I HAVE always considered deaconesses to be the older, staid, mother-in-Israel type women of the church, those to whom we younger women look upon with great admiration and awe; therefore, when asked to be head deaconess this year, I was almost speechless, feeling unworthy and unqualified. However, with a prayer that God would help me answer this challenge, I accepted. I decided that as head deaconess I should know more about communion services, because they would be my most important responsibility. What I learned has been very helpful to me, and I hope it will be helpful to other deaconesses as well.
History of the Ordinance of Humility
The act of foot washing was instituted at the time Christ and His disciples gathered in the upper room before the Feast of Passover. Christ, having become a servant, admonished His disciples, "If I then, your Lord and Master, have washed your feet; ye also ought to wash one another's feet. For I have given you an example, that ye should do as I have done to you" (John 13:14, 15).
We know that the early church continued to observe this ordinance, for it is mentioned in 1 Timothy 5:10. Later the apostolic church used foot washing in connection with the love feast, or agape, an occasion for feeding the poor. But many churches apparently carried the agape to an excess, and various church councils forbade the celebration. It was probably at this time that the custom of foot washing began to disappear. Paganism and man-made ideas began creeping in and the true meaning and form of the foot-washing service was lost. In A.D. 694 the Council of Toledo recommended that the church partake of foot washing on Maundy Thursday, the Thursday preceding Easter. In some instances it was used in connection with or as a substitute for baptism. Ambrose, the bishop of Milan, explained that newly baptized per sons were anointed on the head and had their feet washed so that " 'hereditary sins might be done away with, for our sins are remitted by baptism' " (SDA Encyclopedia, p. 415). He also expressed these thoughts in his prayer, " 'Wash the steps of my mind that I may not sin again. Wash the heel of my soul, . . . that I feel not the serpent's bite on the foot of my soul.' " --Ibid.
But many early church fathers, such as Origen, considered foot washing simply a spiritual experience and symbol of humility, and therefore nothing to be enacted literally.
There was much debate among early Adventists as to the importance of foot washing. In the Day-Star (Oct. 25, 1845) it was referred to as our Lord's "least commandment." Because foot washing and the "holy kiss" were practiced by some of the fanatics in New England who demonstrated their humility by bizarre methods, many opposers linked foot washing and the "holy kiss" with fanaticism (ibid.). However, in time the argument was settled, and the ordinance of humility is now an integral part of our communion services.
Significance of the Ordinance of Humility
Visitors and new members of the church are often amazed to find the ceremony of foot washing part of communion services. But this should not be surprising. At that first ordinance service Christ's disciples were stunned that their Lord and Master should stoop to the role of a servant, and proud Peter cried out, "Thou shalt never wash my feet" (John 13:8). But just as it was not Christ's intention to merely wash the dust from the sandaled feet of His disciples, so it is not our purpose to cleanse one another's feet. The Desire of Ages, pages 642-651 reveals Christ's real reasons for assuming the menial position of a servant. Strife and contention, like weeds, had smothered the disciples' love for one another, each one desiring the highest place in Christ's kingdom. With resentment suffocating their affections, never could one of the disciples act the part of a servant. By example Christ had to show them that true humility constitutes greatness, that a "mere profession of discipleship did not make them disciples." And this lesson we must learn today.
We as members of Christ's church have been buried and resurrected with Him through baptism, yet we are constantly soiled in our daily contact with sin, repeatedly in need of Christ's cleansing grace. We are not prepared to partake of the Paschal Supper until all vanity and pride have been washed away. If we wash one another's feet as true disciples in deep humility, alienation and self-seeking will disappear. There will be an interchange of love, and even the hardest heart will be melted.
Foot washing was instituted by Christ for this cleansing purpose, and is to be observed by His followers so that we might always remember His lessons of humility and service.
This ordinance is Christ's appointed preparation for the sacramental service. While pride, variance, and strife for supremacy are cherished, the heart cannot enter into fellowship with Christ. We are not prepared to receive the communion of His body and His blood. Therefore it was that Jesus appointed the memorial of His humiliation to be first observed. --The Desire of Ages, p. 650.
Privileges of the Deaconess
The head deaconess has the tremendous privilege of instilling within Christ's flock the true significance of the ordinance of humility. It should not be merely a form of worship but should bring unity to those who are gathered. The chapter entitled "A Servant of Servants" in The Desire of Ages is excellent background material, and the head deaconess might wish to read excerpts from this chapter to the women just prior to foot washing. Or she might wish to read a few verses of Scripture, perhaps from John 13 or some other appropriate chapter. A short history of the services could be meaningful. Often hearts can be reached through poems or special music when nothing else is effective. Before my second communion service as head deaconess the Lord inspired me with the thoughts found in the poem that I will share with you a little later in the article. It was very effective in providing the proper atmosphere. Perhaps other deaconesses might find it useful.
Whatever the deaconess chooses to do, it should not be a mere mechanical act. She should emphasize the significance of this most important occasion in her short introductory service, pointing out with tenderness that this is a time of self-examination, of reconciling differences, of humility and love. Loud talking and laughing should not be heard but reverence should fill each heart.
We can never know how far reaching this act of love can be, how a broken heart can be healed, a discouraged spirit lifted, a weary soul brought back to Christ. Just as Judas' heart momentarily thrilled to the Master's touch, so some sin-sick soul may find renewed courage from the kind touch of a loving sister. The poem below should be the prayer of each one of us.
Dear Lord, I humbly wash my sister's feet As Christ did wash the twelve so long ago, And pray that through this simple act of ours Our love for one another we will show. I do not know her needs as 1 know mine, What burdens she must bear, what sorrows, too, What sins she struggles with, what battles won, These, Lord, are known to her and known to You.
And she knows not the sins I struggle with-- Not giant things--those victories have been won; But tiny sins that may not show to all-- The word unsaid, the kindness left undone.
My speech sometimes is very slow to tell Of Thy great love for us, a fallen race; And careless words escape my lips too oft Instead of words that tell of love and grace.
Perhaps my sister's needs are much like mine; We need each other's love and sympathy; But most of all we need the cleansing blood That flowed in love for us at Calvary.
Dear Lord, we humbly kneel before each other now As our Example did so long ago, And pray that in this simple act of ours Our love for one another grows and grows.
(To be continued)