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Washing Peter’s Feet

In De mysteriis 6.31-3, Ambrose of Milan exegetes Christ’s washing of the disciples’ feet in John 13, and particularly his exchange with Peter:

He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, do you wash my feet?” Jesus answered him, “What I am doing you do not understand now, but afterward you will understand.”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.” Simon Peter said to him, “Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!” 10 Jesus said to him, “The one who has bathed does not need to wash, except for his feet, but is completely clean.

It is perhaps of some interest that in the passage to be discussed below Ambrose seems to connect baptism with the remission of actual rather than original sin, whose cleansing he ties to the washing of the feet (cf. the long note on the controverted question in the Patrologia latina edition of this work). But an examination of that point,  or its relation to concupiscence and so-called “venial” sins, and so on, is not my purpose in this post. I’d rather talk about wordplay.

In 6.32, Ambrose writes:

Mundus erat Petrus, sed plantam lavare debebat; habebat enim primi hominis de successione peccatum: quando eum supplantavit serpens, et persuasit errorem. Ideo planta eius abluitur, ut haereditaria peccata tollantur; nostra enim propria per baptismum relaxantur.

The translators for the NPNF series render the passage thus:

Peter was clean, but he must wash his feet, for he had sin by succession from the first man, when the serpent overthrew him and persuaded him to sin. His feet were therefore washed, that hereditary sins might be done away, for our own sins are remitted through baptism.

But translating supplantavit as “overthrew” obscures the exegetical and intertextual point that Ambrose is making. The passage, again, in Latin:

Mundus erat Petrus, sed plantam lavare debebat; habebat enim primi hominis de successione peccatum: quando eum supplantavit serpens, et persuasit errorem. Ideo planta eius abluitur, ut haereditaria peccata tollantur; nostra enim propria per baptismum relaxantur.

The bolded words are all related. The passage should be translated:

Peter was clean, but he had to wash his foot; for he had the sin of the first man in accordance with his succession [from him]: since the serpent tripped up his feet, and persuaded him of error. Therefore, his foot was washed, in order that hereditary sins might be taken away; for our own sins are remitted through baptism.

Not only is Ambrose alluding to the serpent’s deception of Adam in the Garden; he is also alluding to the curse of the serpent in Genesis 3:

15 I will put enmity between you and the woman,
    and between your offspring and her offspring;
he shall bruise your head,
    and you shall bruise his heel.”

And so, actually, we do circle back around obliquely to the point mentioned above: Ambrose is not referring in this passage to some additional rite performed to absolve original sin. He means, rather, that, as the offspring of Adam and within the “big story” and symbolic system of the canon, Peter’s “foot” was exposed to the serpent’s poison due to the sin of the first man and father of us all–the serpent whose head Christ, the Offspring and Last Adam, “bruises,” and who is destined to be, as Paul says, crushed under our feet by the God of peace.

 

By E.J. Hutchinson

E.J. Hutchinson is Assistant Professor of Classics at Hillsdale College.