observed on Maundy Thursday, it became more and more generally practiced. Earlier editions of the Ordo Romanus do not mention it, but the later ones speak of the Pope performing the ceremony for twelve subdeacons. As in monasteries where was a twofold observance, by the brethren among themselves and by the abbot and others for numerous poor people, so the Pope and other bishops added the washing of the feet of representative poor men, who also received food and gifts. It was also frequently, and is still in some courts (e.g. that of Vienna), practiced by monarchs. At Rome, while the Gospel narrative is sung (from whose first words in Latin, Mandatum novum, ‘a new commandment,’ John xiii. 34, the name of Maundy or Mandate Thursday is derived), the representatives of the Apostles take their seats, dressed in white woolen tunics, and the Pope, in similar attire, sprinkles a few drops of water on the right foot of each, then wipes and kisses it. After this a repast is given, at which the Pope and his Cabinet wait on the old men, who, at the close, take with them the tunics and towels, with the addition of a small gratuity in money. The Anabaptists, at the Reformation, continued the practice. The Moravians revived it, but without strictly enforcing it. In modern times it has been regularly practiced among the Dunkers (see German Baptist Brethren), Winebrennerians, and the Glassites or Sandemanians.