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.


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