Fr. Isaac Slater, OCSO
Recently Pope Francis issued a decree revising the rite of the foot-washing on Holy Thursday to allow a wider spectrum of the faithful, including women, to participate. Traditionally only men were supposed to have their feet washed (though many parishes ignored this) since, as men, they more literally represented the twelve apostles.
The Pope gave as his reason for the revision a desire to better communicate the “real meaning” of the foot-washing which he characterized as “limitless charity.” In this profound and moving sign, Jesus makes himself the slave of all. If he were to restrict his humble act to a group privileged, in this case, by gender… the whole point would be lost.
So, if in the universal love revealed in Christ there is no longer male or female, slave or free… why did Jesus apparently limit the ordained priesthood to men?
It would seem to be more than a simple capitulation to the custom of his time and place since in so many cases Jesus shows no hesitation in flouting convention concerning women, speaking with them freely and including them among his followers.
The usual answer, some combination of “That’s just how it is” and “Men look more like Jesus” is a tough sell given the presence of real misogyny and chauvinism in Christian history. In other words, even if there are valid reasons for the male priesthood, they tend to sound like rationalizations …because they have been mixed up with sexist attitudes in the past.
One of the basic dynamics of original sin is the tendency of physically stronger men to dominate and exploit women. Power structures, “patriarchy” reflect and entrench this. When Eve receives her punishment she is told, “Your yearning shall be for your husband yet he shall lord it over you.”
Original sin marks every case where the stronger uses his strength to exploit and abuse, rather than protect, and even wash the feet of, the weaker.
What if the male priesthood was meant to be the antidote to this kind of violence? what if it’s precisely because men so often exploit and dominate women that Jesus created the kind of priesthood he did? As we see in the washing of the feet, this priesthood was the reversal of the sort of male privilege that characterizes original sin.
In the Christian liturgy, the paterfamilias, making clear his role as leader by donning elaborate, costly vestments, is ritually humbled by taking on the tasks of a domestic slave: feeding, washing, and clothing the people, rich and poor alike.
Too often in history the irony of this reversal has been lost, and priesthood has carried a sense of entitlement and privilege, with ministers using their position to amass wealth and gain influence, instead of placing their gifts and training at the service of the people.
Whether the pomp and ceremony of medieval monarchies or the trappings of 21st century corporate culture, the way of the world is emulated instead of undermined.
Jesus gives us a very different model of leadership: “You call me teacher and master and rightly so, for indeed I am. If I therefore the master and teacher have washed your feet, you ought to wash one another’s feet. I have given you a model to follow, so that as I have done for you, you should also do.”
Jesus doesn’t ask us to load up the liturgy with jewels to imitate the court of heaven; or to somehow directly represent the celestial authority of God in elaborate institutional hierarchy. This approach can lead only to a caricature. Instead, power is made perfect in weakness. The height of the divine revelation in history is reached when Jesus lowers himself to wash our feet.
“Jesus knew that his hour had come to pass from this world to the Father”: this ‘passage’ comes about in time when the Master takes the place of the slave. The Lord has said, “I no longer call you servants but friends”—but here, at the turning point, he assumes the form of a slave …
The washing of the feet is an effective sign, a sacrament of the cross where Jesus gives himself away completely. It is a sacrament… of the sacrament of the Eucharist—it takes the place of a Last Supper narrative in John– where the shepherd not only feeds his flock but becomes its food.
Jesus acts “…fully aware that the Father had put everything into his power and that he had come from God and was now returning to him”: it is this knowledge, that he is aligned with the only true power, that allows Jesus to so boldly strip off his outer garments and pour himself out in “limitless charity.”
His action is an ecstatic flowing over into time of the eternal life he receives from the Father. Right after the text we hear tonight he says: “Happy will you be if you go and do likewise.” This is how to recognize the movement of divine love within us: delight in placing our strength and gifts at the service of those in need. A willingness to strip off the outer garment of our ego and wash the feet of our brothers…and sisters. This is the happiness of those who are free; who relentlessly subject the urge to dominate others to the living water of divine love flowing over as humble service.
Through the Eucharist we are united with this ecstatic power, the only true power, the life of the risen Jesus.
We eat this meal tonight as a people on the move, “passing over” from worldly strength to the true power made perfect in weakness; we eat with our “loins girt,” with a towel around our waist, ready to wash the feet of all those who need our love.
There are many ways in which we might be in a position of power in relation to others: physical strength, gender, race, education, class, wealth… advantages that, whether natural gifts or the result of injustice, we are tempted to use to assuage our insecurities. We are rightly outraged when we see priests and teachers abuse the trust they’ve been shown, when police brutalize the people they are meant to serve, or soldiers attack civilians.
To the extent that the gift of faith provides a truer picture of reality, believers too possess a kind of power over the world. This power most of all must wash the feet of those in need, not bolster its weak self-esteem by berating others for their immorality.
Through the Eucharist we are united with the life of Jesus, an ecstatic divine life that flows over into time as serene and humble love. [May we eat this meal as a people in flight from the Egypt of power to the desert, with our “loins girt”, that is, with a towel around our waist, ready to wash the feet of all those who need our love.
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