Foot Washing and Weddings

April 6, 2023

The goal in marriage is to love. It is not get love, make love, find love, share love. It is to love.

Why do people do rituals and unity ceremonies at weddings? Symbolism, tradition, and meaning are usually the best answers. Then there is probably the real reason, someone saw another couple do it at their wedding. Imitation is the highest form of flattery, but you should probably know the origins of a tradition that you thought looked cool on Instagram.

A few years ago, there was a picture that went viral. It was a picture of Caleb and Maggie before their wedding. The couple did not want to break the age-old tradition of not seeing each other before the bride walked down the aisle.

Their story again went viral and was even picked up by some major news networks. The sincerity of the groom and the tears of the bride just became a powerful image. It was a faith statement before their marriage and a commitment and consecration of their marriage at least for them before God. And many couples want to emulate that. I have seen it staged in various ways. Some almost identical, some combining a prayer with a reading of vows or a personally written letter.

I saw a video recently that made me pause. It was a couple who staged the corner pose, reached around and took each other’s hands… and did a whiskey shot together.

No offense to the couple that did this. There is actually a long-standing tradition in a true Scottish wedding to pour Scotch into a two handled loving cup called a Quaich. It symbolizes the love and trust implied by the bond, as the new couple shares the first drink of their marriage together.

My guess is that this couple was not trying to make a faith statement or a heritage statement. They just took a tradition and reworked it for a cool picture and video. Which is fine. And at the risk of sounding like the old guy in the room, I would simply suggest that the ceremonial elements in weddings have meaning and not just set the stage for a picture.

This brings me to a ritual that is gaining more and more popularity in wedding ceremonies. It is called foot washing. It is a Christian tradition that is perhaps the ultimate sign of love and service.  I am posting this article on Maundy Thursday, 2023.   Maundy Thursday is part of the Christian observance of Holy Week. On that Thursday, Jesus gathers his disciples for what is commonly called the Last Supper. During this meal, Jesus institutes communion. He takes two elements, the bread, and the wine, from the Passover table and gives them new meaning. Later that evening Jesus is arrested, he is crucified the next morning on Good Friday and his body placed in a tomb until his Resurrection on Easter Sunday.

Back to foot washing. In the various accounts of this evening recorded in the Four Gospels, the meal is marked by an excitement with the disciples and a jockeying for position. They had not idea that Jesus was hours away from being arrested and killed. They were assuming a new regime was beginning and they were getting first dibs on all of it. They debated over who would be the greatest, which of them was second in command or Jesus’ new right-hand man.

In John chapter 13, Jesus gets up and does almost the unthinkable. Jesus, “rose from supper. He laid aside his outer garments, and taking a towel, tied it around his waist. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples' feet and to wipe them with the towel that was wrapped around him.” Jesus was about to take on the role of a servant.

The bickering gave way to silence and nervous pause. No one knew what to say. Peter tried to refuse. He feigned heroism and humility by trying to refuse this action.

It did not work. “Peter said to him, “You shall never wash my feet.” Jesus answered him, “If I do not wash you, you have no share with me.”

Peter relents and asks Jesus to wash him head to toe.

Why was this so unnerving? In the first century, foot washing was akin to taking off your shoes off when entering someone’s house. Perhaps the dirtiest thing in the world is the bottom of someone’s shoe. Many people wore sandals, some wore nothing. But everyone’s feet were filthy. Just the dirt of a dry and dusty region was enough, but mix in the idea that the frequency of people bathing depended greatly on your socioeconomic status. Sanitation, drainage and the proximity of people and livestock even in the most urban areas, well, you get the point. Imagine walking barefoot through your local county fair... every day. Everything and everyone was just dirty.

In a home, as a custom of hospitality, a host would provide water for guests to wash their feet and provide a servant to wash the feet of the guests. Jesus gives his followers a very simple command, “Love one another.” The word Maundy comes from the Latin word for command or mandate. The whole theme of the night was love.

"Wait, so what you are saying is before I use the whole foot washing thing in my wedding, I need to know this story and understand what it means?" Well, yes.

Don’t do this just to get the cool picture. Do it because you are going to enter this marriage with a clear idea and purpose. Your purpose in marriage is to love. It is not get love, make love, find love, share love. It is to love.

Tim Keller is one of my favorite pastors and teachers. He says that marriage revolves around service. In his book, The Meaning of Marriage, Keller suggests:

“There are three possibilities: you can offer to serve the other with joy, you can make the offer with coldness or resentment, or you can selfishly insist on your own way.” (54) When facing any problem in marriage, the first thing you look for at the base of it is, in some measure, self-centeredness and an unwillingness to serve or minister to the other. (59) The Christian principle that needs to work is Spirit-generated selflessness – “not thinking less of yourself or more of yourself but thinking of yourself less.” (66)

When I proposed to my wife, I surprised her at the end of a church service and called her up to sit in a chair, accept a ring, answer a question. But, I knew I had to do something else. As part of the proposal, I washed her feet. When a guy proposes to a girl, I always tell them to make sure the girl gets her nails done before the proposal. But there was no good way to tell my fiancé at the time to make sure you toenails need to be ready.

But my message to her was clear. I am not here to get something from you, but rather give something to you, or specifically do something for you. My marriage is focused on serving her and that is what I believe I needed to commit to in that moment.

Understand the meaning behind what you are doing and do what brings meaning.

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