While I'm at it: Footwashing Symbolism

While I’m blogging (I should be singing alleluias at this time of Easter Eve rather than sitting in front of this infernal machine), I have been reflecting on the Footwashing.

At my wife’s Lutheran parish, they had the footwashing this year. The two pastors washed the feet of TWO people. Yes, that’s right. One each. When I objected that this was a bit skimpy, my wife said: “It doesn’t matter how many–it was symbolic.” Symbolic? Of what? Didn’t Jesus wash the feet of TWELVE apostles? How symbolic is it to wash the feet of just TWO?

Then I recall that when I was a Lutheran pastor, I used to wash the feet of the entire congregation on my own. The congregation in attendance was rarely more than 40, and it took a bit of time–but I guess that was “symbolic” too–of the pastor’s servanthood towards his people. Of course, now I have Holy Mother Church to correct me and I understand that the “symbol” was meant to be a bit more than that.

But even in the Catholic Church things are not “perfect”. Yes, a basic knowledge of Latin will lead one to understand that “viri selecti” means “selected MEN”. Nevertheless, women continue to be included in the Holy Thursday ceremony in the majority of places. Those priests who dare to follow the letter of the law will find themselves under constant pressure to default to the common practice.

Years ago I read of an American Catholic parish which decided that it would have all the members washing eachothers feet. They tried this one year and it was too difficult and complicated, so the next year they decided to simply have a “hand washing” where everyone got to wash eachother’s hands. Symbolic? Yes. Rather more of Pontius Pilate than of Jesus though.

My question is: If my wife is right, and the footwashing is just supposed to be symbolic, of what exactly is it supposed to be symbolic? And if it is to be symbolic of Jesus washing the feet of his apostles, doesn’t it make sense not to confuse this symbol, but to make it as clear as possible by having the pastor/priest wash the feet of TWELVE MEN?

Or is someone going to object now that we should go out and find 12 Jewish Fishermen to make it absolutely authentic?

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11 Responses to While I'm at it: Footwashing Symbolism

  1. Lucian says:

    Do You read The Twelve Gospels also, on this day (Great Thursday)? Or do You have only the symbolic feet-washing?

  2. Dixie says:

    Handwashing..Pilate…goodness. I hope someone straightens those poor people out. How awful!

    (Yet I am still laughing at the unplanned symbolic connection. I guess that’s what happens when we take short cuts!)

  3. Peter says:

    The number 12 is ‘symbolic’ in Scripture of the whole people of God, but also an incarnational sense of the authorities given oversight of the whole people of God. The 12 men’s feet probably represent the priest’s service of the entire people of God represented by the symbolic 12 men or even, to get controversial, via service to the spiritual headship these men represent on behalf of Christian manhood in the ‘domestic churches’ the parish serves.

    Otherwise, why insist on males?

  4. John Weidner says:

    I’m a newcomer to the Church, with much still to learn, but I just participated in the foot-washing at our parish, and feel like I can comment. It was quite moving. (Except for me personally; my main thought was, “There’s over a thousand people watching me. Please God, don’t let me forget my moves!”)

    Our pastor washes three people in the Chancel, and then they do the feet of the other nine, lined up along the center aisle. It worked smoothly and well.

    The symbolism seems to be of “servant-hood.” The priest is our servant, and we as Christians are servants of others. Our pastor likes to say something like, “You are part of the Priesthood of all believers, and I’m your servant in this. Come the Judgement Day, I’m out of a job.”

    It would seem to me that this particular understanding should not preclude woman participating. We should all be disciples. It would guess it’s different from the issue of having woman as Communion ministers or lectors.

  5. Stephen says:

    Hi David

    Just leaving you some general comments about your blog – It’s really good, keep up the good work, and keep on blogging.

    I have a couple of little blogs but never seem to post to them as often as I should. Well done for keeping yours so up to date.

    Good also to see another Australian keeping tabs on world religious affairs. My best new source of material seems to come from the ABC’s Religion Report lately, but nowadays, there’s religion everywhere.



  6. Schütz says:

    Thanks for the comments folks. Welcome, Stephen, to Sentire Cum Ecclesia. I went and had a look at your blogs and left a comment on “What’s your Doctrine”. Fr Mackenzie was just a little too arcane for me!

    Just so that there is no confusion, I obviously had my tongue planted too firmly in my cheek and my cynicism was not properly comprehended.

    There is no doubt (no possible doubt whatever) that the rubrics of the Maundy Thursday Mass of the Lord’s Supper require the priest–and only the priest–to wash the feet of 12–and only 12–men–and only men. The reason is very simple and the “symbolism” is obvious. The priest is in the person of Christ. This is more than a symbol, it is a sacramental reality. The 12 men represent the 12 apostles–not the Church in general. For this reason only men take part in the footwashing. I was hoping that that was obvious to all my readers, but obviously not.

    Unfortunately in this politically correct world it seems we must allow women to play the part of male apostles also. That is a correlate to the push to allow women to be ordained as priests–they want to play the part of a male Christ also.

  7. Clara says:

    Hi David, Clara here, blogging from the ‘time-share’. No problems with gender on Holy Thursday, just a struggle to get more than 6 males. It has been rather like a Holy Week retreat . . . I should tell you though that they could have used a cantor – but if I told you that, Easter accommodation next year would be rather cramped.
    Happy Easter.

  8. Schütz says:

    Thanks, Lucian. Please note, everyone: THAT’s how it’s done.

  9. Lucian says:

    Now that I gave You a little hand here, how about You (finally) answering my initial question about the 12 Gospels? ;)

  10. Schütz says:

    I must admit, Lucian, to having no idea whatsoever what you are talking about.

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