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]


Popular Posts