Was it a picture of the cross? Did it point beyond itself to a greater event? Both the foot-washing and the cross were degrading in the extreme. And both pointed to something beyond itself. The horrible, disgusting, shameful, unimaginable suffering of crucifixion pointed to a judgement on sin that was far worse.
At the same time washing feet was an act of love. Dying the death of sinners in their place was also an act of love. The foot-washing pointed to the depths of his love. His death showed the extent of it. Foot-washing was a humiliating and degrading act that showed how far Jesus was prepared to go for his disciples. But of itself it did nothing. It pointed to something else. It helped us understand something about his death.
Jesus told his disciples to do what he had done. Did he want them to become washers of feet? Did he really want such a tradition to continue in lands of sealed pavements, clean socks and closed shoes? He clearly wanted them to do something – but what?
Later he told them that they should love each other the way he had loved them – by giving up his life for them. To give up one’s life for one’s friends – there is no greater love than that, he said.
We are his friends if we do what he has commanded us, he said. When he told them to wash each other’s feet he wasn’t starting a new religious practice. He was telling us that we must give up our life for each other. For what end?
So that we can become his disciples. So that, by our love, it can be seen that we are his disciples, and his friends.