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Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Maundy Thursday

In The Da Vinci Code, Dan Brown has one of his main characters argue that Jesus must have been married. Why? Well, Jesus was an orthodox Jew bound by custom. Since Jews customarily married, Jesus had to be married.

Exactly three pages later, the same character argues that Jesus gave authority over the Church to a woman. Why? Well, women were never given positions of authority in Judaism, but Jesus was a rebel who defied custom and refused to be bound by it.

Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote, “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds. A great person does not have to think consistently from one day to the next.” This is a sentiment impossible to argue with.

As we approach Holy Thursday and the washing of the feet, both Emerson and Brown are reminded to call their offices.

During the Mass of the Last Supper on Holy Thursday, the liturgy calls for the priest to emulate Jesus in washing the feet of several men. Notice the liturgy specifies the sex of the persons whose feet are to be washed. But, for roughly forty years, we have had lay people, priests, even bishops, who insist that the Mass of the Last Supper permits the washing of the feet of anyone who seems disenfranchised.


Well, we all know that Jesus is God. God can do whatever He wants. He is absolutely free. Thus, Jesus, being the living God, had no choice. You see, he was tightly bound by Hebrew cultural norms, norms that constrained the living God and forced him to wash only men’s feet. If it weren’t for the fact that God was forced into this position by virtue of being the all-powerful creator of everything that existed, He would have washed women’s feet. Probably would have invited the little children in as well. Heck, perhaps Rover or Tabby would have gotten their paws damp. But you know how it is.

In case you thought the reasoning couldn’t get sillier, you’re wrong.

I once had a woman tell me, with obvious awe and wonder at the depth of thought involved, that the priest at her parish didn’t wash anyone’s feet at all. Instead, he washed the hands. “You see, it’s the hands that do the work!”

Which just goes to show how far modern seminary training has advanced over that of the ancients. Jesus is undoubtedly sitting at the right hand of the Father taking notes, nudging Abba occasionally with his elbow, saying, “Wow – why didn’t I think of that?”

Unfortunately for this priest, the Holy Thursday’s washing has nothing to do with labor. Many know that the washing of feet was a task so low that only the most menial Gentile slave could be ordered to do it, but few people realize why. The Hebrew colloquial expression for relieving oneself is “to cover one’s feet.” As anyone who has squatted in an open field knows, the colloquial expression is an accurate description of what can happen during the activity under discussion. By washing people’s hands, the priest was inadvertently making a rather strong comment on what they had been doing with those hands recently.

But it’s actually worse than that. Others have written on this subject with far more Scriptural dexterity than I, so I will steal liberally from them in order to make the point. As Old Oligarch points out, the only Jew in Scripture besides Christ who ever washed the feet of another Jew was Moses. He washed Aaron and his sons in order to cleanse them in preparation for their ordination as the first Levitical priests.

Few people realize that the Catholic Church has definitively interpreted only seven sets of Scripture passages, the Last Supper narratives of the synoptic Gospels being one of those. The Council of Trent infallibly defined that those narratives are the Scriptural foundation for the establishment of the priesthood. The washing of the feet must, therefore, be read within the context of preparation for ordination.

Jesus didn’t wash the apostles’ feet because He was bound by custom to do so. Indeed, Hebrew custom militated against it. He chose only men as Levitical priests in the Old Testament, He chose only men as apostles in the New Testament, and He washed the feet of all priests prior to their ordination because He wants them to be pure. He wants them to walk in purity. How beautiful are the feet upon the mountain of him who brings good news!


Jordan Potter said...

Brilliantly argued. Now, when will Rome crack the whip on this point, instead of continuing to tolerate the symbolic advocacy of the heresy of women's ordination during the Maundy Thursday rites?

Steve Kellmeyer said...

It will be more than a little while. The CDW granted one east coast bishop permission to wash non-men's feet if he really, really felt it was necessary.

This case is something like that of the altar girls. There are outstanding theological reasons to refuse altar girls, but due to enormous disobedience, the Vatican permits it if the bishop really wants it.

Washing the feet is somewhat stricter, since that's actually in the liturgical rubrics (the sex of altar persons is not), so bishops still have to make individual formal petition. But, by permitting this variation at all, the CDW is essentially putting this liturgical rite at nearly the same level as having altar girls.