The tradition of washing feet comes from the Maundy Thursday story in the Gospel of John. Before betrayal at night, Jesus and his disciples go into an upper room and eat their supper. Beforehand, Jesus washes their feet and tells them that they must serve one another: they are all servants of each other, and that they will be known as his disciples because of their love for one another. Then he breaks bread and shares it with them, instituting the ritual of communion. Maundy Thursday is often over looked, but I think it is really one of the most important days of the church year–next to Easter, it establishes a community centered around love, humility, tenderness, and the sharing of food. Easter lifts up that community into resurrection, stating–even if you have killed this community, it will rise again.
Typically, according to the article above from NBC, the Pope’s tradition is to wash the feet of priests. Francis changed this tradition to one that he practiced in Argentina, that of going to a prison and instead washing the feet of the incarcerated. Most astounding about this decision is that this is the first time women have been included in the papal ritual, and that there are Muslims present as well.
I’m very excited about it. There may be plenty of theological reasons keeping the foot washing ritual within boundaries: Jesus did this for his disciples, and not others–it was not like his healing acts, which he did for all people, no matter who they were or whether or not they followed him. However, I think that the theology for expanding it is stronger. As Jesus did for us, we do for those who we serve. He built tender love and community among those who followed him, and he solidified it by washing their feet, by doing the basest of the base. It was a practice he did to express who he was: “I am your teacher but not your master.” The master is God, the spark of which is in all people, and so we humble ourselves to community with all people because we are servants to God in all people.