Eric Cosentino explains to his parish why he doesn’t wash their feet on Maundy Thursday

the ritual has an inappropriate focus and sends the wrong message

More and more churches are reviving the ancient ceremony of Maundy Thursday footwashing. Perhaps you have seen photos of the pope, or a prominent bishop or pastor, kneeling to wash the feet of churchgoers. You may even have been part of such a service yourself.  It has been described by many as “very moving.” It also seems to be a direct command of Christ; didn’t he say “you must wash each other’s feet.”? There are even a few small denominations that treat the ceremony as, effectively, a sacrament.  Why would any minister of the Gospel decline to institute such a beautiful, biblical, impressive, and loving observance?

I can think of three reasons, not all equally weighty. The first reason is also the weakest. Let’s call it the “ick” factor. For as many people as are attracted to the ritual, there are as many others who are very uncomfortable with it. But this alone would not deserve to stop us from doing something that should be done, if it should. Christians are family, and ought to always be willing to serve or be served by each other, as is needed.

That said, we come to the second reason: the ritual is not only strange because it is intimate, involving body parts not normally presented or touched in public, but because it seems unrealistic and artificial. The two true sacraments, Baptism and Holy Communion, can not lose their iconic significance in part because they involve basic and universal human functions: washing, and eating.  But specifically washing feet involves a sign that no longer speaks to life as we know it.  No one does that anymore. And no one has for many many centuries. Of course, a lot of what happens in church is an adaptation of the way things were done a very long time ago, so this argument , though stronger, may not be sufficient.

This objection could be overcome if it were not for a far more serious flaw: the ritual has an inappropriate focus and sends the wrong message.

At the time of the Reformation, the king of England, and other important rulers would conduct a footwashing for beggars and poor people on Maundy Thursday. In this ceremony, the sovereign was not so much responding to Christ’s command to his followers as he was illustrating a memorial of Christ’s own action, laying aside his perogatives of lordship to humbly serve the weak and lowly. But when the first edition of the Book of Common Prayer was issued in 1549 (after King Henry’s death) there was no mention at all of the footwashing in the lessons for Maundy Thursday.  The Protestant Reformers, led by Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, focused on the institution of the sacrament of Holy Communion, and the Gospel narrative of the death of Jesus. For the Protestants, the offering of Christ on the cross for our sins, once and for all time, was what gave meaning to Holy Communion.  They rejected the idea that Holy Communion involved a repeatable sacrifice offered by priests in the “mass,” or that the “mass” was offered to give churchman an opportunity to “lift up” or “worship” the literal, bodily presence of God. In short, Holy Communion in general, and Maundy Thursday in particular, were times to focus on Christ’s work, not ours.

It was not until 1928, centuries later, in the United States, that any edition of the Book of Common Prayer would contain an alternate lesson to remember the footwashing on the Thursday before Easter. In1979, that lesson became the prescribed lesson  and a specific instruction permitting (though not requiring) footwashing was added.  Hearing the story is one thing, acting it out with the congregation as players in the story is another. Christ did not say: “make a ceremony out of this,” he said that we were, in the same way as he served us, to serve one another, to love one another. Our worship of God must have as its focus the glory of God and his love for us in giving his son to the death of the cross. We come to communion not to celebrate our own goodness and offerings, but to mourn and turn from our sins, and endlessly praise him for his gracious, self-offering love. In fact, until 1979, the clear teaching of the Prayerbook was that baptized Christians are washed, by Christ himself, in the receiving of Holy Communion. The words, “that our sinful bodies may be made clean by his Body, and our souls washed through his most precious Blood,” have now been removed from the prayer just before taking communion.

The Reformers of the sixteenth century had a keen, deeply biblical understanding of human nature. They knew that there is more than one way to get the communion service wrong. They knew that we can go from one extreme to the other. So, while warning about what they considered superstitious excess, they also warned about watering down the meaning of the service. The articles of religion say: “The Supper of the Lord is not only a sign of the love that Christians ought to have among themselves one to another, but rather it is a Sacrament of our Redemption by Christ’s death.”  At the commemoration of the night before Christ died for us, it seems to me that, however well meant, inserting a footwashing ritual is a distraction and a diversion from what we are properly there for.

Eric Cosentino (Church of the Divine Love, Montrose NY)

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