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Thursday, April 13, 2006

Footwashing and Maundy Money

In Biblical times shoes were made from animal skins, and these were difficult to clean. This may explain why shoes in the Old Testament, an agricultural society came to represent all that was unclean. The emblems of filth were left outside homes and considered quite unsuitable for holy places. Feet encased in footwear required to be purified and this responsibility usually fell to the lowest house servant. Foot bathing signified the status of an honored guest and put them at ease and comfort. It also kept the floors, clean. Foot washing was viewed as an honor or service and became a common Jewish custom at formal banquets and took place either on arrival or before the feast. Foot washing, when undertaken by anyone other than the lowest servant in the household, took on significant symbolic importance. Most authorities recognize this humble action as deliberate act of humility, a mark of respect or deliberate self-humiliation. Ceremonial feet washing often involved marking the toe with blood or oil to symbolize either consecration or the cleansing of the entire person. This type of ritual was considered important before entering God's house. Bathing feet in oil was also taken as a prospect of wealth. When Mary Magdalene washed the feet of Jesus with her tears and dried them with her hair, she also anointed them with expensive ointment. For this token of devotion, Christ forgave her sins then proceeded to remind his host that he had not been extended the same courtesy as would be appropriate to a welcome guest. Jesus then subverted the symbolism by washing the feet of his disciple’s feet at the Last Supper. Despite protestation he reminded his devotees the significance of foot washing, which is celebrated to this day.

'I have done this to give you an example of something that you should do.'

Christ's action demonstrated that service rather than status represented greatness in the Kingdom of Heaven. This action prepared his disciples (and their converts) to walk in the path of righteousness. Christians adopted the Hebrew foot washing ceremony and in some religious faiths this is still considered as one of the three ordinances (sacrament) i.e. baptism, the Lord's Supper, and foot washing. Foot washing acts as a renewal of baptism and commitment to living God's way of life. Foot washing is still practised in one form or other throughout the world on the Thursday before Good Friday. Popes, religious leaders, and monarchs have all honoured the commitment to faith and humanity.

In the UK the ceremony was often accompanied with the distribution of alms in the form of food and drink, clothes and money. Until 1689, in the reign of William & Mary, the monarchs personally washed the feet of the selected poor. Foot cleaning was replaced by specially minted coins, called Monday Money. To this day the custom is still celebrated on the day before Good Friday, when Her majesty the Queen distributes specially minted money to the poor. A man and woman are chosen to represent each year of the monarch's life and given the special coins in a church. The specially minted coinage is worth much more than its face value.

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