Thursday, April 25, 2013
Usually words like that are meant to be a joke – playing on the catholicity of our parish practice and attempting to goad me into an argument. But this is one highly symbolic and yet also greatly misunderstood rite for which I have no great affection. Not because I do not believe it happened – no, I do believe that Jesus washed the feet of His disciples just as John 13 records. The problem is that as an action it does not have the same meaning today.
Everyone understood washing the feet at the time of Jesus. It was an everyday, several times a day task given that walking was the primary mode of transportation and open toed sandals the primary foot covering.
It was an action in which certain cultural boundaries were clearly defined. Guests did not wash their own feet if there were servants present. Foot washing was done by the lowliest of the slaves in the household. There was a pecking order to these things. Jews and early Christians lived within these social conventions – even though, within their own gatherings, these social conventions were replaced by the ethics of the new kingdom and a mutuality of service.
The foot washing episode does not exist in isolation. It mirrors the clear teaching of Jesus which He proclaimed over and over again in other settings (Mark 10:41-45; Matt. 20:24-28; Luke 22:24-27). There is reference to the symbolic attention give to this everyday practice in the times following Jesus (1 Tim. 5:10) as a continued aspect of Christian hospitality.
Though foot washing is referenced some in patristic literature (Tertullian, Origen, Chrysostom, Caesarius of Arles, Sulpicius Severus, Sozomen, and Benedict of Nursia), these were generally in the context of the same everyday hospitality noted above and not specifically as a liturgical rite. Even the Apostolic Constitution’s instruction to wash the feet of the sick when they visit is not necessarily liturgical, though it was symbolic.
When Jesus calls His disciples to wash feet, it was not the introduction of a new rite within the sacramental boundaries of Baptism and the Eucharist. No, Jesus is demonstrating the radical nature of the Christian ethic that is displayed in the lives of the baptized. Radical service, in this context, does not mean symbolic foot washings but the daily foot washing of loving and serving your neighbor as Christ has loved and served us. All works of mercy, in addition to the Word of mercy in the preaching of the Gospel, are part of the greater witness of the Church and the vocation of the baptized. While this might include foot washing where foot washing remains culturally understood, it is not about literally washing feet. It is about loving God by loving your neighbor – not out of the fear of the Law nor of a mistaken sense of duty or obligation but as the flowering of Christ’s love within you, the baptized believer.
My problem with foot washing on Maundy Thursday is that the attention goes to the act as rite and less to the call to love God and love your neighbor. The disciples whose feet Jesus washed saw the connection between this daily duty and the new life of the Christian. Peter got it. He did not like it but he got it. And when he got it, he knew that what he needed was more than just clean feet. His old heart was still rooted and planted in an old morality of duty.
The new commandment Jesus gave is not to be seen through the lens of foot washing but foot washing demonstrated the higher calling of humble, loving, cheerful, and self-less service. If we wash feet once a year, we have lost all sense of Jesus’ words and action. Foot washing is the normal everyday life of the baptized. Others before self is not a rite, it is the new and radical ethic of the Kingdom. It is no less needed today than in generations past. At least in America, where the care of the poor, sick, indigent, and aged is seen as the duty of the government or insurance, it is urgently needed. Far too much of our life in the Church is self-centered. Perhaps today the call would be to clean toilets. Watching as I do as good church folk spill their “free coffee” in the fellowship hall and walk away or clean out their expired food items for the food pantry or toss away plate after plate of untouched food at a pot luck or argue about how much money the government ought to spend on the indigent and how they should take care of themselves, we need to hear more about the avenues of radical service within our daily lives and less fascination with a once a year liturgical rite rooted in a cultural necessity that no longer speaks much to our modern mind. Jesus' point here is well taken. The new life under the cross is not primarily about words but is just as much about works, the good works that flow from repentance and bear in our lives the fruit of the Spirit's work.
Connect John 13 to Matthew 25. When, Lord, did we do this to you? When you did it to the least of these My brothers. That is what foot washing demonstrates. We get off easy if all we do is annually clean a few toes.