Monday, March 3, 2008

Brief to the Rector on the Rite of the Washing of the Feet on Maundy Thursday

I submitted this paper to my parish priest last year during Lent. The result was that the washing of the feet was used experimentally in the children's chapel last year, and this year will be reintroduced at the Sung Mass upstairs.


Brief to the Rector on the Rite of the Washing of the Feet on Maundy Thursday


1. This brief arose out of concerns about the appropriateness of introducing the rite of foot-washing, mandatum, or pedilavium, at the Maundy Thursday liturgy.
2. The terms of this concern have to do with whether a literal obedience to Our Lord’s mandatum in fact best fulfills the spirit of the same. In particular, does washing the feet of a largely affluent group of parishioners bear out Christ’s commandment in any meaningful way?
3. This brief is charged with reconciling these concerns with proper regard for the liturgical traditions of the Church. In other words, Can the mandatum be executed in a manner relevant to the context of our mission at ________________ and consistent with the principles of social justice and human dignity that we strive to embody?

Considerations from Scripture and Tradition

4. The Gospels themselves recount the institution of the rite of foot-washing, as well as that of the Eucharist, at the Last Supper. “So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.” [Jn 13:14-15] The tradition of the Church has not perpetuated the mandatum as a weekly accompaniment to the offering of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. Nevertheless, it has been retained in the liturgy for Maundy Thursday.
5. The Reformers largely did away with ceremonial acts such as the imposition of ashes on Ash Wednesday, the administration of Holy Communion from the Reserved Sacrament on Good Friday, and the pedilavium itself. However, the Catholic Revival of the nineteenth century and the more recent Liturgical Movement have seen a renewed interest in recovering liturgical practices lost during the Reformation.
6. It is taken as a given in this brief that both the preservation of the authentic liturgical heritage of the Western Church and the Gospel imperative to social justice are desirable insofar as they are reconcilable.
7. It is particularly desirable that, where possible, all who wish to do so are permitted to present themselves for the washing of the feet, rather than a representative few.

Towards a Contemporary Rationale of the Rite

8. The presenting issue is that the observance of the pedilavium in a parish of considerable means does nothing to alleviate the suffering of the poor, or to authentically fulfill Our Lord’s commandment to serve.
9. Care must be taken not to confuse symbolic and “real word” goals. There is an element of danger in seeking to accomplish missionary goals through symbolic means. The mandatum is not a corporal work of mercy, and gives no pretence of being such. Rather, it is the achieving of a symbolic goal through symbolic means. Practical goals, such as the compassionate alleviation of suffering, must be achieved through practical means.
10. The celebration of foot-washing cannot obviate the Church’s responsibility to the “least of [the] … members of [Christ’s] family”[Mt 25:40]. The Church must continue to perform corporal and spiritual works of mercy—this may indeed include the washing of feet that are far less sanitised than those to be found in the parish of _______________.
11. This does not, however, preclude the celebration of the mandatum rite. The symbolism of the rite is complementary to the fulfillment of corporal works of mercy in the mission field, not opposed to it. It is certainly in the great tradition of the Tractarian Socialists to observe both the ceremonial and social-justice commandments of the Gospel.
12. The pedilavium accomplishes precisely what it sets out to do, which is a mutual humbling of the parties involved.
13. The clergy, for their part, are reminded of their position of service, of diakonia, and are provided with a safeguard against the inflated ego of an overly clericalised mindset.
14. Furthermore, even the most prominent local citizen in the parish community benefits from the grace of humility when he or she submits to the mandatum. Rather than feeling smugly proud of themselves, it must be not be forgotten that, because of the taboos in Western culture, the parishioner is likely to feel humbled—and possibly even mildly uncomfortable—upon the removal of his or her footwear. The experience of humility is therefore mutual.


15. The liturgy of the foot-washing accomplishes its symbolic aims, but does not obviate the obligation of the local church to perform corporal works of mercy. The two goals can and should coexist. Our Lord reminded us “you always have the poor with you” at the same time as his feet were anointed with oil [Mt 26:11].
16. It is legitimate to retain or to introduce the celebration of the pedilavium provided that it does not become an “escape hatch” from commitment to the poor. The work of such groups as the Outreach Committee is not impeded by the revival of this ancient practice.
17. The celebration of the mandatum could successfully be introduced to ____________, especially if accompanied by strong preaching on the importance of extending this symbolic action to our actual relations with the poor in our midst.

G. McLarney
University of Guelph
Laetare Sunday 2007

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