Sunday, January 24, 2016

The Feet and The Washer

I can’t seem to summon up the will to write my usual ‘this week in Madonna House’ blog post, popular as those always are, for the simple reason that I cannot think of anything noteworthy that happened this week here. Sometimes life is just pretty ordinary.

Meanwhile, I wanted to throw in my two cents’ worth about the Pope’s change in a small liturgical rubric, the Holy Thursday mandatum rite of foot washing. The Pope, as his absolute prerogative, has in recent years altered that rite in his own practice of it to include washing the feet of women; now he has formally altered the rubric for the universal Church so that ‘the red’ (the instructions) simply read that the feet of any of the ‘people of God’ can be washed.

Now first, we have to say that Pope’s have supreme and immediate authority to do precisely this kind of thing. Anything in the liturgy that does not touch directly upon the matter and form of the sacrament (e.g. bread and wine for Eucharist, water for baptism, a man for priesthood, a man and woman for marriage, oil for confirmation, and all the associated words that confect those sacraments) is subject to change by the proper authority, and that proper authority is the Bishop of Rome.

So if anyone is thinking ‘the Pope can’t do this!’ they are precisely wrong. This is exactly what the Pope can do, and he has.

And a good thing, too. I have long felt that the rite should change in precisely this way. This particular rite, like all the rites of the liturgy, is symbolic, right? Nobody is actually showing up in church on Holy Thursday because their feet are dirty and need to be washed. People generally attend to that kind of thing in their own homes.

Symbols are not the sort of things that only bear one meaning, or for that matter that bear a meaning apart from and unrelated to their cultural context. And as cultures change and shift, this kind of sub-rite of the liturgy (optional, in fact), is precisely the kind of thing that needs to be evaluated from time to time—is its symbolic meaning still holding? Does it communicate what it is meant to? Is what it is communicating what we really want/need to communicate at this time in the Church?

So the washing of the feet has borne two meanings, related but distinct. One is that of Christ establishing the ordained ministry in the Church, and in that establishing making it clear that it is a call to humble service. The emphasis is on the priesthood as service, and in that emphasis clearly only men should have their feet washed.

But it also is a symbolic reminder of the general call to service in the Church, Christ showing by example that not only priests but all of God’s people are called to wash the feet of their brothers and sisters in humble service. And in that reading, clearly the priest should wash the feet of men and women both.

Two different messages being communicated, right? Both are true, both are good, in fact they are in no way contradictory to each other. It is simply a matter of deciding which one is the more appropriate message to communicate to the Church in our times, and also if there is a risk of a message being communicated that we do not intend and do not believe. Such as, ‘women have no place in the Church’.

At any rate, the Pope has made the decision, and (not that my opinion matters) I happen to agree with it.

That being said, we now have to be vigilant about other messages creeping into the rite that are not particularly helpful or relevant to the liturgy, and that in fact are distractions. For example, “You go, girl! Female empowerment ftw!” Or “Pope Francis is the awesomest Pope evah! Take that, you stupid conservative traddies!” You know, things like that. If those become the focus of this rite, then this optional rite should simply be omitted.

Holy Thursday is one of the principal holy days of the year. Our focus should be first the Lord Jesus and his establishing of the Eucharist, second the Lord Jesus and his establishing of the priesthood as servants of the Eucharist, third the Lord Jesus and his great commandment of love and fourth, the Lord Jesus and his being delivered over into his passion and death.

You may notice a common theme running through where our focus should be in this liturgy. It starts with ‘J’ and rhymes with ‘sneezes’, eh? In fact, that’s more or less a sound principle not only for liturgy but for pretty much anything in life.

And so while I really have thought for some years that this change should be made in the rite, I would now say that it would be good if we could put this controversy behind us and simply make the focus of all our attention be not on the feet being washed, and especially not on the dirt that needs to be washed off (which, frankly, is where our focus is going so often), but on the Washer. Keep our eyes on Him, and the rest of this stuff tends to fall into place by itself.


  1. Again...thank you! My thoughts exactly.

  2. I disagree.

    Yes, some priests have been doing this for years. But changing the rubrics to match the practice says that innovators can ignore anything they like in the rubrics until "Rome" catches up with "the times"? Bad, bad, precedent. The times need to catch up with the Church, not the Church with the times! Christ the same, yesterday, today and forever. When has the Church not been countercultural?

    Holy Thursday commemmorates primarily commemorates the institution of the Eucharist and of the ordained priesthood. We are well into in the process of losing the focus on the ordained priesthood at the expense of the priesthood of all believers—the problems with the laicization of the clergy and the clericalization of the laity are many, and this misunderstanding need no additional reinforcing.

    As a subset of this: it risks futher trivializing the differences between male and female. Since the reason for the rubric in the first place was to emphasize the link between the Last Supper and the instituation of the ordained priesthood, adding a blurring of sex lines into this mix *will* reinforce calls for female ordination.


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