Thursday, October 03, 2013

The Missing Sacrament? Footwashing, Gender, and the Formation of Liturgy II: Bishops and Baptisms

Sarcophagus with foot-washing scene;
Arles, 4th century.
The conundrum of the missing sacrament reflects at least two common misconceptions. One is a tendency to misread the NT texts about baptism and eucharist as efficient causes for the existence of Christian rituals, rather than as secondary interpretive reflections on them. Eucharist and baptism are themselves both older than the texts that refer to their establishment.

The second is what I will term the "liturgical fantasy" - the idea that there was, already and always, a thing we could call "liturgy" or "going to Church" in the first few Christian centuries, a performative container into which various ritual acts including sacraments could be placed; whereas in fact the gatherings of the early Christians were focussed on and arose out of particular performances such as prayer, and of course the sacred meal of the Eucharist. The wider reality that became "liturgy" as we know it is the product of these, not their premise.

The earlier foot-washings discussed in the first of these posts, typically by women into situations of need, were arguably "sacramental" - in that they were significant rituals performed as acts of obedience and discipleship - but were not communal, or liturgical. In the third and fourth century West however we find evidence for a different sort of foot-washing related to initiation.

Cyprian's Letter 64 quotes another African bishop, Fidus, who apparently wanted to delay infant baptisms until at least the eighth day after birth, in imitation of the Jewish practice of circumcision. Among reasons offered in support, Fidus held that “the foot of an infant in the very first days after his birth is not clean, so that any one of us would be disgusted at the thought of kissing it” (Ep. 64.4.1). The reasons for this disgust are a matter for another paper, but all this implies that the feet of the baptised were attended to; kissing is mentioned, but washing should probably be understood too.

At least half a century later in Spain, one of the rules in a collection of canon law attributed to the Council of Elvira (48) forbids payment for baptisms, and adds that clergy should not wash the feet of the baptized. This canon is among those possibly added to the minutes of the Council (c.300) considerably later. Some time before this, a clash of foot-washing cultures had emerged; one that as in Africa involved initiation and clerics, but the other - probably the older one already discussed (see post I) - wherein the washing of feet took place, but not for initiation and not by male bishops.

We eventually do find a more positive and direct account of baptismal foot washing, from 4th century Milan. Ambrose commented on and defended this practice, while acknowledging it was not universal—and unknown at Rome, notably:
We are aware that the Roman Church does not have this custom, although we always follow that Church as an example and model. Nevertheless they do not have this custom of washing the feet. Look, perhaps they have decided against it because of popular opinion. There are, however, those who try to excuse this because [foot-washing] need not be done as a sacrament, not at baptism or in the regeneration, but rather in the way that the feet of a guest have to be washed. But one of these things is a matter of humility, the other a matter of sanctification. So, hear how it is a sacrament and a sanctification: ‘Unless I wash your feet, you have no part with me.’ I say this, not because I am criticizing others, but to commend my own use (On the Sacraments 3.5).
Ambrose is still aware of the other sort of Christian foot-washing, “a matter of humility"; but it is not, he says, the same thing - his version is now the "sacrament".

What was readily seen as "worship" in 200 was not so obviously so in 400. It is not accidental that such as Ambrose can offer an interpretive framework that marginalises or at least relativises foot washing outside of initiation. And while at no stage in these texts are the bodies of women and men free from wider understandings about space, performance and power, the emergence of a Christian liturgical space and practice where bodily performance was aligned closely with the public or civic marginalised female bodies in new ways.

To say only that however would be to accept too much of Ambrose's sacramental geography. For Christian women, and men, did not cease to wash feet outside Churches, whatever they did within them. And one of the important and emerging frontiers for early Christian studies is the broadening of perspective that will allow us new insights into the continuing significance of private and other space, and the piety performed in them, including the roles of women as well as men in leadership and service.

[From a plenary address at the "Early Christian Centuries" Conference, Australian Catholic University, October 3 2013]

The Missing Sacrament? Footwashing, Gender and the Formation of Liturgy I: Washing Women

Foot-washing; Codex Rossanensis
(6th century, possibly Syrian)
More than a few conscientious readers of holy scripture have found themselves puzzling over what seems to be a sacramental omission.

Baptism and Eucharist are grounded for Christians in commands of Jesus to "go and make disciples...baptising them" (Matt 28:19) and to "do this in memory of me" (1 Cor 11:24). In John's Gospel however there is an extended Last Supper story with no account of the institution of the Eucharist; but in chapter 13 Jesus washes the disciples' feet, and says with equal clarity "So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet". Yet foot-washing is not a sacrament.

From time to time commentators suggest that there may have been a tradition of communal foot-washing in the Johannine "community of the beloved disciple"; while impossible to disprove, this would be at best a ritual dead-end, since there is no other evidence of communal foot-washing in regular ancient Christian gatherings.

Foot-washing was not a ritual peculiarity in the ancient Mediterranean world, but a common, practical and hospitable act; for some, at least those who otherwise offered menial service, it might actually have been unremarkable in itself. It is possible that Christians arriving at the banquets which were the earliest form of eucharistic meal did have their feet washed but that this was not recorded - it may have been done by servants or others, who did the same task for every guest.

Specific acts of foot-washing to which attention is drawn in early Christian texts tend however not to occur "in Church" but elsewhere, and the Christians best attested as doing so are women. Gospel stories related to this are well-known; Luke 7:36-50 is most explicitly a "washing" story, and not merely an "anointing" one.

The First Letter to Timothy makes a more explicit association between women and foot-washing, with the most ancient religious community, the order of widows:
Let a widow be put on the list if she is not less than sixty years old and has been married only once; she must be well attested for her good works, as one who has brought up children, shown hospitality, washed the saints’ feet, helped the afflicted, and devoted herself to doing good in every way. (1 Tim 5:9-10).
These "saints" are not otherwise identified, but the list in which the washing is embedded suggest acts of practical service outside the communal ritual of the Church.

A little later a specific group in need becomes prominent, namely the (living) martyrs. Tertullian provides a list of practices characteristic of Christian women (in arguing that they would be frowned on by a pagan husband):
For who would allow his wife, for the sake of visiting the brethren, to go around from street to street to others’ dwellings, and indeed the poorer ones? ...Who will, without suspicion, let her go to attend that Lord's Banquet which they defame? Who will endure her creeping into prison to kiss a martyr's chains, or for that matter to meet with the brethren to exchange the kiss, to offer water for the saints' feet, to share a little of her food, from her cup, to yearn for or remember them? (To His Wife, 2.4.2-3)
There is a discernible devotional flavor to the treatment of the persecuted prisoners, but it is laid over the basic meeting of their bodily needs. This foot-washing was however unmistakably a ritual act; the fact that it is not communally performed may mislead modern readers regarding its "sacramental" status (granted this term is not used).

It may not be surprising to find the ministry of washing feet associated with the diaconate, when clearer evidence for the shape of this ministry emerges, as for instance in the fourth-century Apostolic Constitutions, which however still expects deacons to be women as well as men. This Church Order instructs these deacons of both sexes to wash feet, invoking John 13 as its basis and indicating the practical character of this work again:
By doing this He demonstrated to us His kindness and brotherly affection, that so we also might do the same to one another. If, therefore, our Lord and teacher so humbled Himself, how can you, the labourers of the truth, and administrators of piety, be ashamed to do the same to such of the brethren as are weak and infirm?" (3.19)
This suggests some hesitation about the menial aspect of task, and reflects its transition into what was becoming a more fully-defined ordained ministry, for whom this may all have been problematic. Soon after this however foot-washing loses its identity as an act of religious as well as practical significance in the early Church, recognised and valued in a way that arguably deserves the label of "sacramental" but not that of "liturgical". Instead we find the rise of a different sort of foot-washing that is more narrowly symbolic, and associated with Christian initiation (see part II).

There were survivals of this oldest form of foot washing - monastic rules could specify it as an act of hospitality to visitors, affirming and interpreting the custom in the newly-constructed social relations of the community; this is the case in Cassian and then in Benedict's Rule (see Cassian, Institutes 4:19). Obviously this is no longer specifically or exclusively a women's practice, but it persisted in women's ascetic communities as well as men's - a gift from the women, nonetheless.