More Hand Wringing on Feet Washing

From England and Wales, Father Paul Gunter, secretary for the department for Christian Life and Worship, weighed in a few days ago on washing the feet of Holy Thursday women. To sum: don’t do as the pope does, do as the rubrics tell you.

In parish churches, Fr Paul said that the washing of the feet is meant to be an imitation of the Last Supper and “intrinsically attached” to the institution of the priesthood.

Well, just no.

Fr Paul does not seem to have a firm grasp of sacramental and liturgical theology on his attempted point here.

The liturgical context of the washing of the feet is the Last Supper.

John’s Last Supper is placed in the clear context of Saint Paul’s teaching on the Eucharist (1 Corinthians 11:23-26, Holy Thursday’s reading before the Gospel) and part of the tradition Jesus maintained from the Torah (the Passover meal of Exodus 12).

In the biblical context, John’s Last Supper is attended by “disciples.” Apparently not just apostles. And given the place of the beloved disciple–not to mention women–in all the Paschal Mystery narratives, we’re not just talking about the Twelve.

And we have Jesus’ undeniable instruction:

If I, therefore, the master and teacher, have washed your feet, you ought to wash one another’s feet. I have given you a model to follow, so that as I have done for you, you should also do.

As instituted by the Lord, washing feet is a mutual exercise in service and love. It is not liturgical theatre to be performed by the highest ranking prelate. Jesus washed, and he asked his disciples to follow this model.

And given the constant Christian connection of this event to the Passover meal, it seems more likely this meal was attended by women (cooking and serving) and children. Given that there is not a denial of their presence, a commentator would be hard-pressed to maintain the notion that women somehow were attending a spectacle of public execution, but not a Jewish ritual meal.

Apologists for men-only rather miss the fact that the Eucharist was shared at the Last Supper. Why the Eucharist for all and not foot washing?

And as for the institution of ther ministerial priesthood, the Gospels have particular narratives in which the Twelve are explicitly called by the Lord. These readings appear in the ordination rites.

Likewise, there is nothing of washing feet that remains in the ordination rite. And I’m not aware of any connection of washing feet with ordination. One would expect that an “intrinsic connection” would be a little more obvious.

It is more in keeping with tradition that people selected for being washed are poor. There is certainly the monastic tradition of incorporating washing of feet with hospitality. As the only criteria, these two instances are also disappointing, a pretty drastic narrowing of John 13:14-15.

I recall doing a bit of research when I was in graduate school on the historic appearance of washing feet in a liturgical or Christian context. I became convinced we have the seed of a lost sacrament. I also became convinced that a broader reading of the ritual has nothing to do with the ministerial priesthood. The focus on who gets washed is misplaced. I’ve been pleased to be part of communities that have employed the practice of people washing one another’s feet. Spouses. Parents and children. Friends. Strangers.

The rubric, yes, is there. It is a problem and a challenge. It could be a matter of open discernment. And we may need to jettison the post-custom “theological” explanations as inadequate. And after that discernment, we can better allow the experience of Christ to shine through more clearly, more deeply. And when we get to that point, we will be in a good place.


About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in the Pacific Northwest, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
This entry was posted in Church News, Holy Week, Liturgy, Ministry. Bookmark the permalink.

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