There are a lot of important and interesting elements to St. John’s Gospel. He gives by far the longest, most detailed description of the Last Supper. Matthew, Mark, and Luke use two or three pages. St. John’s record goes five chapters, starting with chapter 13 and finishing at the end of chapter 17. We also only get the tradition of washing feet at the Thursday evening Mass of the Last Supper from St. John (John 13:1 – 15).
Very interestingly, St. John does not record the Institution Narrative (this is My Body, this is My Blood…). In fact, in terms of literary structure, St. John places the “Washing of the Feet” where the other gospel writers place the Institution Narrative. St. John, of course knew that Christ instituted the Eucharist at the Last Supper. He was there (see John 6:25 – 59). All Gospel writers love to layer meaning in their writings. St. John is a master. If you want an interesting historical discussion of what he’s trying to say here, Raymond Brown has a useful two volume reference, “The Gospel According to John”, The Anchor Bible series, pp. 558 – 572. In this section, Professor Brown examines how Christian teachers, ancient and modern, try to determine what St John is saying about the message of Christ.
Historically, there are a lot of serious interpretations of Christ washing the disciple’s feet. Let me outline three.
First, that what Jesus intended was nothing more than a simple example. As Christ says, “I have given you a model to follow, so that as I have done for you, you should do also” (John 13:15). This interpretation has problems. It implies that what Christ commands is for a life of humble service. Yet Christ is clear that the apostles are required to have their feet washed and to wash the feet of others. When Peter tries to avoid this, or use a different ritual Christ says, “If I do not wash you, you have no part in Me.” (John 13:8). Is there an underlying symbolism to being washed with water?
Second, from the early Church, teachers have remarked on the connection between washing with water and baptism. Verse 13:10 implies forgiveness of sins. This interpretation has a long history among Christian teachers (Tertullian, Cyprian, Cyril of Alexandria, etc.). Jesus refers to His passion and death as His baptism (Luke 12:50, Mark 10:38, etc.). The Last Supper, as part of the passion of Christ, is intimately connected to the cross. However, if Christ is instituting baptism, why only wash feet? When we are baptized, we are conformed to Christ. We enter a new and powerful relationship with God by our baptism. One important response for this gift is to live a life of humble service.
Third, some scholars argue for a connection between Jesus washing the disciple’s feet and the ritual Moses used to ordain Aaron and his brothers for service in the tabernacle (Leviticus 8:6, see also Ex. 40:12, 30-32). After the Israelites received the covenant from God on Mt. Sinai, they built the tabernacle as described by God for their place of worship. Leviticus 8 describes the consecration of the structure and Leviticus 8:6 describes the ordination of Arron and his brothers for service in the tabernacle. Aaron removes his clothes; Moses ritually washes him, and he is dressed with the robes of a priest. The ritual was necessary for these men to take part in covenant worship. Jesus, within the ritual environment, undresses, ceremonially washes their feet. He puts on His robes and they return to the feast. The consecration of the tabernacle and the founding of the priesthood of Aaron was the beginning of the Mosaic covenant with God. This would have been a powerful image for Jews in general and Jesus and His followers. (For a better and more complete presentation of this idea, see Dr. John Bergsma, “Stunned by Scripture” and Prof. Scott Huhn, “Ignatius Catholic Study Bible” commentary on John, verse John 13:5). Again, if this is Christ message, why only wash feet? By ordination a man is conformed to Christ and receives some of His powers (Eucharist, forgiveness of sins, etc.) This is a great gift and can me misused. Living a life of humble service is the necessary response.
These explanations are not Catholic doctrine. They are composed by faithful Catholics who want to have a deeper understand of God’s revelation. Learning more about the deeper layers can help us understand the meaning of our relationship with God. The sacraments are an important theme in the new testament. The best example is the Last Supper and the Cross. A sacrament is a material act preformed by Christ and mediated by a human being and takes it’s power from the sacrifice of Christ. Our relationship with Him is not abstract. He is here with us and for us. We have the Words of Sacred Scripture, the teaching of the Church and the sacramental presence of Christ to help us grow in that love, all the way to heaven.