Having discussed the overarching symbolic meaning of the ‘mount of olives’ as a sign and symbol of the Garden of Eden, let us discuss in more detail Christ washing the disciples feet, (John 13), the meaning of this washing, and the symbolism of sandal. We should take careful notice of its place in John’s Gospel. We will also investigate primarily the story of the burning bush as an example of removing ones sandals.
“Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into His hands, and that He had come from God and was going to God, rose from supper and laid aside His garments, took a towel and girded Himself.” (John 13:3-4) As stated in our previous article, Christ washing the disciples feet is the first in a multitude of institutions initiated by Christ before His Passion. It is, in a sense, a precursor, a “first step” one takes before the other Mysteries are revealed.
Before we get into how the removal of sandals and washing our feet is a symbol of the “first step” we must take before the revelation of the Mysteries, let us first discuss the symbol of the sandal. Sandals are made from dead animal skin, with the specific purpose of protecting our skin. Adam, having abandoned the holiness in which God originally clothed him, must now clothe himself with created, worldly material.
“What are the shoes? Well, what are the shoes we wear? Leather from dead animals. The hides of dead animals are what we protect our feet with. So what are we being ordered to do? To give up dead works. This is symbolically what he instructs Moses to do in his honor, when the Lord says to him, ‘Take off your shoes. For the place you are standing in is holy ground.’ There’s no holier ground than the church of God, is there? So as we stand in it let us take off our shoes, let us give up dead works.” ~St Augustine of Hippo, commentary on Exodus
In the words of St Augustine I see a double meaning to “dead works.” Certainly we can accept that our works cannot, in and of themselves, make us “alive.” Only our participation in Christ and His Mysteries, by His Grace, do that. But I see another meaning to “dead works,” that of how our very lives, and the works which we must do merely to survive, since the fall of Adam, are “dead” and “fallen.” In order to sustain ourselves with food we must kill and eat animals. In order to clothe ourselves we must kill and skin animals. The very actions we take to sustain our worldly survival are rooted in death, and as such, can be called, “dead works.”
So we see that the sandal is a symbol of our desire to remain in this world. Our Lord shows us that this feeling alone is not, in itself, a sin, when He says: “Now My soul is troubled, and what shall I say? ‘Father, save Me from this hour’? But for this purpose I came to this hour.” (John 12:27) In his commentary on the Gospel of John, St John Chrysostom has this to say:
“He draws near to the cross, His human nature appears, a nature that did not wish to die, but cleaved to this present life. He shows that He is not quite without human feelings. For the desire of this present life is not necessarily wrong, any more than hunger.”
Though not a sin, as previously spoken about here, desiring not to die to this present life is a stumbling block towards spiritual progress. If left unchecked, it can paralyze your body or bring worse condemnation. Wanting to stay alive is not the sin: delighting in the pleasures of this world, being connected to this world, that of “wearing sandals” is the stumbling block.
“For it is said to Moses when he was desiring to draw nearer: ‘Put off your shoes from your feet,’ how much more must we free the feet of our soul from the bonds of the body and clear our steps from all connection with this world.” ~St Ambrose of Milan, commentary on Exodus
We are now developing the symbol of removing the sandal. If the sandal is made from “dead works,” and our wearing it is a sign of living in the word, then removing it symbolizes our detachment from worldly things and our present life.
“He willingly shook off his royal dignity like so much dust which is stripped off by the stomping of the feet. He banished himself from human society for forty years and lived alone, focusing steadfastly in undistracted solitude on the contemplation of invisible things. After this he was illuminated by the inexpressible light and freed the lower part of his soul from the dead garment made of skin.”~St Gregory of Nyssa, commentary on Exodus
St Gregory of Nyssa is speaking here about Moses, how he “shook off the royal dignity” as a prince of Egypt, that he may fast alone in “undistracted solitude on the contemplation of invisible things.” If we want to contemplate God and His Mysteries, if we want to make spiritual progress, we must shake off this worldly life, we must remove our sandals. If we keep our sandals on, that is, remain connected to this world and the clothing of dead skin, we remain in that first original disobedience.
“That light teaches us what we must do to stand within the rays of the true light: Sandaled feet cannot ascend that height where the light of truth is seen, but the dead and earthly covering of skins, which was placed around our nature at the beginning when we were found naked because of disobedience to the divine will, must be removed from the feet of the soul. When we do this, the knowledge of the truth will result and manifest itself. The full knowledge of being comes about by purifying our opinion concerning non-being.” ~St Gregory of Nyssa, On the Burning Bush, The Life of Moses
I want to go back and touch on how Moses “shook off his royal dignity” and how this is a foreshadowing of Christ washing the Apostles feet. Christ too “shook off his royal dignity” when He “laid aside His garments, took a towel and girded Himself.” Like Moses giving up his royal status as a prince of Egypt, Christ too gave up His royal status when becoming like us, condescending from His Royal Throne, to live among us, and be tempted. He not only condescends to our level, but He “took a towel and girded Himself,” that is, He offers a symbolic vision of the fall of Mankind, that of Adam girding himself with a fig leaf. Christ is physically taking the curse of Adam upon Himself, and by having the Apostles remove their sandals, He is removing the curse from Mankind.
And so we come to our final point, that of dusting our sandals and the washing of feet. As Moses was told to remove his sandals for the place where he stood was holy ground, we are told to remove the sandals of our souls, for we now bear the mark of Christ through baptism, and as such, we bear a type of holy ground.
“Finally see what the Lord said to Moses and Joshua: ‘Remove the strap of your shoe, for the place where you stand is holy ground.’ Can this be understood according to the letter, beloved brethren? How could that ground upon which they trod be holy, since doubtless it was like the rest of the earth? However, notice carefully what was said: ‘For the place where on you stand is holy ground.’ That is to say, Christ, whose figure you bear and of whom you seem to be a type, is holy ground. True holy ground is the body of our Lord Jesus Christ through whom everything heavenly and earthly is sanctified.” ~St Caesarius of Arles, commentary on Exodus
This is why, before revealing the other Mysteries, Christ first has the Apostles remove their sandals and washes their feet. Even here we can understand the washing of the feet in two ways, for not only is it that first step towards the revelation of the other Mysteries, but it is a purgation of judgmental thoughts.
As stated previously (symbolism of Kidron brook) by St Caesarius of Arles, “Wash, I repeat, the feet of pious strangers, lest there remain in them some dust that they will be able to shake off of their feet to your judgment.” This is further supported in the Gospel of Matthew: “And whoever will not receive you nor hear your words, when you depart from that house or city, shake off the dust from your feet.” (Matthew 10:14)
And so we see “shake off the dust from your feet” as primarily about forgiveness. When our neighbor sins we shake the dust from our feet. We do not hold their sin against them; we do not let the dust to remain on our sandals, a judgment or condemnation of their state. And we too rush to wash the sandals of our neighbors, that is, knowing our sin remains and we too do not wish to be judged. “Judge not lest you be judged” (Matthew 7:1; Luke 6:37; John 7:24)
We can draw some logical symbolic conclusions from this. If the sandal is our connection to this world per St Ambrose above, and we shake the dust off our sandals lest any be judged, then the dust can rightly symbolize the passions. In Chapters on Prayer, Evagrius of Pontus has this to say:
“If Moses, when he attempted to draw near the burning bush, was prohibited until he should remove the shoes from his feet, how should you not free yourself of every thought that is colored by passion seeing that you wish to see One who is beyond every thought and perception?”
If we seek to make spiritual progress and further our contemplation of God, we must remove our sandals as “Sandaled feet cannot ascend that height where the light of truth is seen.” We remove our connection to this world; we shake the dust off our sandals; we forgive each other; and we shake the passions from ourselves, that is, we trample them underfoot, no longer with the sandals made from dead animal skin and “dead works,” this a sign of the first disobedience, but with the washed feet of our new obedience to God.