Words on the Word
Exodus 12:1-8, 11-14: When I see the blood I shall pass over you.
1 Corinthians 11:23-26: This is my body, which is for you.
John 13:1-15: Later you will understand.
In the dramatic development of Holy Week, certain key days have, over time, been named for events they commemorate. ‘Palm Sunday’ recalls the acclaim Christ met on entering Jerusalem, belied when, not much later, he was crucified alone. ‘Spy Wednesday’ refers to Judas’s ‘spying’ for a chance to hand Jesus over. The name of today, ‘Maundy Thursday’, is derived from the Latin mandatum. In liturgical language ‘mandatum’ has become a technical term. It indicates the ritual washing of feet, ‘the mandatum’. The ceremony is characteristic, of course. But the word mandatum as such has nothing to do with washing. It means ‘commandment’. It attaches to this day since today the Church gives us a crucial Gospel text to sing in an antiphon at Mass: ‘A new commandment I give you, that you love one another. As I have loved you, you must love one another.’ What sets Maundy Thursday apart is not a particular ceremony but the enactment on several levels of Christ’s love. ‘Love as I have loved.’ The washing of feet points beyond itself. It must be understood symbolically, in context.
As early as the 7th century, the century of Bede, we find the Maundy Thursday washing of feet performed to emulate Christ’s example. Liturgical books instruct bishops to ‘wash the feet of those of their household in their own house’. The ceremony was domestic, not public. The point of it was to remind a prelate that, for all his being a bishop, he remained a diakonos, ordained to serve. With time, the rite was clericalised. That was to be expected: pretty much all the members of the household of a medieval bishop would have been clerics.
In the 13th century, the century of John of Ford, a manual lays down that those whose feet are washed should be subdeacons. That illustrates the trend henceforth. The teaching contained in the rite became more specific. The bishop, as high priest, would wash the feet of young men preparing for priesthood, as if to say: ‘Look at me, I am at the pinnacle of the hierarchy at whose base you stand, yet I serve you. Learn from me!’ This way of practising the mandatum corresponds to the mindset of the High Middle Ages. People then were fond of looking for order, of finding their own place in relation to the rightful place of others. The earlier context of the rite, however, was not forgotten.
A ceremonial from 1600, the heyday of Francis de Sales, mentions the custom of bishops washing the feet of cathedral canons, but says it might be better still, as a lesson in humility, to seek out ‘poor people’ instead. It was Pius XII, pope during WW2 and its aftermath, who integrated the washing of the feet into Maundy Thursday’s Mass, limiting it to ‘twelve chosen men’. The celebrant would take the part of Christ. The chosen ones would stand for the apostles. The rite would be linked to the institution of priesthood, as a tableau of the Upper Room, depicting Christ and his twelve indisputably male disciples. This year, the Church has, once again, rethought the ceremony. In a decree dated 6 January 2016, the rubrics of the Missal were changed. Those whose feet are washed will henceforth be ‘a group of the faithful representing the variety and unity of every part of the People of God’. No longer is gender specified. The universal symbolism found in the earlier texts is again brought to the fore, embracing, though not cancelling, the clerical application of the rite.
It is wonderful to see the Church reflecting on its practices, endeavouring to invest them with maximal significance and efficacy. It would be mistaken, though, to interpret this change in terms of privilege or rights. It is no one’s right to have their feed washed. But it is the duty of each one of us to wash the feet of others. The rubrical change is not political. Remember the sense of the mandatum: ‘A new commandment I give you, love as I have loved.’ In the present setting, these words are immense. Jesus is about to show just what it means for him to love, and to love ‘to the end’. Everything at the Last Supper points forward to his Passion, Death, and Rising. Jesus knows this, the disciples do not. They are inclined, as we often are, to interpret the Lord’s gestures too pragmatically. They are perplexed by his display in the middle of supper, appalled by his demeaning himself. They are dimly aware of beholding a sign, but can’t see what lies beyond. Not yet. Jesus tells them simply: ‘You do not know now what I am doing. Later you will know.’
It would take the Church a long time to work out that the washing of feet prefigured our cleansing in the Blood of the Lamb, poured out on the world when Christ’s side was pierced by a lance. By his wounds we have been healed. As we enact the mandatum, let us be mindful of its full range of meaning. It is about service, yes; but even more it is about redemption: Christ’s saving that embraces every woman, every man; that calls for our collaboration. Later, at this altar, we will hear the Lord say, ‘This is my body, given for you’. May every aspect of today’s Mass prepare us to say in return, ‘Amen!’, that is, to entrust him with our lives, our bodies, our hearts, our minds, that Christ may live in us—live, serve, and do his work.