Meditations for Each Day of Lent by St. Thomas Aquinas
How we, each of us, should wash on another’s feet
If I then being your Lord and Master, have washed your feet; you also out to wash one another’s feet–John xiii. 14
Our Lord wishes that His disciples shall imitate His example. He says therefore, If I, who am the greater, being your master and the Lord, have washed your feet, you also, all the more who are the less, who are disciples, slaves even, ought to wash one another s feet. Whosoever will be the greater among you, let him be your minister . . . . Even as the Son of Man is not come to be ministered unto, but to minister (Matt. xx. 26-28).
St. Augustine says every man ought to wash the feet of his fellows, either actually or in spirit. And it is by far the best, and true beyond all controversy, that we should do it actually, lest Christians scorn to do what Christ did. For when a man bends his body to the feet of a brother, human feeling is stirred up in his very heart, or, if it be there already, it is strengthened. If we cannot actually wash his feet, at least we can do it in spirit. The washing of the feet signifies the washing away of stains. You therefore wash the feet of your brother when, as far as lies in your power, you wash away his stains. And this you may do in three ways:
(i) By forgiving the offences he has done to you. Forgiving one another, if any have a complaint against another: even as the Lord hath forgiven you, so do you also (Coloss. iii. 13).
(ii) By praying for the forgiveness of his sin, as St. James bids us, Pray for one another that you may be saved (James v. 16). This way of washing, like the first, is open to all the faithful.
(iii) The third way is for prelates, who should wash by forgiving sins through the authority of the keys, according to the gospel, Receive ye the Holy Ghost; whose sins you shall forgive , they are forgiven them (John xx. 23).
We can also say that in this one act Our Lord showed all the works of mercy. He who gives bread to the hungry, washes his feet, as also does the man who harbours the harbourless or he who clothes the naked.
Communicating to the necessities of the saints (Rom. xii. 13).