Tucson Bishop Gerald Kicanas
giving communion through the
fence at the border to would-be
immigrants on the other side.
For centuries the mandatum was a ritual that was not limited to Holy Thursday but part of regular life. In some medieval monasteries, the abbot (or when he was not there, his representative) would wash the feet of pilgrims and guests. Abbesses would do the same in women’s monastic houses. Bishops often performed this service for the sick or the lame. Clergy might do it in their parishes. This might be done not just on Holy Thursday but at various times of penance—ember days, the beginnings of Great Lent or St Martin’s Lent (the period from St Martin’s Day, November 11th until Christmas). Sometimes Kings or Nobles were commanded to wash the feet of the poor as part of a penance—and sometimes Kings (and Queens) or nobles did it voluntarily out of their own holiness. In pilgrim centers or monastic guesthouses it might even be a regular feature of hospitality. Nowadays it is a much sanitized sort of thing as congregants present a well-scrubbed foot, with nails freshly clipped, out of a sock without holes and from a well-polished shoe to the priest to have warm water scented with lemon poured over it and be rubbed try with a nice fluffy towel. Jesus probably just rolls his eyes at how we have sucked the need for humility out of the whole process.
By the way, as this was not part of the Holy Thursday Mass but a separate service usually carried out in the monastic refectory or the cathedral chapter house, there were not normally restrictions about the sex of the participants. (In monastic houses, however, it would generally be seen as improper for a man to wash the feet of a woman or a woman that of man unless the recipient of the deed was quite elderly.)
The real problem with those who want to keep the Foot-Washing to be a ritual reenactment of Christ washing the feet of his disciples is that they want to overly spiritualize things. We keep it Jesus and his disciples: no problem for us, they’re all dead—well except for Jesus of course, but he doesn’t count, he’s God. It doesn’t have to bring us face to face with Christ-in-our-world. There is a firewall between our religion and the exigencies of everyday life. Ultimately such spiritualization of our faith is a denial of the Incarnation. Everything is in the realm of the (pseudo)spiritual so it doesn’t impact on me and the choices I make in this world. When Pope Francis goes to a youth-detention center or to a center for the disabled to wash feet on Holy Thursday (or any other day) it brings Christ and his disciples into the nitty-gritty every day realities that I must confront. I can’t keep Jesus locked away in a tabernacle but run the danger of seeing him in the least of his brothers and sisters and being reminded of my responsibilities to him in those same brothers and sisters.Just over two weeks ago Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston and Bishop Gerald Kicanas of Tucson led a delegation of American Bishops to celebrate Mass at the fence that marks the border with Mexico—you know, that fence we have put up to keep Latino immigrants out of the United States. The Blogosphere exploded with the Katholic Krazies talking about how the Mass had been “profaned” by this “little bit of episcopal nonsense.” George Weigel—whose own brand of Catholicism has been shredded by the papacy of Pope Francis—declared “It’s not clear to me how holding Mass in these circumstances can be anything other than politicized…. To turn the Mass into an act of essentially political theater is something I thought we had gotten over in the Church, no matter how noble the cause might be.” Of course what Weigel and the Krazies both overlooked is that Pope Francis had done precisely this same thing when he journeyed to the Italian island of Lampedusa and celebrated Mass to call attention to the plight of the thousands of Africans entering Europe illegally. Like that Mass wasn’t political? But then for some there is a difference between “their problem” (Africans coming into Europe) and our problem (Latinos coming into the United States). For O’Malley and Kicanas—and Pope Francis—it is one and the same: “I was a stranger and you gave me welcome.... Whatever you do for the least of my sisters and brothers, you do for me." What George Weigel overlooks in his somewhat monophysite Catholicism is the Incarnation is the most political act of all. God has chosen to enter history and history is forever changed. For those of us who believe that the Word became flesh and pitched his tent among us (John 1:14), nothing can be more political than the Eucharist. Every time we encounter Christ in his Body and Blood we must also encounter him in his Body, the Church. And when we encounter him in his Body the Church, we cannot escape coming face to face with the least of his sisters and brothers: the immigrant (legal or illegal), the AIDS patient (gay or straight), the abused (sexually, physically, emotionally, bullied), the aged, the poor, the mentally ill, the physically handicapped—whomever. If you don’t believe in political Christianity you are caught in the heresy of denying the Incarnation. So nothing proclaims our Orthodoxy more than Pope Francis washing the feet of the disabled or Cardinal O’Malley handing the Body of Christ through the fence to communicants on the other side. A Blessed Good Friday.