Wednesday, March 23, 2016

From the Cenacle to Calvary

Holy Thursday 2016

A simple act of foot washing can be a trigger point of debates and ideological battles. Just in case you thought that I’m referring to our Holy Father’s recent decree which extends the ritual of foot washing to various sectors of the People of God, including women, this point was actually triggered by another memory of the time when I was in the United States, in the aftermath of a controversy that revolved around footwashing. 

When pools of water began accumulating on the floor in some restrooms at the University of Michigan-Dearborn, and the sinks pulling away from the walls, the problem was easy to pinpoint. On this campus, more than 10 percent of the students are Muslims, and as part of ritual ablutions, some were washing their feet in the sinks. The solution seemed straightforward. To avoid further wear and tear on the sinks, the university announced that it would install foot-washing stations in several restrooms. But as a legal and political matter, that solution has not been quite so simple. When word of the plan got out, it created instant controversy, with bloggers going on about the Islamisation of the university, students divided on the use of their building-maintenance fees, and constitutional issues. What started as a practical solution evolved into a full blown ideological war. Were some missing the point?

I presume that the recent change to the practice of foot washing to include women may also follow the same path as the above, resulting in a hue and cry that betrays more of one’s personal ideological convictions rather than paying attention to the ritual’s original symbolism. What was originally intended by Christ to be an outward sign of his commandment (his mandate or Mandatum) of love, has now descended into a war of words which by any measure could hardly be described as charitable. For many, this reform would be interpreted as victory of an ideological war for gender equality, a blow to an ossified patriarchal Church, and a first step in a progressive march into the future. On the other side of the divide, many who had been faithfully defending the practice of washing only men’s feet to express the intimate link between the male priesthood and the Eucharist, would see this as abandoning Tradition, the promotion of feminist theology leading to the ordination of women. Many others, oblivious to the finer theological or ideological points of the argument, would be caught in the cross-fire.

Very few Catholic know or would even be bothered to know that the ritual washing of the feet, though rich in symbolism, is actually optional. The rubric reads, “after the Homily, where a pastoral reason suggests it, the washing of feet follows.” That would suggest to you its true importance in the scheme of things. It is not an integral or essential part of today’s liturgy. This may come as a shock because we have been generally treated to and would therefore expect to see this ritual performed every year. But, for the old timers, you may remember that this rite is actually a relatively recent innovation, only introduced into the Mass of the Lord’s Supper by Pope Pius XII in 1955. Of course, prior to that, from the Middle Ages, the foot washing was widely practised but as a separate ritual that was done outside the mass.

So, if the footwashing isn’t the most important aspect of this mass, what is? Again, the rubrics may be cited to throw light on this mystery. “After the proclamation of the Gospel, the Priest gives a homily in which light is shed on the principal mysteries that are commemorated in this Mass, namely, the institution of the Holy Eucharist and of the priestly Order, and the commandment of the Lord concerning fraternal charity.” There you have it. No mention of feet or washing.Nowhere else in the Roman Missal, would you find such clear instructions given to the priest setting out the perimeters of his homily.

This year after much thought and deliberation, I have decided to retain the older practice of washing only men’s feet. It’s actually a Catch 22 dilemma. Damn if I decided to wash women’s feet and damn if I didn’t. Of course, I could have chosen the third path, omit the ritual in its entirety, which in actual fact is what the liturgical rubrics provide for. But then, I would have to face the uproar of an angry mob who would be denied the opportunity to watch the annual spectacle of their parish priest bending down to do some hard menial work, even though its make-believe. But, my difficulty in coming to a decision, may perhaps, betray my own concession to the widespread underlying belief that this ritual is all about power, patriarchal power coloured by deep-seated misogyny, rather than about service. The temptation I faced would be to have women’s feet washed merely to prove that I was not anti-women. In the midst of the arguments for and against women’s feet being washed, we forget once again that this is a symbol of service, of fraternal charity that lies at the heart of both the Eucharist and the priesthood, rather than a symbol of exclusion serving to reinforce patriarchy. It is a symbol of charity, a symbol of sacrifice, even martyrdom.

The Footwashing is often presented as a symbol of charity and service. While it is true that the Footwashing is an example of Jesus’ astounding humility and charity, it is far more than this. If the washing of feet were only symbolic of charity and service, why did Jesus not wash the feet of the sick, or the hungry, or the lepers, or His friends in the house of Lazarus, or at the feeding of the five thousand? But He did not. Christ chose to wash the feet of His Apostles at the very moment He chose to institute the Eucharist and the priesthood.  There must be a connexion. And the clue to that connexion is found on Good Friday. The cross of Christ overshadows everything said and done in the upper room. St Basil wrote, “to attain holiness, then, we must not only pattern our lives on Christ’s by being gentle, humble and patient, we must also imitate him in his death.”

The true measure of Christ humility, charity and service is not just getting down on his knees and getting his hands dirty whilst doing the menial job of a servant, it is about Sacrifice. This is the connexion that links the Eucharist, the priesthood and the footwashing. Here was no humble and harmless domestic work. Through this action at the Last Supper, Jesus intended to teach the true meaning of the Eucharistic celebration, it is the true sacrifice of the cross. This is also at the heart of the priesthood instituted by Christ. The Apostles’ feet are washed to prepare them to make that ultimate sacrifice of love. Their feet were washed, just like Mary of Bethany anointed the feet of Jesus, as preparation for their own martyrdom. Once, you realise the weight of this action, you may not be scurrying for seats in the front and fight for your place to have your feet washed. “Those who are ready to die, step forward!”

I’ve come to realise as a priest the power of this action. I am to imitate the life of Christ, and not just be contented with footwashing. The action itself seems trivial in comparison to what is really expected of me. In other words, today’s celebration reminds me once again that I need to move from footwashing to martyrdom, from the cenacle to Calvary. If I were contented to do the safe, avoid the risk of being misunderstood, gain some brownie points of approval from the congregation by making a dramatic point about inclusion, then I would have lost the very heart of what we are celebrating today. I would end up trivialising the profound sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the Cross and re-enacted at every Holy Mass and the priesthood whom Jesus Christ chose to establish through his own sacrifice and death.  

So, there is nothing warm or fuzzy, nice or sentimental about this ritual of footwashing. For the one who washes the feet, and the one who allows his feet to be washed, it can only mean one thing – we are called to embrace the cross. The humility of Christ does not just stop with this demeaning menial act. This was the extent of his humility and love, “And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” (Phil. 2:8) On the eve of Good Friday, on the eve of the day when he expresses his most profound humility and service of charity, on the day that he would give up his life on the cross, we hear our Lord and Master bid us, “I have given you an example so that you may copy what I have done to you.” He meant more than podiatric hygiene. He was talking about the Cross.

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