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A Missing Sacrament?

Foot-washing, Gender, and Space in Early Christianity 1


Andrew McGowan, Yale Divinity School
Introduction
The Pope and the pedilavium
On the Holy Thursdays after his election Pope Francis courted criticism by performing a
foot-washing ceremony, not in St Peters Basilica with 12 well-scrubbed seminarians or
priests as expected, but in prisons and in aged care centers, and with participants including
women and Muslims.2 Self-styled traditionalists, noting a rubric in the Missale Romanum about
washing the feet of viri selecti,3 objected to these violations of expectation regarding both
person and place. These critics often seemed unaware, however, that the ritual they sought
to defend had existed in the familiar liturgical form only since the 1950s. Liturgical footwashing does have direct antecedents in clerical and monastic ceremonies,4 as well as in the
charitable rituals conducted by medieval (and later) monarchs,5 and parallels in the
communal foot-washings of various Pietist and Pentecostal groups in modern times. Yet the
Papal foot-washing which Francis varied in striking ways is better understood as an
invented tradition than as an ancient ritual.6
1

This paper arises from a presentation at the Sacra Privata conference at the University of
Vienna in May 2015; versions of this research were also given at the Australian Catholic
University, Rhodes College (The 2015 Batey Lecture), Stanford University (2015 Ptarmigan
Lecture), Technische Universitt Dresden, and the Institute of Sacred Music at Yale. I thank
the organizers and participants for the opportunities then afforded for conversation,
Clemens Leonhard for sharing research, and Felicity Harley McGowan for proofreading and
comment.
2
Between the time this present paper was written and its publication, the formal exclusion of
women from the rite was dropped. See further discussion in Thomas OLoughlin, Washing
Feet: Imitating the Example of Jesus in the Liturgy Today (Collegeville, Minn.: Liturgical Press,
2015).
3
See Thomas OLoughlin, From a Damp Floor to a New Vision of Church: Footwashing
as a Challenge to Liturgy and Discipleship, Worship 88, no. 2 (March 1, 2014): 141.
4
See Thomas Schfer, Die Fusswaschung im monastischen Brauchtum und in der lateinischen Liturgie:
Liturgiegeschichtliche Untersuchung, Texte und Arbeiten. 1. Abt, Heft 47 (Beuron: Beuroner
Kunstverlag, 1956).
5
Monastic and monarchic washings had Byzantine as well as western manifestations; see
William Tronzo, Mimesis in Byzantium: Notes toward a History of the Function of the
Image, RES: Anthropology and Aesthetics, no. 25 (1994): 6176.
6
E. J. Hobsbawm and T. O. Ranger, eds., The Invention of Tradition (Cambridge; New York:
Cambridge University Press, 1992), 114.
1

The history of these various foot-washings is rich, but has too often been accompanied by a
narrative assuming continuity between these and the story of Jesus washing his disciples feet
(John 13:1-17). In fact the familiar narrative poses a kind of sacramental conundrum
precisely because of the lack of evidence for either communal or initiatory foot-washing at
the earliest stage of Christian history.
Jesus does, according to the fourth Gospel, explicitly enjoin the performance of a ritual act:
Jesusgot up from the meal, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around
himself. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples feet and
to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him he said to themif I, your
Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one anothers
feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.
(John 13: 2b-5, 12b,14-15 NRSV, adapted)
The scene has been variously understood as referring to the virtue of humility, to the death
of Jesus, or to baptism (and/or Eucharist).7 Occasionally however it is thought to have
something to do with actual washing of feet. This command to wash is, after all, given with
clarity equal to the explicit commands of Jesus related to sacramental practice, to go and
make disciples... baptising them (Matt 28:19), and to do this in memory of me (Luke
22:19; cf. 1 Cor 11:24 etc.). Foot-washing obviously did not come to be regarded as a
sacrament comparable to baptism or Eucharist, however. Given the narrative in John 13
however, it has been tempting for commentators to assume that ancient Christians, or some
of them, did initially practice either a sort of communal ritual like the papal pedilavium or
modern Pietist foot-washings, or perhaps used foot-washing as a form of initiation.8 In fact
it is only in the fourth century that either of these forms of foot-washing clearly appear.
7

In ascending order of detail, see Raymond E. Brown, The Gospel according to John XIII-XXI,
vol. 2, Anchor Bible 29-29A (New York: Doubleday, 1970), 5589; Fernando F. Segovia,
John 13:1-20, The Footwashing in the Johannine Tradition, Zeitschrift fr die
Neutestamentliche Wissenschaft und die Kunde der lteren Kirche 73, no. 1 (January 1, 1982): 3151;
Georg Richter, Die Fusswaschung im Johannesevangelium. Geschichte ihrer Deutung, Biblische
Untersuchungen 1 (Regensburg: Pustet, 1967).
8
Thus, although with significant differences as to specifics, each of Pier Franco Beatrice, La
lavanda dei piedi: contributo alla storia delle antiche liturgie cristiane, Bibliotheca Ephemerides
2

There is however much better evidence in the second and third centuries for at least one
quite different form of Christian ritual foot-washing, undertaken not in meeting places or in
assemblies for worship but in private, and focused not on the feet of initiates or typical
members of the Christian community but on those of the imprisoned or marginalized. 9 It
was conducted not by those usually regarded as leaders or by Christians generally, but
characteristically by women, and by widows in particular. These performances linked the
space and ritual of eucharistic meal gatherings with the bodies of imprisoned or
housebound, through adaptation of a common ritual of hospitality to situations of exclusion
and need.
In what follows I offer a review of the earliest evidence for Christian foot-washing, and seek
to distinguish between this genuinely primitive practice on the one hand, which could even
be as old as the Gospel narrative and help illuminate its background, and on the other hand
the somewhat later rituals whose origins probably lie, like modern Christian foot-washings,
in earnest attempts at comprehension and imitation of John 13.10 These foot-washings
together illustrate how early Christian ritual practice related to ancient categories of the
private and public, and how both the practices and the categories changed as a public
liturgy in the familiar sense emerged.11
Washing Feet
liturgicae Subsidia 28 (Roma: Edizioni liturgiche, 1983); John Christopher Thomas,
Footwashing in John 13 and the Johannine Community, JSNTSupp 61 (Sheffield: Sheffield
Academic Press, 1991); Luise Abramowski, Die Geschichte von der Fuwaschung (Joh
13), Zeitschrift fr Theologie und Kirche 102, no. 2 (June 2005): 176203.
9
These could be varied; see Edward Adams, The Earliest Christian Meeting Places: Almost
Exclusively Houses?, Library of New Testament Studies 450 (London; New York: Bloomsbury
T & T Clark, 2013).
10
The following are among the fullest surveys, both of Christian and parallel evidence: B.
Ktting, Fusswaschung, in Reallexicon fr Antike und Christentum, vol. 8 (Stuttgart: Anton
Hiersemann, 1972), 74377; Beatrice, La lavanda dei piedi; Thomas, Footwashing; the approach
taken here to some of the same texts differs in important respects.
11
I use these terms not as the oft-quoted grammarian Festus influentially does in
distinguishing sacra publica and privata, leaving everything but civic cult in the privata. The
rituals at issue here might not have all been seen as sacra at all; in any case, the most relevant
dichotomy here is arguably that between domestic and other space. Prisons, as it will be
seen, also constitute a special and different realm.
3

Ancient Foot-washing
Foot-washing was not a ritual peculiarity in the ancient Mediterranean world, but a common
and practical act, characteristic of domestic hospitality. Many people will have washed their
own feet from day to day, but when one person washed the feet of another, the washing was
typically the act of a subordinate.
Across a great range of classical, biblical and other ancient Mediterranean sources, servants,
and particularly women, are depicted washing the feet of free males and householders, often
as a ritual of welcome and preparation for banqueting (see Gen 24:32; 2 Sam 25:41; Odyssey
19.343-507; Aristophanes, Wasps 605-11).12 Where a high-status person chose to wash
anothers feet, as in the story of Jesus doing so, this was a significant reversal connoting
humility and intimacy.13 Where such was forced however, it was mere humiliation, and an
uncompromising assertion of the power held by those to be washed (cf. Suetonius, Caligula
26.2).
The communal meal that was characteristic of Christian gatherings in the first centuries may,
like other banquets, have been preceded by the washing of feet. Participants could simply
have washed their own feet on arrival at the meal venueas was certainly taking place a few
centuries later, when we first have actual archaeological and literary witness to Church
ablution facilities.14 Any such preparatory acts were not however part of the meal-ritual
proper. Hand-washing is well enough attested, e.g., in Carthage around 200 (Tertullian, Orat.
13, Apol. 39). Yet early literary evidence for eucharistic meals does not mention foot-washing
at all, John 13 notwithstanding. Granted the theoretical but slim alternative possibility that
the Johannine community did have a communal practice of washing feet, but that this

12

And further Thomas, Footwashing, 2660; Ktting, Fusswaschung, 74359.


See in particular the story of R. Ishmaels mother in the Talmud (y. Peah.1.1); and cf. the
scene in Aesopica 2.4.61, discussed in Luise Schottroff, Lydias Impatient Sisters: A Feminist
Social History of Early Christianity, 1st ed. (Westminster John Knox Press, 1995), 2068.
14
Later the provision of water for washing hands and feet by participants themselves is
clearer; see further below re Eusebius, HE 10.4.39 and in more detail Annewies van den
Hoek and John J. Herrmann, Paulinus of Nola, Courtyards, and Canthari: A Second Look,
in Pottery, Pavements, and Paradise: Iconographic and Textual Studies on Late Antiquity, Supplements
to Vigiliae Christianae 122 (Leiden: Brill, 2013), 963; Ktting, Fusswaschung, 763.
13

constituted a sort of mysterious dead-end of ritual history,15 we should conclude instead that
there was no communal or mutual Christian foot-washing in the first two or three centuries.
Neither is there any (other) evidence for initiatory foot-washing until the fourth century.
This however is far from the end of the matter. Part of the difficulty for scholarly
imagination seems to be the assumption that any Christian foot-washing, including any
practice alluded to in John 13, would have been something like rituals attested later, and in
particular would have been a communal activity like the pedilavium. A slightly different set of
assumptions, noting the real and practical character of foot-washing and its connection with
hospitality, allows different evidence to come to the fore.
The New Testament And The Second Century
I Timothy
Although there may be implicit evidence about foot-washing in the Gospels, not only in
John 13 but perhaps in other stories of women who wash or anoint Jesus,16 it is the First
Letter of Paul to Timothy that makes the earliest explicit reference to any practice of
Christian foot-washing. It does so in association with the ministerial roles of women,
specifically with the order of widows:
Let a widow be put on the list if she is not less than sixty years old and has been
married only once; she must be well attested for her good works, as one who has
brought up children, shown hospitality, washed the saints feet, helped the afflicted,
and devoted herself to doing good in every way (1 Tim 5:9-10 NRSV).

15

Raymond E. Brown, The Community of the Beloved Disciple: The Life, Loves and Hates of an
Individual Church in New Testament Times, Revised (New York: Paulist Press, 1978);
Abramowski, Die Geschichte von der Fuwaschung (Joh 13).
16
See Ingrid R. Kitzberger, Love and Footwashing: John 13:1-20 and Luke 7:36-50 Read
Intertextually, Biblical Interpretation 2, no. 2 (July 1, 1994): 190206; and Mary Rose
DAngelo, Women in Luke-Acts: A Redactional View, Journal of Biblical Literature 109, no. 3
(September 1, 1990): 44161 who discusses the possible connections between some of these
stories and womens leadership roles.
5

The qualified widow is apparently to be a literal washer of feet. But whose feet, where, and
why?17 The specific identity of the saints of 1 Tim is unknown, but this is the only time the
term is used to refer to persons in the Pastoral Epistles. There is no reason to assume
especially given the lack of other evidence for a communal foot-washing practice, or for
widows undertaking ritual performance in the eucharistic meal settingthat saints is a
reference to a whole community, as in the authentic Paulines. Context alone suggests a more
particular set of feet, and action related to beneficence. Given that there is also evidence (on
which see further below) for widows washing more specific sets of holy feet, from a period
close to the likely actual date of composition of the letter, it becomes more probable that
these saints have some qualification beyond membership in a Christian community, such
as that of suffering for faith (cf. Rev 11:18, 17:6).
The other characteristics of this widow, such as the capacity to order a household and offer
hospitality, have to do with benefaction rather than any performance related to Christian
communal gatherings. The capacity to be a benefactor points away from the servility
normally associated with washing the feet of domestic guests;18 a free woman with servants,
let alone a head of household, was not an obvious person to wash feet. These widows acts
of washing were voluntary and specific, and like the example of Jesus in John 13, they
extended beyond normal social expectations. Such acts qualified them for particular
recognition.
This reference then deepens or defines a question, rather than providing an answer. Was
there a ritual practice of early Christian foot-washing, involving widows? Other evidence is
necessary to construct a likely backdrop for the earliest foot-washing activity and the role of
widows in it.
Peregrinus
17

See the discussions in Philip H. Towner, The Letters to Timothy and Titus (Wm. B. Eerdmans
Publishing, 2006), 3478; Raymond F. Collins, 1 & 2 Timothy and Titus: A Commentary
(Westminster John Knox Press, 2002), 14041; Towner acknowledges that this is a puzzle,
Collins merely suggests it is conventional hospitality.
18
Elisabeth Schssler Fiorenza, In Memory of Her: A Feminist Theological Reconstruction of
Christian Origins (New York: Crossroad, 1983), 311.
6

Additional evidence from the second century provides a possible or even likely context for
the washing referred to in 1 Tim, namely the care of Christian prisoners. People detained by
Roman authorities were typically kept in squalid and inhumane conditions, where dirt as well
as hunger and thirst had to be addressed in more than symbolic ways.19 Members of families,
including the fictive ecclesial family in the case of Christians imprisoned, had to take it upon
themselves to feed and otherwise look to the bodily needs of those who were detained on
the way to trial, torture, or execution.20
In fact it is clear that Christiansperhaps not uniquely, but characteristically at least
undertook performances of care and extended hospitality which went far beyond meeting
the prosaic needs of the hungry and dirty imprisoned. Meals for the martyrs became an
opportunity to ritualize Christian hope via the symbolism of the eucharistic meal, and were
not merely food parcels but, symbolically at least, banquets.
In his satirical account of the quasi-martyr Peregrinus, Lucian of Samosata makes a
connection with widows in particular when describing the care offered to the imprisoned
Christians in Syria in the late second century:
From break of day some ancient widows and orphan children were to be seen
hanging about the prison. Their officials bribed the guards to let them sleep inside
with him. Luxurious banquets were taken in and their sacred writings were read
(De Morte Peregrini 12).
Foot-washing is not mentioned here, although an ancient on-site catering service of this
elegance could easily be imagined to include some sort of hand- and perhaps foot-washing.
In any case, the connection between meal and sacred writings encourages the thought that
such events were not just picnics but an extension of eucharistic banquets, with discursive as
well as dietary accouterments characteristic of the meals shared by Christians in other
settings, and with some deliberate elements of solemnity, as well as of luxury. The
prominence of widows (and orphans) suggests that these persons, not as immediately
19

J. U. Krause, Gefngnisse Im Rmischen Reich (Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag, 1996).


See further Andrew B. McGowan, Discipline and Diet: Feeding the Martyrs in Roman
Carthage, Harvard Theological Review 96 (2003): 45576.
20

embedded in family structures, could have been more readily able to form or perform
familial ritual in the prisons.
The significance of such acts of care or even devotion was not merely prosaic or practical, or
even limited to the inclusion of the imprisoned in the regular sacramental meal. Their
importance is confirmed by evidence from Christian writers, to the effect that figures like
Peregrinus were seen as focal points of power, straddling in their persons the threshold
between life death, and were actively cultivated by the other Christians.
Tertullian
We are on firmer ground about the inclusion of foot-washing in such martyrial visits when,
in Carthage slightly later (around 200), Tertullian indicates that visitors to the prisons might
indeed offer detained Christians the specific service of foot-washing, and singles it out as a
Christian duty performed by a woman.
This is mentioned incidentally in the course of an argument against Christian widows
marrying unbelievers, where Tertullian lists practices to which such a mismatched faithful
woman might fruitlessly be called:
For who would allow his wife, for the sake of visiting the brothers, to go around
from street to street to others dwellings, and for that matter to the poorer ones?
Who will willingly put up with her being taken from his side for night meetings, if
need arise? ...Who will, without being suspicious, let her go to attend that Lord's
banquet that they defame? Who will put up with her creeping into prison to kiss a
martyr's chains, or for that matter to meet with the brothers to exchange the kiss, to
offer water for the saints' feet (emphasis mine) to share a little of her food, from her cup,
to long for or to remember them? (Ad Uxorem, 2.4.2-3)
This example, like Lucians story, indicates that attention was given to the imprisoned not
only to meet their hunger, but to connect them ritually with the Christian community. It also
places the care of the martyrs within a broader context of responsibility for the poor. The
treatment of the prisoners starts with basic meeting of their bodily needs, yet goes on to
include practices of an unmistakably devotional character.
8

The confronting list of distinctive acts that Tertullian thinks would prove problematic for
the mismatched Christian wife also indicates that there was considerable scope for women to
perform actions that were solemn and valued, but which were in some tension with
stereotypes about how and where women in that world should be ritually active. Tertullians
own evidence about practices and attitudes to womens ritual performance tends otherwise
to focus on the Christian assembly, where his opposition to ritual leadership (but recognition
of prophetic activity) still puzzles.21It seems that the constraints which patriarchal leaders and
husbands were likely to place on women were at least somewhat specific to space, and not
just action; the houses of the poor and prisons were somehow available for womensor
some womenspresence and ministry, in ways actual assemblies may not have been.
It is worth noting that the woman addressed in the treatiseTertullians own wifeis
envisaged here as a sort of future widow manque, whose hypothetical remarriage has denied
her these roles. The ritual actions banned by a pagan husband might have been premised on
specific power relations pertaining to the Christian widow, and not simply to female
members of the Church generally. Having no (human) patriarchal figure to whom she was
directly accountable, the widow has a sort of paradoxical autonomy, or at least the freedom
to perform voluntary acts of self-abnegation. A married Christian woman might not be able
to act thus, and might have faced just the same opposition as that Tertullian conjures here,
even from a believing husband.22
At a later point, Tertullians engagement with the New Prophecy (later known to its critics as
Montanism) led him to regard the cultivation of the martyrs more cynically, rejecting the sort
of luxurious treatment reported by Lucian as a real impediment to holiness. Washing, as well
as catering, came in for criticism; in the treatise De Ieiunio contra Psychicos (c. 210) Tertullian
sneers at the fondness of the psychic martyr Pristinus for the bathhouses, and praises the
cultivation of dry skin as a sort of armor for the arena (12.2-3).
21

See the discussion in Ross Shepard Kraemer, Unreliable Witnesses: Religion, Gender, and
History in the Greco-Roman Mediterranean (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), 11720.
22
Tertullian also mentions foot-washing and its accouterments in De Corona 8, but along with
other everyday activities and necessities (medicine, literature, clothing) and not in any sense
that suggests communal or ritual settings rather than personal or household use.
9

Tertullians argument in Ad Uxorem had suggested an implicit geography of gender, space,


and performance shared with his readers. While ancient stereotypes at least tended to
confine womens activity to domestic spheres,23 this account presents sanctioned excursions
into spaces that, if not quite public, were in tension with conventional household and
familial roles and authority. The prison fits neither into domestic space nor into what was
public, as generally understood; rather it is a marginal or liminal space, between the world of
human sociability in general and the sphere of violent death and non-existence. It allows the
creation, at least through the temporary agency of ritual performance, of something
approaching domestic spaceor more specifically the festivity of the triclinium via the
accouterments of sacred dining.
Perpetua
While separate from the actual eucharistic meal, the foot-washing undertaken by widows
seems to have been intended to re-create the Christian banquet in what was otherwise a
neutral or hostile space, by ostentatious performance of a ritual associated with formal
dining and gracious hospitality.24 The narrative of the last meal of the martyr Perpetua and
her companions, from around the same place and time as Tertullians writing, confirms and
complements this picture of the prison as locus of temporary festivity:
permission was given to their brothers and other people to go in and be refreshed
with them, the supervisor of the prison now trusting them himself. And on the day
before, when in that last meal, which they call free, they were partaking as far as
they could, not of a free meal (cena libera), but of an agape (Pass. Perp. 16-17)
This event transformed the space of the prisonperhaps scarcely more than a cellar, in
factinto a triclinium, from a dungeon to a dining room.

23

See the discussion of Macrina in Kimberly Bowes, Private Worship, Public Values, and
Religious Change in Late Antiquity (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press,
2008), 21011.
24
Note also the introduction to Tertullians treatise Ad Martyras, where the work is presented
as a sort of discursive picnic basket.
10

While Christian practice emphasized such exercises, these acts were not unique to members
of the Church.25 The celebration in the prison of any festive last meal, the so-called cena
libera, might generally have involved niceties such as preparatory washing.26 The particular act
of foot-washing does seem to be distinctive however, and functions in an important way in
this act of temporarily claiming and transforming space and place itself, a striking excursion
out of domestic and convivial contexts both for the action and for those who performed it.
Perpetuas narrative does not mention foot-washing, but elsewhere confirms the significance
to the imprisoned of washing generally, as well as of food and drink. In one pair of her
visions, Perpetuas dead brother Dinocrates is seen, at first thirsty and unable to reach a
piscina, but later and after her intercession with a clean body, and able to drink freely.
The cultivation of the martyrs and their bodies by other Christians always involved a
complex set of patronage relations; those who fed and washed the martyrs acted as
benefactors, while the prisoners in turn were spiritual patrons to their devotees.27 So the
women who attended to the martyrs performed an act of subservience somewhat facilitated
by traditional gender roles, but received benefits, including power, from doing so. In
voluntary self-abasement relative to the bodies of the imprisonedthemselves, we may
recall, straddling the threshold between life and deaththe washers of feet claimed power in
a symbolic act of service.
This second century evidence then, from 1 Timothy to Lucian, Tertullian, and Perpetua,
offers a fragmentary but plausible picture of a distinctive sort of Christian foot-washing
practice, related to the care of prisoners, and focused on the initiatives of widows.
The Third and Fourth Centuries
Origen
25

Judith Perkins points to the emphasis on such depictions of space in the Apocryphal Acts
also; see Social Geography in the Apocryphal Acts of the Apostles, in Space in the Ancient
Novel, ed. Michael Paschalis and Stavros A. Frangoulidis (Groningen: Barkhuis, 2002), 118
31.
26
Roger Dunkle, Gladiators: Violence and Spectacle in Ancient Rome (Routledge, 2013), 746.
27
McGowan, Discipline and Diet.
11

Third century evidence seems to confirm this basic picture of solemn and practical service,
but shows it under different forms of pressure, change, or controversy. In Caesarea in the
230s, Origen discussed the text of John chapter 13 at length in the homiletic discourse that
became his Commentarii in evangelium Ioannis, and refers to other canonical texts such as 1 Tim
5. Here he defends well-resourced widows in his Church from having to submit to the rigors
of literally washing feet as a condition of their formal status, saying:
it would be ridiculous to stop at the literal meaning and, for a widow who, let us
say, has all the marks that characterize a holy widow and lacks only this, not to be
appointed into ecclesiastical honor, although she had frequently, when she was
prosperous and possessed what was necessary, been gracious, through her maids and
household servants, to guests or those, in general, who needed to experience some
philanthropic deed from her (Comm. in Io. 32.12.131).28
Of that more literal way of understanding the text, he says: This custom does not happen,
or only exceedingly rarely and among the poorest and most rustic (32.12.133).29
We must take it that by this custom Origen is referring to a specific Christian ritual
practice involving widows, at which wealthier female patrons are baulking. His claimed
limited knowledge may be borne out by the implication that those whose feet might be
washed were not prisoners, but guests such as travellers. Yet simultaneous claims that the
practice is both non-existent and the preserve of yokels are unconvincing.
Origen thus provides oblique evidence, both of the practice of womens charitable footwashing, but also of its marginalization. His geography of body and space sees the widow of
means as philanthropically active, outside as well as inside the household, primarily through
the agency of her servants; such actions are merely conventional uses of power and
hospitality, without the ironic play of the foot-washings already discussed.

28

Adapted from Origen, Commentary on the Gospel according to John, trans. Ronald E. Heine
(Washington, D.C: Catholic University of America Press, 1989), 367.
29
Blanc, SC 385: ,
. The PG text and Latin translation give a different
sense, namely that the custom had once existed, but no longer.
12

From Widows to Deacons


It may not be surprising eventually to find a ministry of washing feet associated with
deacons. This possibility emerges clearly in the fourth-century Apostolic Constitutions, which
still expects deacons to be women as well as men.
This Church Order instructs deacons of both sexes to wash feet, invoking John 13 as its
basis.
For [Jesus] fulfilled the prediction of serving many faithfully (cf. Is 53:11) in deed
and not in word only. For when He had taken a towel, he girded himself. Afterward
he put water into a basin; and as we were reclining, he came and washed the feet of
us all, and wiped them with the towel (cf. John 13:4-5). If, then, our Lord
and teacher so humbled himself, how can you, the laborers of the truth and leaders
of piety, be ashamed to do the same to those of the brothers who are disabled and
sickly? ...Serve therefore with a kind mind, not murmuring or complaining; for you
do not do it for a human cause, but because of God, and shall receive from him the
reward of your service in the day of your visitation. It is your duty as deacons to visit
all those who need visitation (Const. Apost. 3.19).
While this shares with earlier texts an emphasis on washing the feet of persons in need
where they are, these recipients in this passage are not waiting for trial or execution; the
context of illness or disability is primary. The exhortation implies some hesitation about the
menial aspect of the task (on the mens part at least, or perhaps for all), but also reflects the
transition of foot-washing into the ritual repertoire of what was by now a more fully-defined
and more prominent ordained ministry. Other contemporary evidence indicates that the
identities and functions of the old order of widows were being conflated with those of
deacons at this same time, including via exegetical traditions on 1 Tim 5.30 It is less clear
whether any other vestige of the meal persists with this diaconal foot-washing, such as the
distribution of the eucharistic elements reserved from the community celebration;
nevertheless the deacon still goes out and creates a new sort of space and event by washing
feet.
30

See Kevin Madigan and Carolyn Osiek, eds., Ordained Women in the Early Church: A
Documentary History (Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005), 212.
13

Foot-washing of the kind discussed above, performed with and for the imprisoned and
immobile of the Church in general, does not seem to continue very long after this time.31
Instead as many as three other kinds of foot-washing come to light as the fourth century
progresses.
Later Forms: Fourth-century Foot-washing
Washing for Church
When literary and archaeological evidence for purpose-built Churches with a clearly public
character emerges in the fourth century, there often seems to have been provision made for
washing, but not by third parties. Descriptions by Paulinus of Nola and John Chrysostom
illustrate this, as does the panegyric of Eusebius regarding the architectural work of another
Paulinus, of Tyre:
Going within the gates [Paulinus] does not allow them to enter the holy places
immediately, with impure and unwashed feet; but leaving as large a space as possible
between the temple and the outer entrance, he has surrounded and adorned it with
four transverse porticoesand he has left an open space in the middle, so that the
sky can be seen, and the open air shining with the rays of the sun. Here he has placed
symbols of holy purifications, setting up fountains facing the temple that provide an
abundance of water for those who come within the holy places to purify themselves
(Hist. Eccl. 10.4.39-40).
It is probably the evidence for such general foot-washing before entering a Church that
begins here, rather than the practice itself. As already noted, Christians may have washed
their own feet, and certainly hands, at earlier times when preparing for the eucharistic meal
in particular. The fact that no mention is made of foot-washing in earlier texts indicates both
that this was done by the participants themselves if at all, and was of no more (or,
31

A woman deacon named Maria in Cappadocia in the 6th century was given an epitaph
referring to foot-washing but also to some of the other beneficent acts of the 1 Tim text; a
pious invocation of the biblical text is more likely here than a real reference to foot-washing.
See G. H. R. Horsley, New Documents Illustrating Early Christianity: A Review of the Greek
Inscriptions and Papyri Published in 1977 (Sydney: Ancient History Documentary Research
Centre, Macquarie University, 1982), 19394.
14

admittedly, no less) significance than other forms of washing.32 This is, then, a quite different
tradition of foot-washing, and there is nothing at all to link it to the narrative of John 13;
rather it was part of the normal practice of washing prior to undertaking a variety of tasks,
ranging from banqueting to cultus; those are both evoked in the now-public form of the
Christian Eucharist.
Ambrose and Baptism
A third and quite different kind of foot-washing, and the best known from this later period,
involves initiation. A canon of Elvira, possibly among those added to the minutes of the
Council (c.300) considerably later,33 commands that clergy should not wash the feet of the
newly-baptized (Can. 48); whenever this canon was actually written, the prohibition of course
implies that the practice was known.34
Baptismal foot-washing appears with greater clarity, and not as excluded but exhorted, in the
writings of Ambrose, and of Augustine.35 Ambrose defends the custom of washing feet as
part of the baptismal ritual in Milan:
The Roman Church does not have this custom of washing the feet. There are,
however, those who try to excuse this because it need not be done as a sacrament,
not at baptism nor in the regeneration, but just in the way that the feet of a guest
have to be washed. But one of these things is a matter of humility, the other a matter
of sanctification. So, listen to how it is a sacrament and a sanctification: Unless I
wash your feet, you have no part with me. I say this, not because I am criticizing
others, but to commend my own use (De Sacr., 3.5).
.
32

See further Van den Hoek and Herrmann, Paulinus of Nola, Courtyards, and Canthari.
Hamilton Hess, The Early Development of Canon Law and the Council of Serdica, Oxford Early
Christian Studies (Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2002), 412.
34
Emendari placuit ut hi qui baptizantur ut fieri solebat, nummos in concam non mittant,
ne sacerdos quod gratis accepit pretio distrahere videatur, neque pedes eorum lavandi sunt a
sacerdotibus vel clericis. Text in Karl Joseph von Hefele, Histoire des conciles daprs les
documents originaux (Paris: Letouzey et An, 1907), 1.1, 249.
35
An earlier African possibility should be mentioned; Cyprian in Letter 64.4.1 addresses a
problem one of his colleagues has with kissing (not washing) infants feet at baptism; see G.
W. Clarke, Cyprians Epistle 64 and the Kissing of Feet in Baptism, Harvard Theological
Review 66, no. 1 (January 1, 1973): 14752.
33

15

This was already an established Milanese practice, but not exclusively so, as the canon of
Elvira indicates. Augustine, who was himself baptized in Milan in 387, obviously knew it
directly but discusses different versions, or at least timings (Ep. 55.18.33), implying it was
known and practiced in Africa too.36
There is little to suggest any relationship between such initiatory foot-washing and the earlier
repeated charitable or martyrial washing by widows. Ambroses defense makes no reference
to foot-washing as an act of ritual service by widows or deacons. In the absence of earlier
evidence, and given fourth century controversy, we should conclude that this probably was a
fourth century innovation. While later readers of the John 13 narrative have often thought it
meant they should perform foot-washing communally as a repeated ritual action, some
predecessor of Ambrose had assumed not just that the text of John 13 referred symbolically
to the unique rite of baptismthis much at least was a common view in the ancient
Churchbut that literal foot-washing was part of its command.37
The relationship of this practice to the earlier foot-washings is quite distant. The prohibition
at Elvira reflected a disquiet based on the usual understanding of the foot-washer as servile,
but the origin of the practice seems, as just noted, to reflect some desire to make sense of
the John 13 text in ritual terms, without knowledge of any other practice that could have
been connected to it. This is therefore something like an invented tradition in Eric
Hobsbawns sense, or a ritualization (of text) in Catherine Bells.38
Monastic Washing
A fourth type of Christian foot-washing is the only one that survived the ancient world in
any substantial or continuous form. The mid-third century pseudo-Clementine Epistulae ad
Virgines had already offered rules to ascetic women for washing the feet of visiting itinerants,

36

J. Patout Burns and Robin M. Jensen, Christianity in Roman Africa: The Development of Its
Practices and Beliefs (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2014), 212.
37
On such interpretations and the exegesis of the John 13 story see especially Beatrice, La
lavanda dei piedi, 17795.
38
See further Hobsbawm and Ranger, The Invention of Tradition; and Catherine M Bell,
Ritualization of Texts and Textualization of Ritual in the Codification of Taoist Liturgy,
History of Religions 27, no. 4 (May 1, 1988): 36692.
16

a phenomenon to which Origen may also be referring. 39 While women ascetics were, like the
earlier widows, potential washers of these wanderers feet, the dynamic of space and place in
that case is quite different from that of the prison, or even of the housebound Christians of
the Apostolic Constitutions. This hospitable practice is not an extension of eucharistic
banqueting from the domestic or associational context, but a Christianized form of
conventional hospitality in the domestic sphere. No particular Gospel mandate was
necessary to perform such a task.
Monastic rules, when these emerge, sometimes specified foot-washing as an act of hospitality
to visitors, orfor the first time washing of the community members feet as the
communal action so many commentators have read back into earlier texts including that of
Johns Gospel. So John Cassian writes:
when all the brothers come together to chant the Psalms which according to
custom they sing before going to bed, those whose turn is over wash the feet of all in
order, hoping faithfully from them the reward of this blessing for their work during
the whole week, that having fulfilled the command of Christ, the prayer offered by
all the brothers together may accompany them (Inst. 4.19).
Cassian himself describes this as another ritualization of the text of John 13, although it may
also reflect some continuing hospitable custom. This however seems to be the first record
of that communal symbolic act so often read back into the Gospel text as actual practice;
here, then, is the real beginning of what most later Christians have assumed is at issue when
they think about Jesus and washing feet.
A line can then be traced forward from these monastic customs to medieval foot-washing
practices, known in the West as the pedilavium, which took place in other Churches as well as
in monasteries, and in public or civic settings of charitable nature.40 These, however,

39

Daniel Caner, Wandering, Begging Monks: Spiritual Authority and the Promotion of Monasticism in
Late Antiquity (University of California Press, 2002), 724.
40
On this important continuation of footwashing see Schfer, Die Fusswaschung im monastischen
Brauchtum.
17

constitute another ritual, with a distinct history. Cassian is a witness not so much to very
ancient Christian foot-washing, as to the origins of a medieval ritual.
Conclusions
We have noted the apparent anomaly of foot-washing not being a sacrament in later
Christian ritual, despite an injunction attributed to Jesus. In fact this is a false problem, or at
least a more complex one. Baptism and Eucharist are (also) older than the canonical texts
which supposedly found them; these texts came to be regarded as foundational discursive
acts, but in reality they (at least in their present literary forms) reflect on what were already
ritual practices whose meaning or use needed to be negotiated.41
Similarly, foot-washing of some kind is probably the premise of the John 13 story, rather
than its result, at least at the earliest point. Previous studies have tended to suggest that
either communal mutual foot-washing or initiatory foot-washing may have been implied.
However these practices, as we have seen, are only attested later. Washing of an
interpersonal and charitable kind, which is the oldest and for some time the most significant
Christian foot-washing practice, is far more likely to underlie the Gospel text.
Whether or not the author or redactor of the text of John 13 intended to make a point about
foot-washing, such as to defend the awkwardness of women entering spaces outside the
private sphere to undertake ritual washing, of or simply used a known practice to address
some other issue such as a broader Christological or ethical one,42 it is this washing by
widows, rather than any imagined communal or initiatory ritual, which offers the best clue
for such a point of reference. This suggestion requires another study of its own, however,
and cannot be pursued here. In any case, the earliest self-conscious or distinctive Christian
ritual foot-washing involves women taking a practice that was primarily associated with

41

Note also the textual difficulty in John 13, with some versions omitting the exception
made to the need to wash, except for the feet; see further Martin F. Connell, Nisi Pedes,
Except for the Feet: Footwashing in the Communities of Johns Gospel, Worship 70 (1996):
51731.
42
As the eucharistic elements of John 6 may well be understood; see now Jan Heilmann,
Wein und Blut: das Ende der Eucharistie im Johannesevangelium und dessen Konsequenzen (Stuttgart:
Kohlhammer, 2014).
18

domestic life and with preparation for formal dining, and using it as a means to claim and
reimagine space and place associated with the marginal yet powerful figures of living martyrs.
The main form of foot-washing discussed here, by women and widows in particular, seems
to have flourished relatively briefly, from perhaps as early as the first and certainly in the
second centuries, through not much later than the fourth, if that far. In at least some
communities and settings it was a ritual imbued with solemn significance; hence, while the
term sacrament was not defined or used systematically in this period, we could almost say
that this was a sacramental act, at least insofar as it was a ritual with recognized sacred
significance for Christians, related by readers of John 13 to the example and command of
Jesus. By washing the feet of the imprisoned and the housebound, the widows both fulfilled
this example, but also shared in physical contact and ritual celebration with the martyrs,
themselves other Christs.43
The sacramental conundrum then consists less of why the command in John 13 was not
followed, as in why the oldest practice of foot-washing was lost. The disappearance of
charitable foot-washing practice reflects a number of changes in early Christianity,
expectations about gender not least among them; but given the connection with meal
practice, it is connected especially with a shift away from viewing the relationship between
Christian meal-ritual and space as improvisational or ephemeral.
The early practice attested for widows was a sort of ritual excursion, relying on the meaning
still attached to regular domestic and formal use of foot-washing. Christian communal meals,
like those of other associations, already made use of a purportedly domestic ritual in their
construction of a fictive household or family, evoked in celebrations held in venues whose
space was amenable to forms of adaptation. This extension of the banquet to the bodies of
the imprisoned and the spaces they occupied took this logic further.
Each of the other forms of foot-washing that appears (or at least appears clearly) at the end
of the period in question has a different relationship to space. Paulinus great courtyard and
43

See Candida R. Moss, The Other Christs: Imitating Jesus in Ancient Christian Ideologies of
Martyrdom (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010).
19

its basilica was a public or civic space, whose rules were as clear as its physical ramparts.
Ambroses initiatory rituals, set in the liminal but permanent spaces of baptisteries, also sat
neatly within forms of clerical power, again related to the public basilica. The foot-washing
associated with monastic hospitality involved established cloistered space for men and
women, and the reception of guests within it, rather than the outward movement of the
visitor to other venues such as prisons. As liturgical space itself became permanent, public,
and monumental, and the sacred meal itself less obviously connected with the theory or
practice of actual banqueting, it seems there was literally no room left for widows to wash
feet.

20