Holy Thursday 2010: Foot-washing without Hierarchies
Cambridge, MA. I am privileged once again this year to be the scheduled celebrant at the Holy Thursday liturgy in the parish where I help out, Our Lady of Sorrows in Sharon, MA. (Be sure visit this wonderful parish when in the neighborhood!) I am pondering the shape of the liturgy in my mind (and heart) despite everything else going on in what is just a regular class week on campus. Naturally, I am thinking about the washing of the feet too, that amazing act we share in continuity with the wonderful, sacred scene we find in John 13. In our parish, we invite everyone to consider coming forward for the washing, instead of selecting a few representatives adding up to the number 12. While most do not come forward (luckily, since we’d run out of towels), many do, and it is a wonderful cross-section of the parish that makes this event happen.
It has struck me for years that those who come forward are really doing the priest a favor, not the other way around. Yes, I suppose it is a humble gesture to wash feet, but hardly so in the highly stylized setting of Holy Thursday where, after all, the priest – or bishop or cardinal or pope – stands in for Jesus and thus ironically still secures for himself the place of honor, as if the servant of the servants was really better than the servants themselves. (And I have also imagined that many or most of those coming forward have scrubbed their feet carefully in advance, lest any dirt fall into the bowl in Father’s presence.)
Yet need it be so? Jesus points out to Peter that while he is not entirely dirty, he does need to have his feet washed — the roads were dusty, etc. In our commemoration of that first washing, perhaps we should find a way to signal that all the successors of Peter and the other men around the table, and thus the celebrant too — priest, bishop, cardinal, pope — also needs to be cleansed, and give himself over to the tender care of a parishioner. To always be the washer, never the washed, implies a superior status, and in today’s Church, that is hardly credible, if it ever was. Today, more than ever, everyone at every level of the Church might do well to admit the need to be ministered to by someone else in the Church, quite apart from whatever formal hierarchies might suggest about who gets to purify others.
We need not impute any impurity or guilt to Jesus himself — though the roads were dusty for his feet too — but we should remember that he had just had his feet washed, in the preceding chapter of John, when he was dining with Martha and Mary, and Lazarus, at their house. Not to be confused with the sinful and repentant woman in the other Gospels, Mary washes the feet of Jesus, and lavishes costly perfume on them. Jesus accepts this ministry, and only Judas condemns it as overdramatic and wasteful. I can only imagine that when the Last Supper came, Jesus was still been reflecting on the tender intimacy and care of that scene, and realized that even on this most solemn night he might share the experience with his friends at table: as my feet have been washed, I wash yours; and you too, care for one another in this way.
It is interesting that John the Evangelist, knowing full well the centrality of the bread and wine to the Last Supper scene, chose instead to highlight this ritual of the washing of the feet. Perhaps he realized that unlike what was already becoming the ritualized Meal of the Eucharist in the early Church, the washing of feet was still an ordinary and everyday thing, and yet too a still more intimate and potent symbol of the mutual care for one another that needed to be shared by the ever somewhat soiled women and men making up the community of which John himself was a part. It is all the more ironic then that we have so often made the washing of feet so exotic and sacral an event, hushed and solemn, with special ministers, specially chosen washees, etc.
On Holy Thursday 2010, we need to take all this to heart. The Church is still a place of holiness, love, and service, yet it also a Church that is partly dirty, partly in need of cleansing. There is no longer a Church in which anyone can imagine himself only the washer of feet, and not one in need of washing as well. It is no longer a Church in which cleansing comes only from above. Perhaps we priests — and bishops and cardinals and the pope — can rethink how we commemorate Jesus’ humble, cleaning, tender action this Holy Thursday? Even today, we may indeed be a lot like Peter the first Pope — who did not want his feet to be washed — but like that same Peter, even today we might learn to be like Jesus, who let his feet be washed by a woman who was his friend, and then shared the experience with his other friends by doing the same for them.
Francis X. Clooney, S.J.