Beware the great foot-washing scandal!
I confess that I find the brouhaha over whether women can have their feet washed on Holy Thursday to reflect rather badly on Catholics who let this get under their skin—either way. Now that this is an approved option, I’d like to explain why there is no reason to be upset about it on either side. For it is perfectly possible to interpret the washing of the feet at the Last Supper in either of two ways.
First, we can see in Christ’s actions a particular message to his apostles—that their unique spiritual office must be one of service (whether we think of them exclusively as bishops or in their broader priestly status). The historical fact that Our Lord washed the feet only of the twelve apostles favors this interpretation. On this reading, the washing of the feet would best be commemorated by the pope washing the feet of representative bishops, or by each bishop (vicar of Christ in his own diocese) washing the feet of auxiliary bishops and representative priests, or perhaps by each pastor washing the feet of his associates.
Second, we can see in Christ’s actions a deliberate focus on the need of His disciples to be servants, which is certainly a theme that recurs throughout the New Testament. Our Lord’s own explanation of what He had done favors this interpretation. On this reading, the washing of the feet would have a broader application and, to commemmorate it in the most universal way possible, the priest (who represents Christ in a special way in each parish) would wash the feet of selected representatives of the larger parish community. The number twelve would be appropriate, though hardly necessary, as it is both manageable and reminiscent of the original event.
Now, do you see the problem? The Church has long since favored the second interpretation by stipulating that men should be selected as lay representatives of the parish to have their feet washed. In fact, I am not aware that the Church has ever interpreted this rite otherwise.
By making this decision, the Church has recognized in this ceremony something that goes far beyond the episcopate and the priesthood. To be sure, there is an emphasis on priestly service in prescribing that it is the priests who are to do the washing. And the use of men to have their feet washed may somewhat more easily remind us of both the first and the second interpretation at the same time. But the message of the commemoration is clearly intended by the Church for both priests and laity. Every Christian must imitate Our Lord’s fundamental commitment to humble service.
This leaves us with only secondary reasons to distinguish between men and women. We could regard the rite of foot-washing as a kind of play, where the one who washes has the role of Christ and the ones who are washed have the roles of the apostles. In this case it could be argued that similitude to the actual historical event is greatest when men play the parts of the apostles.
Or we could strive for the most appropriate representation of the larger community. In this case, some cultures would prefer men, and there is some warrant for this in the Christian concept of male headship. But other cultures would prefer to include both men and women, and there is warrant for this in Our Lord’s constant emphasis on the universality of His mission, very deliberately inclusive of women. Again, each Christian disciple without exception is called to a life of service. This emphasis seems to be the point of the most recent changes in the rite.
Or we could argue that it is unseemly (and spiritually dangerous) for a priest to handle a woman’s feet. But I discount this objection; while discomfort is always possible, the same argument would prevent priests from anointing women, from hearing their confessions, from giving communion to women who may be “fetching” or immodestly dressed, and from providing private spiritual direction to members of the opposite sex.
I have also seen it argued that Old Testament precedents tie the rite of foot-washing very tightly to the priesthood. It is probably irrelevant that I find these arguments specious at best. Surely it is sufficient that the Church has long since decided that the rite is not exclusive to the priesthood. Unsurprisingly, the Church has put her focus on Our Lord’s own words, when He did this at the Last Supper:
When he had washed their feet, and taken his garments, and resumed his place, he said to them, “Do you know what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord; and you are right, for so I am. If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another's feet. For I have given you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. Truly, truly, I say to you, a servant is not greater than his master; nor is he who is sent greater than he who sent him. If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them.” [Jn 13:12-17]
Let me make clear that I consider all of these considerations separately from the question of obedience. There can be few justifications for deliberately violating liturgical rubrics, whether our preferences tend in a “liberal” or a “conservative” direction. This is because the liturgy is not our own private prayer (we have plenty of opportunity for that on other occasions); it is the prayer of the Church, in which we are enormously privileged and gifted to participate, whether we find it particularly pleasant or not. It is on these grounds alone that I have objected to the inclusion of women in the rite while the rubrics specified men.
Obedience, after all, is the specific virtue to which Our Lord committed Himself in order to accomplish our redemption (see especially Heb 10:5-10; cf. Phil 2:8, Rom 5:19, Heb 5:8). But apart from obedience, an excessive concern about which members of Christ’s body are appropriate choices to have their feet washed—and which are not—serves only to obscure the entire point and spirit of the rite. Instead of thinking about how we can serve others, we focus on how we can maintain our own sense of proper order, bolster our own ideas of propriety, or win a fight for our own preferences as to liturgical form!
What is unseemly in all this is insisting that the Church must give way before our own interpretations, our own facile assumption that “my piety is more trustworthy and faithful than yours”; or our own gratuitous cultural judgment that, in her liturgical conventions, the Church seeks to denigrate half of her children. The rite is designed to guide us in exactly the opposite direction. The one thing unseemly in the washing of the feet—yes, and more than unseemly—is attachment to our own will.
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