On Foot Washing

Peace, all.

I was challenged to comb through the Old Oligarch’s essay on foot washing. Here goes.

“The liturgy is a great deposit of doctrine in symbolic form.”


“In an age like ours, when Catholic culture is receding, we often fail to notice the meaning of liturgical symbols which once animated the piety of our forefathers. This is one reason why it is incredibly important not to change the liturgy simply because we would like to see it streamlined, or because something doesn’t make sense to us, or indeed, to many modern Catholics. Such streamlining, done in the name of short-term gains of “intelligibility,” often means, in fullest perspective, that the last vestige of a liturgically-expressed belief has been made a palimpsest.”

I agree here also, though I should point out that the most progressive approach to foot washing, namely that of the full participation of the assembly, would take the longest time of all. It has been my experience that “streamlining the liturgy” is an error of the pragmatist, not the progressive.

”The primary symbolism presented by this act is driven by an interpretation of the Washing of the Feet as an object lesson in charity. Facile liturgy is thus designed according to facile exegesis.”

Yes, and I have an interpretation. Sacraments and sacramentals are also celebrations of spiritual realities which have already taken place. A human being is saved. God’s choice or election of that person is a reality by the time of the Easter Vigil. The newcomer’s response to God has been testified to and is not in doubt. Baptism celebrates a reality which has already begun to take place: the conversion of a life to Christ. Foot washing, when a parish is properly disposed to the ritual, celebrates a reality we hope is already present in the people: their practice and acceptance of humble charity in their baptismal lives. Without the participation in the works of mercy, the ritual is meaningless pretense. With such participation, washing feet ritually and publicly enacts for the community Christ’s explicit command. (John 13:15)

“For a Jew, commanding someone to wash your feet was a gesture of great self-abasement. Talmudic legislation forbade Jews from commanding this action of anyone but a Gentile slave, the lowest of the low. By washing the apostles’ feet, Jesus takes on the form of a slave, in anticipation of the total humiliation of Good Friday, in accordance with St. Paul’s words in Philippians 2:7-8: “Christ emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross.”

I have no argument with this as a good starting point. John’s gospel includes the only recount of this ritual. What was so distinctive about the need of the Johannine community for the evangelist to have provided his unique reminder of this event? Peter’s response gives the key. He is indignant that Jesus would upset a carefully ordered society. That theme is recounted in every gospel: Peter’s refusal to accept Christ’s teaching of the suffering Messiah comes foremost to mind.

What we have in orthodox Catholicism today is the reverse. Washing feet has become the sign of liturgical privilege. People cannot wash or be washed because they do not have status. We have allowed the metaphor (the Christ-image) to overshadow the reality, namely that service and love must overturn social boundaries. Christian love and action are not dependent on a caste system. Given the gospel witness of some of the Twelve striving for chairs of power left and right, I can see why such a ritual was needed.

”Many Patristic authors see a preparation for the proclamation of the Gospel in the washing of the feet, in accordance with Isaiah 52:7: “How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him who brings the Good News.” This is the passage in Isaiah from which we get the very word Gospel, and which goes on to predict what this Good News will look like: the death of the Suffering Servant (Is 52:13-53:12) and the restoration of the covenant through the sending of the Logos (Is 54-55), which immediately follow it in the book of the prophet and the evangelist.

Christ washes the apostles’ feet to make them beautiful in preparation for announcing the consummation of the divine plan. The Washing is thus an act whereby Christ invests the apostles with evangelical authority, as part of their episcopal office, as He explains in Jn 13:20: “Amen, Amen, I say to you, he who receives any one whom I send receives me; and he who receives me receives him who sent me.” Think of Matthew 18:18, not only Matthew 22:39.”

This is Old Oligarch’s strongest point. It might be convincing enough if it didn’t fail on one important point. The Patristic connection is a beautiful explanation, but it remains a metaphor for the actual separate mysteries of ordained ministry and washing feet. We don’t understand the full picture of either of these. The Patristics may have had added cultural and oral insights we lack today. But their exegesis remains a poetic and metaphorical attempt to understand a spiritual reality none of us can see clearly. The Twelve have already been called and commissioned. Perhaps the Johannine washing replaces the synoptic witness of the calling and sending in pairs. Perhaps.

”We already have a basis in (2) for thinking about a connection between the Washing and ordination.”

But not an undisputed one. Let’s keep reading.

“This is, of course, reinforced by ancient Christian custom which celebrates the institution of the Christian priesthood during the Holy Thursday Mass of the Lord’s Supper, since, just after the Washing, Christ commands his disciples: “Do this in memory of me,” giving them the mandate to celebrate the Eucharist which is the reason for their priesthood.”

There is no scriptural basis for this link. There is no explicit Eucharist in John. We have only the command to repeat the washing of feet, a command which Christians ignored and nearly lost totally. My JB says, “If I, then, the Lord and Master, have washed your feet, you should wash each other’s feet. I have given you an example so that you may copy what I have done to you.” We can ask if “each other” implies bishops, clergy, or if the Lord had a wider group in mind. But at the very least, the question remains an open and disputed one. We don’t know. But I think we might infer that Old Oligarch’s first point would be lost if foot washing took place only within a certain caste or castes within the Church. That would indeed be a loss, and is probably why the monastic witness has traditionally been to wash the feet of strangers and the poor: maintaining the tradition of service to others, forsaking one’s status both in society and in the Reign of God.

”Christ is preparing His apostles to be His first priests. Christ chooses a symbol of great self-abasement to underscore the nature of this priesthood in imitatio Christi. Sharing in Christ’s priesthood means sharing in his kenosis, His self-emptying, His self-sacrifice. Just as Aaron and his sons were the first priests of the Old Covenant, Christ washes the feet of the Apostles to be the first priests of the New Covenant. They have “already been washed clean” (Jn 13:10) of sin in Baptism. Now, they receive a special washing, proper to their ordination, so that they can worthily enter the New Tabernacle — the first Tabernacle to contain the Eucharist, the Upper Room.”

If this is true, then the ritual is badly misplaced at the parish. The connection here is beautiful and apt, and if it had been preserved in the ordination rites or at the Chrism Mass, then the celebration of the connection of bishop and clergy, the humble service of the parish priest would be apt.

Why does the parish have an option for such a ritual? Is it for the edification of the priest who washes? To remind the laity of the service of their pastor? There is no explicit renewal of priestly or pastoral commitment associated with foot washing. Permitting lay men to be washed seems to undercut the sacerdotal connotations of the ritual. Denying women seems to be a blunt underscoring of the gender-based caste system in the Church. Even lay men don’t get to confect the Eucharist in the absence of an ordained priest, so what’s the point?

”Such, IMHO, is the meaning of the Washing of the Feet: priestly, sacrificial, mysterious.”

If so, then laity should not participate in this ritual at all.

“So if you get another lazy, banal homily on “serving others” or some such permutation of the importance of being nice, you’ve been shirked.”

However, I’ve heard outstanding homilies on the meaning of humility which have invited families, friends, and strangers to set aside their comfort to wash one another’s feet, making the connection that as is done in ritual life, so one should also do beyond the church walls, even to the point of giving one’s life for one’s friends. Christ’s continuing message in the Last Supper discourses applies to all disciples. The notions of trust in God, love and sacrifice, growth and rootedness in Christ, the need for unity: this sermon does not exist independently of what took place at the washing bowl.

It seems to me the “nice” homily is one that urges people to “watch the priest renew his commitment to service.” That strikes me as distant, an overly sanitary approach to what is still difficult for many people to do.

If the Mandatum is to stay at the parish Mass, it should include all present. The 1975 Roman Missal doesn’t even specify that “twelve” are to be washed. If the best a parish can do is select twelve representatives, the ritual is best left in the books, unused. Charity is something to participate in fully, with both feet as it were, not to be witnessed as a pious playacting exercise.

About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in the Pacific Northwest, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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