Holy Thursday is a complex liturgical celebration. The commemoration of the Lord’s Supper may include ritual emphasis on the institution of the eucharist, Christian service and mutual love, the sacramental priesthood, and Eucharistic adoration. In my own mind it likewise conjures several distinct images. I remember the symbolic damage of a service at a university parish when twelve young men – some friends and classmates, all seemingly selected for their height and ability to connote square-jawed leadership – processed in identical white robes to have their feet washed at the altar, against the backdrop of a homily pleading for such masculine vocations. I remember several years later as a Jesuit Volunteer in Phoenix when I spent the hours prior to the start of Triduum services washing the weary, well-trod feet of individuals seeking a meal at the downtown soup ktichen. For those following this blog, you’ll know that more recently we’ve all been occupied with the USCCB’s statements critiquing Elizabeth Johnson’s book, including discussions about a theologian’s putative obligation to seek a “mandatum” as a sign of her willingness to dialogue and her commitment to do theology as an ecclesial service.

It may be the Latinate connection that spurs these reflections today, “Maundy Thursday” (from mandatum), but I think the linguistic link is substantive. What is this commandment to loving service? To whom is it directed, this “new commandment”: “Love one another as I have loved you” (Jn 13:34)?  Whose weary and wandering feet were the object of Jesus’ unexpected gesture when “his hour had come,” when the author of the fourth Gospel depicts him as saying, “If I, therefore, the master and teacher, have washed your feet, you ought to wash one another’s feet” (Jn 13:1, 14)? I’m well aware that responses to these questions are bound up in annual arguments over whether Holy Thursday services ought to emphasize the “priesthood of all believers” given in baptism or the sacerdotal priesthood. My own inclinations are probably not hard to surmise and I certainly don’t think the following reflections will speak to all the relevant issues. Moreover, I’m no liturgist. But this semester I happen to be in a liturgy class on Rites of Christian Initiation which has introduced some material about footwashing that now prompts a few thoughts in the context of this commencement of Easter and current questions about authority and service.

The main thrust of the course has been to introduce the wide variety of practices present in the ancient church and to hear these as bespeaking a rich theological and liturgical diversity. Within this range, it is significant that for nearly the first millennium of Christian practice in the west and still today in the east, initiation into the community, the body of Christ, was celebrated as a unity. Elements of these multilayered rituals that were later separated conceptually and then chronologically as distinct sacraments – baptism, eucharist, confirmation – were undertaken together and often alongside other sacramental movements.

Among these early models of Christian initiation, the pedilavium, or footwashing, sometimes appears.[1] Some scholars posit that it may have been a distinctive feature of initiation into table fellowship and the structure of ‘apostolic’ leadership in the Johannine community that was largely eclipsed when (at least part of) this community merged with Petrine-led churches. Aphrahat, of fourth-century East Syria, understands baptism as stemming from Jesus’ footwashing at the Last Supper: “Our redeemer washed the feet of his disciples on the night of the paschal sacrifice (which is) the mystery of baptism. You should know, my beloved, it was on this night that our redeemer gave the true baptism” (Demonstration XII, 10). Around the same time in North Italy, Ambrose of Milan defends his church’s custom of a footwashing following the baptismal bath and before reception of the eucharist, in contradistinction to contemporary Roman practice which it otherwise resembled. A similar Syrian influence emerges in Gallican rites in subsequent centuries. In North Africa in this period, Augustine, too, witnesses to the inclusion of the pedilavium. For him it becomes a prebaptismal ceremony on Holy Thursday that functions along with scrutinies and other forms of final preparation. It is not clear (to me at least) who was the minister of this rite in every case, but what is clear – and what strikes me as the salient point – is that every Christian in these communities, as an integral moment of his or her baptismal, eucharistic, and Spirit-filled entry into the body of Christian believers, participated in the ritual enactment of the Johannine Jesus’ command to demonstrate love through the service of washing one another’s feet.

So, with these brief historical explorations in mind (and yes, also cognizant of the complicated relationship between history and doctrine, etc), this year I’m considering in a new light what might be at stake in the liturgical symbolization of Holy Thursday footwashing. The bit I’ve learned about early Christian initiatory practices indicates a strong and foundational unity between baptism and eucharist, with the latter understood as the repeatable “confirmation” of full Christian initiation. If it is the case that on Holy Thursday we commemorate the “institution” of this sacramental, communal meal as the Lord’s Supper then it follows that a greater emphasis on its intrinsic link to the baptism we each receive “in the Lord” would be appropriate. Furthermore, if this “Maundy Thursday” celebration takes its cues from the Johannine account, then footwashing may also have a place. Here, too, the whole community of the faithful should be considered participatory subjects on this same basis, their identification as Christians in the waters and at the table.

To those who argue in favor of ritualizing the ministerial priesthood through the selection of twelve representative males, I’d want to highlight what appear to be two conflicting arguments. On the one hand, they’ll say, echoing Catholic complementarian anthropology, it is not discrimination, unjust exclusion, or a power play because the issue is service – a unique ministry of sacramental service vested in a group of twelve men chosen by Jesus to begin an institution for perpetuity. On the other hand, the same telescopic vision of institution and apostolicity is wielded as a measure of authority — only these members of the body and those to whom their lineage is directly transferred may perform this service (and doesn’t the configuration of apostolicity, the episcopate, and the presbyterate already become rather inconsistent and confused here?).  With respect to its implications for teaching authority and the recent USCCB rationale for their statement on Johnson, another blogger at PrayTell has nicely adduced the historical-critical problems with this view of ecclesial leadership.

In addition to fallacies of the “blueprint” view, the aspect I find particularly troubling on the heels of this semester’s tentative foray into liturgical history is, first, the elision of priesthood and eucharist with the authority of communal service and the commandment to love. Beyond juridical fiat, is not the christoformity of an act of service the only guarantor of its “Christian” authority? And therefore, secondly, as has been pointed out by many feminists, if the christoformity necessary for an ordained presider at the eucharist is restricted to men, does this not then symbolically sever the eucharist from the profound theology of baptismal incorporation en Christo? Those early initiatory rites illustrate how the mandatum we now commemorate on Holy Thursday was seen as a marker of every Christian’s identity, whatever the form of her loving service might take. The Fourth Evangelist says of Jesus that, in the face of imminent violence, “[h]e loved his own in the world and loved them to the end” (Jn 13:1), and then washed his disciples’ feet with a sacrificial love he commanded them freely to take up as their own. To my eyes, a liturgical celebration in which as many as possible take part in the ritual reenactment of Jesus’ embodied parting instruction to his friends better captures this reality.

[1] My main source is The Rites of Christian Initiation: Their Evolution and Interpretation by Maxwell E. Johnson (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2007). Following are the relevant page references:  Johannine community: p. 21-3; Aphrahat: 145; Ambrose: p. 171; Gaul: p. 180, 243; Augustine: 187.

One thought

  1. Thanks Beth, this is a really insightful line of thought about women and service, specifically priestly service. I’ve pursued this line of thought a couple of times and the response it most frequently elicits sounds very similar to the treatment of Pope John Paul II on women’s baptismal-service identity in his 1995 Letter to Women, where he affirms that with regards to service, there exists, “the presence of a certain diversity of roles” that does not, for women, include service as ordained clergy (Letter to Women, 11, 1995) largely due to the “male/female” character Christ sought to invest in the church, with clergy allegorically serving the male role and the “church” or the laity, the female role (Mulieris Dignitatem VII.26). In his 2005 Letter to Priests on Holy Thursday in 2005, Pope John Paul II renews a connection between the specific John 13 foot washing and its ties to the Eucharist in the person of the priest because it was specifically the feet of his disciples (no women) Jesus washed (Letter to Priests on Holy Thursday, 3). (Also, I’m fairly sure I have read similar lines of thought by Pope Benedict XVI, but I can’t find the binder they would be in, and this was readily accessible.)

    All that to say– I had never really put that together with the woman who washed Jesus feet with her hair (before the disciples ever had their own feet bathed) until mass yesterday. But between that thought and the same woman’s servant-love being held up again in the sermon this afternoon at the veneration of the cross, I wonder if her example may be more significant than originally thought. Do you think that scriptural act of service might be held up as an example of a woman responding to the mandatum of Christ incarnate’s life even before he makes the verbal mandate to the disciples? If so, it might seem as though the connection to gender and the living out the mandatum might need to be re-thought? Is it helpful that it’s a woman ministering to Christ in this situation? And if the gender-based ecclesial service roles are maintained, what would it mean for the ministry of the laity (assuming they are representatively the ‘female actor’ as the documents above indicate) that this Eucharistic act is offered to Christ (the priestly/ male actor) by a woman (who would, I assume represent the ecclesia)?

    Y’all know significantly (by a long shot) more about feminism and discussions about women in the priesthood than I know, but I just wanted to send that thought out there and see if it does anything- and thanks for this liturgical nod!

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