Maundy Thursday, sometimes known as Holy Thursday, takes its name from an incident described in the thirteenth chapter of John's gospel. Preparatory to eating his last supper with his disciples, Jesus washes their feet and then tells them that they are to love one another.
To illustrate and underscore how the disciples were to love one another, Jesus washed their feet. In an era in which only a few of the very best roads were paved, animals were plentiful and widely used for transport, sewers did not exist, and people wore open toed sandals, leaving the house meant getting your feet filthy. Among the even moderately affluent, washing the feet of anyone entering a house, especially guests, was an important act of hospitality performed by a lowly slave.
In the twenty-first century, foot washing can often feel embarrassing and is anachronistic. By the standards of first century Palestine, our feet are unbelievably clean and pampered.
Let's substitute hand washing for foot washing:
In 1982, the Archbishop of Milwaukee, Rembert Weakland, OSB - who was appointed five years previously by Pope Paul VI in the heady days after Vatican II - suggested that the washing of feet at the Maundy Thursday Mass of the Lord's Supper was no longer a culturally potent symbol for North Americans. That same year, St John's Basilica used bowls of water at the liturgy and the assembly was invited to come forward and wash their hands, rather than their feet. (Steven Croft, Ian Mobsby, and Stephanie Spellers, Ancient Faith, Future Mission: Fresh Expressions in the Sacramental Tradition, Kindle Loc. 1042-44)
Hand washing is culturally appropriate. Failing to wash hands properly and frequently spreads germs that cause disease.
There is nothing sacred or magical about foot washing. The act of washing another person's feet was an act of humble service. The act of washing another person's hands is an act of humble service.
Substituting hand washing for foot washing faithfully updates and reenacts the symbol. Christians are to love one another, freely engaging in acts of life-giving, life-enriching service. Hand washing, not foot washing, prepares us for to remember Jesus' last supper with his disciples and to walk in his footsteps.