Life in Palestine in the time of Jesus was hard. The popular means of transport was your feet. People walked long distances on rough, dusty roads to go from Galilee to Jerusalem, for example. Travellers often arrived their destinations with sore and aching feet. As a sign of hospitality, the host would see to it that his guests were given a warm foot bath and massage as a way of relieving their aches and pains. This was usually done by the house servants or slaves.
This service of bathing and soothing the tired feet were also provided by the rest houses or inns found at strategic locations along the major roads and highways. Travellers worn out along the way could go into these rest houses and have food and foot bath. Their energy thus restored they would then be able to continue and complete their long journey. That is how such rest houses along the way got the name "restaurants" -- they restored strength to tired and exhausted travellers on the way. The disciples would have understand Jesus washing their feet in light of this cultural background. And for us it is a pointer to the meaning of the Eucharist we celebrate.
Understood in light of the washing of feet, the Eucharist is a place of restoration for people on the way. The life of a Christian in the world is a pilgrimage, a long, hard journey. Along the way we get tired and worn out and we are tempted to give up and turn back. But Jesus has provided us with the Eucharist as a place where we can go in to bathe our aching feet and to be refreshed in body and soul for the journey that is still ahead. When we give communion to a sick person we call it viaticum which means "provisions for a journey." The Eucharist is always a viaticum: in the Eucharist we derive strength to continue our upward journey toward God.
In the story we find that Peter was uncomfortable with having Jesus wash his feet. Peter, who was somewhat of an activist, would have preferred to see himself doing the washing, washing the feet of Jesus and even of the other disciples. Sometimes it is harder to remain passive and allow someone else to bathe us than it is to bathe someone else, as every toddler can tell you. But having our feet washed and washing the feet of others are two sides of the coin we call the Christian life.
The first and most essential part is to let the Lord wash us. As Jesus said to Peter, "Unless I wash you, you have no share with me (John 13:8). First, the Lord washes us clean so that we belong to the Lord. Only then are we qualified and empowered to wash the feet of our sisters and brothers in the Lord. When this truth dawned on Peter, he overcame his reluctance and cried out, "Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!" (v. 9). For this to happen all that the Lord needs from us is simply for us to be there, to present ourselves to him and to let him wash us
The other side of the coin, which is equally important, is that after our feet have been washed by the Lord, we must go and wash the feet of others. After Jesus had washed his disciples' feet, he said to them:
Do you know what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord -- and you are right, for that is what I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another's feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you (John 13:12-15).
Jesus establishes a close link between him washing the disciples' feet and the disciples washing the feet of others. If the Eucharist is the place where the Lord washes our feet, daily life is the place where we ought to wash the feet of others. Eucharist leads to life leads to Eucharist. True Eucharist piety must lead to service of others. Jesus who broke the bread of the Eucharist also washed the feet of his disciples. We must follow his example both at the altar of the Eucharist and at the altar of Life.