Washing Feet: Maundy Thursday

Two years ago Pope Francis raised eyebrows when he performed the Holy Thursday ceremony of footwashing, not at St Peter’s Basilica but at the Chapel of the Casal del Marmo juvenile prison outside Rome. More striking still for some was that two of the twelve young inmates whose feet he washed were women. Last year the Pope played it relatively safe by comparison, washing the feet of aged and disabled people at the Don Gnocchi residential center. The internet reveals, thanks to time differences, that today he washed the feet of six male inmates of the Rebibbio prison and six women from a nearby detention center, as well as the infant child of one of these latter.

The Pope had courted controversy in these cases, because the tradition which he was enacting and which we will follow this evening in our own way, had in recent memory usually been performed in St Peter’s Basilica, with the participation of twelve well-scrubbed choirboys, seminarians – although sometimes seminarians are admittedly likened by themselves or others to inmates! - or priests. Over time, Roman Catholic papal theology had presented the event more and more as a sort of celebration of the institution of the priesthood itself. Yet this is not where the roots of the ceremony actually lie.

The story of Jesus washing his disciples' feet in John 13 is powerful, but has often left Christians scrambling to make sense of it and the attendant command: "So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you."

But do what exactly? Powerful as it may be, the earliest Christians seem not to have performed a rite quite like this one with footwashing acted out communally and symbolically in Church. What we do know, however, is that members of the Church community - and perhaps Christian women in particular - went not into Church but out of it, to the housebound and to prisoners, to wash their feet. They went not with crosses or choirs, but more or less privately, although certainly with reverence and a sense of evangelical and even I dare say sacramental seriousness.

The First Letter to Timothy hints at footwashing as related to social outreach in its job description for  what we could call the oldest religious order, the community of widows:

"Let a widow be put on the list” the author of the Letter says," if she …has shown hospitality, washed the saints’ feet, helped the afflicted, and devoted herself to doing good in every way."

Just a little later, around 200, the African writer Tertullian laments the fate of a hypothetical Christian woman mismatched with an unbeliever; what pagan husband, he imagines, would "put up with her creeping into prison to kiss a martyr's chains, or for that matter to meet with the community to exchange the kiss, to offer water for the saints’ feet, to share a little of her food, from her cup…"

Again we sense the connection between foot washing and concrete human need, and with courageous service - but with controversy too, in this case. It is, I think, acts of service like these to which Jesus is referring in the Gospel of John, rather than to any imagined ceremonial foot washing.

Consider also that the Gospel of John also knows of a woman’s controversial footwashing, told only a few verses before this: "Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair” (John 12:3). You will recall that this story provokes Judas’ opposition, ostensibly in connection with charitable purposes for which the cost of the perfume could have been deployed; but Jesus here defends Mary’s own charitable action towards him. So too in tonight’s Gospel Jesus teaches his disciples to overcome their scruples against either offering or receiving the washing of feet, not as a communal performance but as the prosaic reality of getting some feet clean, and some hands dirty.

This ancient ritual and practical action, not a liturgy in our formal sense but arguably sacramental nonetheless, did not survive quite in this form but took on various more symbolic guises through the middle ages, often still associated with charity; kings and bishops were known to offer such service to the poor on given occasions for instance. And despite its ancient roots, footwashing did not find a place in the public eucharistic liturgy of this day until the 1950s. When it did, it soon fell victim in some quarters - including the thoughts of some of Francis’ predecessors in the chair of Peter - to the idea that it figured the ministerial priesthood first, rather than the call of all Christians to humble service.

But you caught the resonance between ancient footwashing and the recent papal examples, I hope. I doubt that Francis was thinking of ancient evidence for footwashing when choosing his partners and venues these recent years, but the man has good instincts on this front at least. Going out to wash, and keeping company with women and prisoners in doing so, puts him in far better company from the point of view of apostolic tradition than are his modern critics.

But what of this evening and our own ceremonial washing? We wash feet here just as we break bread; no, the mandatum or footwashing ceremony does not have the status for us that the sacrament of the Eucharist does, but there is a connection - apparently one that John’s Gospel makes by giving us this story in the place where we might expect the institution of the Eucharist.

Augustine of Hippo spoke of the Eucharist in these terms, which we can apply to washing as well as to eating and drinking: "these realities are called sacraments because in them one thing is seen, while another is grasped. What is seen is a mere physical likeness; what is grasped bears spiritual fruit.” When we grasp and wash feet here symbolically, we are committing ourselves to loving service of humanity when we go out from here, and the truth of actions performed by hands and feet tonight will be judged by the ways we walk and work outside; so too, the Eucharist itself demands a fulfillment in our lives that shows it to be truly sacrament, effective sign.

As we wash and are washed, we signal our willingness to serve and be served, which in turn tells us what the reality of the Eucharist effects in us; Augustine went on to say to his congregants, seeing the Eucharist, “be what you see, receive what you are.” Washing and eating alike tonight, we bear witness to our faith in the one who has served us in both; and we hope, feasting and serving alike, to become who we are.

[Maundy Thursday Sermon from St Mary the Virgin, Times Square, New York City]


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