Meaning Behind the Holy Thursday Mandatum

footwashingLiam asks a great question of me:

So….would you prefer not to bother with the ritual at all? It would be play-acting regardless of the number of people who do it, right?

I’m going to take the long way around to answer this.

Church tradition has endorsed seven “S”acraments. And what are these? Not just membership rituals or meals or depictions of sacrifices or a legal ritual. Sacraments, as I was taught, and as I read in the Scriptures and have experienced in the liturgy, are encounters with Jesus Christ.

Luke 24:13-35, for example, makes clear the very real encounter with the Lord in the Breaking of the Bread. I can experience this whether or not I receive Communion. The watching of others receive Communion may be inspiring, but the point of the sacrament is not to observe the procession. The baptized believer is invited to enter this procession. I believe the action constitutes a pilgrimage. Or least the opportunity to make a pilgrimage. We can see it as moving from pew to minister and back to pew. We can see it as a short journey from home to pew to minister to pew to home. Or something greater, from baptism to Eucharist (and finally Viaticum) before a return to home. However one views the experience of Real Encounter, it is an action that every believer must eventually make, a path each one of us must walk.

Washing feet, one of the mandates of the Lord (and not the only one, to be sure) has never been judged to be a sacrament. If that omission is part of God’s design, it is inscrutable to me. Does it get short shrift because it is only mentioned in one gospel and not three plus Paul? Biblically, that puts it at about the same level of institution as anointing of the sick. At least. And some might urge that if the Lord commanded/mandated it, we should be doing it.

Over the years, I have observed loved ones, friends, and even strangers washing one another’s feet. I have heard testimony from hearts moved by the experience–a genuine encounter with the Lord and his call to humble service.

If a community is prepared to receive the proclamation of John 13:1-15 and to hear the mandate clearly, if they are prepared to wash one another’s feet and live out that aspect of discipleship, then I think communal foot washing makes as much as sense as a “s”acrament, a “r”eal encounter with Christ, as receiving the Eucharist makes sense as a “S”acrament, a “R”eal encounter.

I am sure that watching a select group will be moving to some. Baptism is moving to watch. But baptized believers renew their commitment each time the Church celebrates baptism of adults, infants, or anyone aged in between.

I am sure not every believer is ready to bare a foot and submit to a washing in public. But we have a lot of time.

As for simply watching, how would witnesses of foot-washing be invited to renew their personal commitment to humble discipleship? Is singing the chant or mandatum enough? And is the washing presented in the sanctuary as if it were a stage? Or does the washing take place where the people are: in or among the pews?

I am not sure every parish is prepared to invite its body of people to engage the ritual in a way that goes beyond watching on a stage as if it were acting, rather than “actioning.”

What Pope Francis has done is to open the door on this a bit wider. I would hope it’s not only about a fractional representation of females. That’s really a very small part of the meaning behing the mandatum. The real question of every disciple is how we respond to the question, “Do you realize what I have done for you?” (John 13:12)

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. (13:14-15)

The Lord says we have been given a model. Washing one another’s feet opens a new path, I think. On this pilgrim path, we can be prepared to imitate the Lord. I think Holy Thursday washing potentially prepares people to “do” as the Lord has done. Can people make the connection between watching and doing? Undoubtedly some can and do. But what is the ritual expression that will most likely inspire? And getting to the answer to the question above, is there hope that a sacred ritual done poorly will move people somehow? I think there is. On the other hand, I think each of us Catholics can recall a celebration of Mass that perhaps we wish we had never attended. I would hope that parishes do Holy Thursday very, very well.

That is why I have advocated for years that the Holy Thursday Mandatum should be open to all, not just to be washed, but to wash. That is a disciple’s call. It is the call of a priest only in the sense that the priest is already one of the baptized, one of the Lord’s disciples.

About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in Minnesota, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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11 Responses to Meaning Behind the Holy Thursday Mandatum

  1. Liam says:

    I used to share this perspective strongly. Over time, much less strongly as something generally to be applied to this particular liturgy (the Evening Mass of the Lord’s Supper). Scale, logistics and intimacy are bigger idiosyncratic human ritual obstacles than I used to give credit for. (I spent many years in the here-comes-everyone approach to this ritual, in two different communities. Fresh and briefly powerful for the first year or two, sagging badly thereafter. Admittedly anecdata.) I understand, at an idea level, that this seems incongruous when we consider Holy Communion, but I think we should pay attention to the fact that the Mandatum never caught in the same way as Holy Communion and that there may be valid reasons for that we should consider accounting for.

    Instead, I wonder if we should see consideration ad experimentum with the development of this as a proper sacramental with its own ritual, that could be included at Evening Prayer (is that to consign it to oblivion? is it to presume upon another liturgical failure?) and then consider whether and how to integrate it into the Mass. It was Pius XII who decided to tackle it the other way around, and maybe that’s not the best way to consider this.

    • Liam says:

      As an addendum, free-associating about this, it occurs to me that, in the context of the time and place of Jesus, the washing of feet was a basic social ritual that everyone participated in regularly in some manner.

      Not so in our culture. Hasn’t been so in centuries and more. (Whereas eating and drinking have retained a greater universality of social reality, by contrast). It may be that, as Christianity moved to places where the washing of feet was not a omnipresent social reality, that the ritualization of the Mandatum withered to become an artifact used in special contexts and special ways (monastic communities; courtly noblesse oblige).

      And this begs the larger and deeper question: WHO the heck is understood to be a “servant” in our culture in a way that really meshes well with the servanthood to which disciples are called? We live in a culture (in the USA, that is) that has a very strange relationship to the very concept of servanthood. We have business relationships, whether they are for profit or not, we are all assumed to retain agency in some way. To cling to our wills.

      (In other words: what kind of theosis?)

      So, in our culture, the ritual needs a helluva lot more telling than showing. (Oh, and one of my communities, taking this to heart, did the washing of hands thing – and realized, in the doing, how ridiculous it was.)

  2. Devin says:

    Logistics. In college, i attended the foot washing as done by the Church of the Brethren. It worked well enough as part of a smaller group in much more informal service. Perhaps, it could hypothetically work well as an addition to wedding mass or ordination service.

    Within the Triduum, though the washing of the feet serves more as an interpretive key for the Passover Mystery,.

  3. Todd says:

    Good thoughts, all. Less invasive, but at least as strange to our culture may be the use of oil for anointing. But anointing of the sick in ordinary circumstances seems to have gained some acceptance in the Midwest.

    I will say that any reasonable expectations with experimentation have been somewhat suppressed with either silly ideas (washing hands) or the kerfuffle connected with perceived sexism or the invasion of women into priestly sanctuaries or even the preference to keep Holy Thursday practices somewhat on the hush-hush lest activists of a certain tilt bring unwanted negative attention.

    • Liam says:

      I had a similar thought about anointing as a social relic as washing of feet, but it doesn’t present the same logistics and scale challenge and is less intimate in practical terms. Also, we’ve retained a stronger residue of ointments – people do widely use them for soothing and healing.

  4. Atheist Max says:

    “the washing of feet was a basic social ritual that everyone participated in regularly in some manner….Not so in our culture.”

    I always thought the foot washing schizophrenic.
    On the one hand we were taught to look up to our priest, respect his mystical, spiritual insights, stature and commitment to Jesus.
    On the other we were taught to see him as the most servile servant who would demonstrate through the symbol of foot washing how low he was willing to bend over for us!
    Neither performance elevates anyone.

    I am close to many Hospice organizations and hospitals where I bring art and music to the sick and dying. The nurses and doctors in these places are the natural servants, washing entire bodies (much more than just feet) – these are not mere symbolic demonstrations, these are deeds of the highest decency, morality and dignity. And this beautiful act happens millions of times a day across this country without ever requiring religion.

    So much of what happens in church is just a show. I wouldn’t mind it so much – but church leaders are often so casually mean spirited about what happens in the secular world. They appear to give it no thought at all.

  5. Devin says:

    I am sure the official English translation for this article by Archbishop Arthur Roche will be out an the English language version of the “L’Osservatore Romano” soon enough.

  6. Jim McCrea says:

    Heavens, folks: ALL ritual is play-acting.

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