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The Meaning of Maundy Thursday Feet

As the Easter season passes I’ve been thinking about feet, or more accurately the washing of feet. Christianity has, rightfully so, been in the news over Holy Week and one thing the media loves to cover is the ritual washing of people’s feet. Pope Francis, for example, did it in a prison and even washed the feet of two women (which caused outrage, but more about that later). The ritual is loosely based on Jesus’ washing of his disciples feet found in John 13:1-17 (and only in John), and if you click on the John reference you can read the full narrative. But for my purposes the following will suffice:

12 When he had finished washing their feet, he put on his clothes and returned to his place. “Do you understand what I have done for you?” he asked them. 13 “You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and rightly so, for that is what I am. 14 Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. 15 I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. 16 Very truly I tell you, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. 17 Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them.

Theologians have had and continue to have a field day with these seventeen versus in John and I certainly don’t want to get into it all here...the linguistic differences between the two verbs “to bathe” and “to wash,” the theological meaning of being “clean,” the link between the post-resurrection community and the ritual, etc. However, grounding all the exegesis and theology, Herman Waitjen says: “By washing his disciples’ feet Jesus is subverting the hierarchical structures of patron-client relationships and the honor/shame culture of the Mediterranean world.”[1]

First, and obviously, the disciples didn’t need their feet washed during the meal. If their feet had been washed it would have been by the women as they entered the house before the meal. The act is purely symbolic. Second, Peter’s confusion and resistance indicates that the act was indeed contrary to what would be expected: “No,” said Peter, “you shall never wash my feet.” Or as Waitjen put it, Peter is “adamant in his hierarchically ordered cultural perspective.”[2] Most would agree this subversion of the hierarchy through the ritual of foot washing is supposed to point to the paradigm of the new community, indeed new humanity, where the disciples wash each others’ feet and “symbolically engage in acts of cleansing that close the past and open the future to greater wholeness and integrity.”[3]

All this subversion of the old hierarchical ideology and the creation of the new “horizontal” (as Waitjen puts it) community could lead one to believe that the rejection of the old hierarchy implies the introduction of a new egalitarianism. Perhaps, however, there is a reminder not to get too carried away: “Very truly I tell you, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. “17

So, we all should wash each others’ feet and live whole and healthy lives in our new horizontal community free from hierarchical structures, which finally leads me to the Pope.[4]

We’ve come a long way from that foot washing narrative in John and I suspect that both the reasons for and the meaning of today’s foot washing ritual by church leaders is somewhat removed from all the theological implications and ramifications of the original. This year Pope Francis chose to conduct his foot washing in a prison, which many thought was bold and others profound. Whether bold or profound, it points us to the first fundamental requirement of church leader foot washing rituals:

  • The person whose feet are being washed must to be “below” the one doing the washing.

The ritual will make no sense if a pope washes the feet of a pope, or a teacher of a teacher, or even a banker of a banker. The person must have less status and power than that of the Pope, otherwise the ritual is stripped of all meaning. There has to be a power cap.

  • There need be no actual relationship between the person being washed and the person washing.

While Jesus had a relationship with his disciples, it is extremely unlikely any of the prisoners were Pope Francis’ disciples. In fact, if the Pope had a close personal relationship with those he washed, it would change if not undermine the power dynamics in the ritual. I’m assuming the prisoners were chosen carefully. I doubt the Pope walked into the yard or mess hall and chose people at random.

  • The foot washing ritual does not change the status and power of the participants.

 During the ritual the power cap is not reduced or eliminated. When the ritual was completed the Pope got in his car and went home and the prisoners went back to their cells, as would be expected.

  • The foot washing ritual is about the one who does the washing, not the one who is washed.

What are the names of the prisoners? What do they look like? What were their crimes? What did they say about the ritual? While their experience may have been very meaningful, we will never know. We will never hear from the prisoners, while we might hear from the Pope (though he does not have to speak at all, letting the images speak for him). There will be little or no speculation about what the ritual might have meant for the prisoners, but there will be direct and indirect conclusions about what the ritual means for the Pope (it will further nurture his “humble” image, for example).

So what’s the point?

The ritual does not subvert the hierarchical relationships between the one who washes and the one who is washed. Nor does it subvert the power and wealth of the Vatican or other institutional churches. It does not create “horizontal” new communities. When the Pope says he is a servant of the prisoners, in what way does this statement have meaning? I doubt he returned to the Vatican and began selling the vast and extremely valuable Vatican art collection to use the money to support the poor. Perhaps he has been moved to advocate for prison reform, though I doubt it. At the very least, perhaps he will become a regular visitor of the prisoners since he is their servant. Again, I doubt it. When it’s all said and done the powers and principalities, both secular and religious, are secure, foot washing or no foot washing.

It is legitimate to also ask in what way the ritual and the Pope’s claimed status of being the servant of prisoners have symbolic meaning? I would suggest that a symbol that does not eventually impact, and hopefully change, the everydayness of existence is rather vapid. Does the symbolism have meaning beyond, for example, praying for prisoners? And in what way does the symbolism of the ritual and statement affect or even benefit the prisoners? If the Pope is indeed their servant, perhaps they could instruct him to come visit them, get them a lawyer, get them out of prison. Perhaps not.

I am in no way suggesting that the ritual is not meaningful for the Pope and all church leaders who conduct foot washing rituals during Holy Week. In fact, I suspect it has significant meaning. But I do wonder if church leaders are really aware of and grateful for the role people with less power and status play in the ritual. Do they thank the prisoners and the homeless and the poor whose feet they wash for aiding them in receiving greater theological wisdom or for increased spiritual integrity, or for even the good feelings of humbleness they might have on their way home?

As a kind of afterthought: Pope Francis was the first pope to wash the feet of women in the history of the Roman Catholic Church. His minders downplayed the act saying it was due to circumstances. Traditionalists in the Roman church were, on the other hand, disturbed or outraged. Their fear was it might indicate that the new Pope is in favour of ordaining women. Surely not! But think about it. No pope has ever washed the feet of a woman during Holy Week. It is not that woman are second class citizens in the Catholic Church, they are not citizens at all. My wife went as far to say that they are non human.

Copyright © 2012 Dale Rominger

[1] Waitjen, Herman C. The Gospel of the Beloved Disciple. London: T & T Clark International, 2005, p. 239.

[2] Ibid., p. 239.

[3] Ibid., p. 331.

[4] I speak of Pope Francis not because he is the only church leader who undertakes the foot washing ritual on Maundy Thursday or because he does the ritual in any extraordinary way. I use the Pope because he is no doubt the church leader most favoured by the media and, well, we are all talking about the new “humble” pope right now. However, for my purposes here, the Pope represents all church leaders who wash peoples’ feet during Holy Week.

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