We are approaching the start of Lent, with the date of Easter early this year, Ash Wednesday falls on February 10th this coming week.
When Francis visited the young men and women in the juvenile detention centre in Rome on the first Holy Thursday after his election in 2013 he gave a message that reverberated round the world, not only for his action of kneeling to wash a stranger’s feet, but for the inclusivity of what he did. Here was a Bishop of the See of Rome who taught by example, who said much with few words, who looked for simplicity for himself and, by implication, asks us to do the same. He was following a tradition that he had established in Argentina where he washed the feet of both men and women at the Holy Thursday ceremony. In subsequent days and weeks we dared think that the vision of the Church that came from the Council was at last being considered, a Church that is open to the world rather than inwardly turned to the admiration of its own structures.
Of course there were those who were vocal then in their disagreement at this action as for amongst the group, not all of whom were Catholic, were two young women.
Two postings I made at that time recorded the detail. How could he do such a thing? It wasn’t allowed. Now this year the dust has been raised again for, in a recent statement, it has been made clear that the washing of feet is not a strict reserve for men, but may include women as well. In the text issued by Francis he says that
“After careful consideration, I have decided to make a change to the Roman Missal. I therefore decree that the section according to which those persons chosen for the washing of the feet must be men or boys, so that from now on the Pastors of the Church may choose the participants in the rite from among all the members of the People of God. I also recommend that an adequate explanation of the rite itself be provided to those who are chosen.”
And certainly explanation is required for otherwise the whole occasion can be seen as a liturgical dumb show with little meaning other than a mimed re-enactment of the gospel of John.
In the current edition of the bi-monthly publication The Pastoral Review, Tom O’Loughlin, professor of Historical Theology in Nottingham University comments, with great clarity, on the background and understanding of the Washing of Feet.
It was an action of generosity and welcome when, on arrival at a house, your feet, dusty and dirty from the journey, were washed by a servant. It was one of lowest, most menial tasks that the servant was charged with doing, and usually it was performed by a woman. Not a matter of choice for the servant but an action undertaken under the instruction of a master. His recent book, published last year Washing Feet, imitating the example of Jesus in the Liturgy today explores this liturgical action in some detail. It is very informative.
The Washing of Feet is an action of gentle kindness, an act of service and an intimate act of love. I received an email a couple of years ago from a member of the Call to Action group here in UK. I think is says so much about what should be our real understanding of the Lord’s gesture.
“I took part in a retreat lead by Jean Vanier, founder of the l’Arche Community last October. He is an inspiration. He writes “Community life with men and women who have intellectual disabilities has taught me a great deal about what it means to be human.”
Towards the end of the retreat we sat in small circles of about eight people and washed the feet of the person next to us. As it worked out the youngest person at the retreat had her feet washed by Jean. It was a beautiful ceremony. Jean based the retreat on John’s gospel”.
So maybe we shouldn’t regard the Washing of Feet as an action related only to the liturgy of Holy Thursday, but rather as an action that can and should be shared on other occasions of prayer. As Tom O’Loughlin suggests it could be part of a Lenten exercise of prayer when this very personal and humble action could be taught through experience as an integral part of shared prayer. After all, the recent statement from Frances asks to do just that.
“I also recommend that an adequate explanation of the rite itself be provided to those who are chosen.”
The account given by John is distant to us now, but must have been shocking in its time. Here was the leader of a group, a man, kneeling and washing the feet of his followers, clearly protested by Peter, the servant Lord undertaking the menial task, an inversion of social convention.
So what preparation will be undertaken in our parishes this Lent? Will the inclusive words of Francis be heard or quietly ignored? Will some priests and people regard it as a step too far and not be willing to take the risk? How will our priests and their communities share an understanding of this deep and faithful action? This is something we should be discussing in our parishes and with our priests. Teaching is best done not through copious words but by example. In school I often argued that if we as teachers expected a child to hold open a door for us to walk through, possibly laden with books, then we should do the same for children. Words are not enough.
Here then is an option at the start of Lent, make the washing of feet have meaning as we walk the days towards Easter. Make it part of the Lenten journey.
Or will everything be done as we did it before, the priest kneeling before twelve good men, carefully chosen, to enact a ceremony rather than experience an act of love and generosity, with the women of the community, as is so often the case, passive onlookers rather than participants? Of course, there is the record of the Lord’s feet being washed by a woman. We do well to remember that.
Faith should go beyond mere historical re-enactment to a deeper understanding of meaning. Otherwise it could be argued that our Christian lives are dry copies of something recorded in the Gospels many years ago, when in fact each one of us should be living the Christian experience day by day through understanding of, and joy in, the Gospel.
We shape communities not by being the audience at events but by our actions in a shared act of love. Messy, untidy, with water spills during washing and the drying of feet with a towel afterwards, but that’s life, that’s how it is. Let’s continue caring for each other.