Friday, March 30, 2018

Easter Feet: Washing and kissing

There is more reference to feet in the Holy Scriptures than any other part of the body and throughout the New Testament heavy emphasis is placed on the strength of feet to spread the gospel. So it is no surprise foot washing is seen as important. However, foot washing is a religious rite observed by several faiths including, Islam (Wudu), Buddhism and Sikhism. The ancient Greeks also considered it a blasphemy to enter a temple without the feet being washed.

The first thing God said to Moses was ‘take off your shoes’

"Then He said, “Do not draw near this place. Take your sandals off your feet, for the place where you stand is holy ground.” Exodus 3: 5, 6.

The significance of bare feet to Judo Christian believers is profound and they are not alone for other religions also hold bare feet in high regard. Why, remains a mystery. Certainly in Biblical Times shoes and sandals made from animal skins were difficult to clean and in agricultural societies likely to become caked in dirt. For most, walking was the most likely transport and shoes were rarely worn inside the home, so removing footwear and washing feet was both practical and signified the end of the working day, or end of a journey. The emblems of filth were left outside homes and temples but bare feet also required to be purified and this responsibility fell usually to the lowest house servant. Having the feet bathed signified the status of an honoured guest and foot washing was considered as an honour or service and became a common Jewish custom at formal banquets. Oils and creams were also involved but tended to be more for the privileged. Foot washing took place either on arrival or before the feast. In the New Testament there are two accounts of the feet of Jesus being washed by women. In John 12 1-3, "Mary" sister of Lazarus washes the feet of Jesus. This takes place at a feast and Mary takes perfumed oil (nardin), and greases the feet of Christ before wiping them dry with her hair. In the second account, Luke 7:36-48, unnamed women (thought to be a prostitute) washes his feet after he dines in the house of Simon, a Pharisee. She bathes the feet in perfumed oil, and, while she is washing his feet she weeps with her tears rolling onto the feet. She then dries his feet with her hair. Bathing feet in oil was also taken as a prospect of wealth. Most experts recognize this humble action was a deliberate act of humility and mark of respect.

The Christian practice of foot washing on Maundy (Holy) Thursday, the day before Good Friday, is a connection to the Last Supper (Feast of the Passover). Jesus dramatically subverted the symbolism by washing his disciple's feet and explained his action as a measure of humility and brotherhood. Despite their protestation he reminds his devotees of the significance of foot washing. (John 13:1-17)

14. "If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet.
15. For I have given you an example, that you should do as I have done to you.
16. Most assuredly, I say to you, a servant is not greater than his
master; nor is he who is sent greater than he who sent him.
17. If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them."

Theologians believe Christ's action demonstrated 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 or Pedilavium (ped ‘foot’ and lavo ‘I wash’) is an act of renewal of baptism and commitment to living God's way of life. Foot washing is still practiced in one form or other throughout the world on the Thursday before Good Friday.

By the late 12th century, the Pope washed the feet of twelve sub-deacons after his Mass and of thirteen poor men after his dinner. By the thirteenth century special corridors were built in many churches for the sole (excuse the pun) purpose of foot washing. This year Pope Francis has visited a refugee centre in Castelnuovo di Porto, outside Rome to wash and kiss the feet of Muslim, Orthodox, Hindu and Catholic refugees. Vatican rules had long called for only men to participate in the ritual, and past popes and many priests traditionally performed it on 12 Catholic men, recalling Jesus' 12 apostles and further cementing the doctrine of an all-male priesthood. However Pope Francis broke with tradition in an effort to support better understanding and more tolerance for fellow humans.

Ceremonial foot washing was also followed by most European monarchs and involved the King washing and drying the feet of 12 poor parishioners. Ceremonial foot washing usually 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. 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 monarchs personally washed the feet of poor people. In the reign of William & Mary (1689-1702), foot washing was replaced by specially minted coins, called Maunday Money.

The term Maundy is an old English term, derived through Middle English, and Old French mandé, from the Latin mandatum, the first word of the phrase "Mandatum novum do vobis ut diligatis invicem sicut dilexi vos" ("A new commandment I give unto you, That ye love one another; as I have loved you"). John 13:34 . In 1822, specially minted coins,started to be made and were handed to the poor by the reigning monarch. The specially minted coinage is worth much more than the coin's face value. To this day the custom is still celebrated on the day before Good Friday.

Proskunew was an ancient Persian custom and involves kneeling and putting the face to the ground. Sometimes kissing the ground is part of the custom. It too was considered an act of submission, respect, gratitude, supplication, neediness, and humility and was used on all sorts of occasions. The custom is thought to have originated as a non-verbal greeting where men of equal rank would kiss each other on the lips. An inferior kissed his superior on the cheeks, and where one was much less noble rank than the other, he fell to the ground in homage. It became ritualized at the oriental courts, and according to rank, visitors would prostrate themselves, kneel in front of, bow for, or blow a kiss to the king. In days gone by there may have been practical reasons for blowing a kiss as halitosis was thought to be common. When Alexander the Great (327) spread his empire to incorporate others lands he naturally took his countrymen (now Iran) to serve at his court. As ruler supreme he commanded all subjects showed respect in his presence and that of his representatives. Conquered people like the Greeks despised the thought of prostration, bowing or kneeling, to anyone other than their Gods. However, proskynesis continued to be practiced at the courts of his successors and remnants remain today. We still bow for kings and queens. By the time of the Old Testament the custom had passed in judicial behaviour and when an accused was brought before the judge, he lay prostate. If found guilty, the judge would place his foot on their neck. If innocent the judge would stoop over and lift their face with his hand. To the Hebrew lifting the face was a declaration of innocence in a judicial, proceeding. When Muslims bow towards Mecca this is another reference to proskynesis and by contrast the posture of early Christian worship was standing.

According to Brasch (1989), kissing the feet was a gesture of homage and deference, far removed from its erotic roots. Millions of pilgrims with loving pressure have worn down the feet of the statue of Saint Paul in Rome with their lips. At the beginning of the Holy Roman Empire it was the custom for the faithful to kiss the right hand of the Papal Father. In the eighth century, a rather passionate woman took liberties and according to legend, the Pope cut off his hand in disgust.

The custom of kissing the Pope’s right foot was adapted as more appropriate. Pope Innocent III (1198-1216) had kings and churchmen kiss his feet. Today the act of homage involves kissing the Pontiff’s right shoe. Lips are aimed at the cross-depicted on the shoe. This is either taken as a tribute to his authority or the simulation of servitude.

Reviewed 30/03/2018

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