Liam 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.