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Maundy Thursday commemorates the night Jesus prayed in the Garden, was betrayed by Judas, denied by Peter and began the Passion. Holy Thursday is the anniversary of the Last Supper – for our purposes, the night Jesus instituted the rite of Fusswaschung or foot washing by washing the feet of his followers.
The Roman Catholic Church celebrates the ceremony of Washing of Feet or Mandatum in the following manner “Following Jesus’ example of humble service, the presider and others wash the feet of various members of the assembly. This act is our response to the ‘mandatum’. Christ’s instruction in the Gospel to humbly serve one another,” (Triduum Service Program, 21 Apr 2011). For us this meant that four of us each staffed a chair and wash basin surrounding the baptismal fount in the central aisle of De Paul’s parish church – where only the day before we had gathered to hear a legendary performance of J. S. Bach’s St Matthew Passion brought to us by internationally renowned Soli Deo Gloria. While Matthew’s version of the Passion does not in fact include foot washing, it does include the story of the woman and the alabaster jar of perfumed oils:
Du lieber Heiland du, Wenn deine Jünger töricht straiten, daβ dieses fromme Weib mit Salben deinen Leib zum Grabe will bereiten, so lass emir inzwischen zu, von meiner Augen Tränenflüssen ein Wasser auf dein Haupt zu geiβen.
Buβ’ und Reu’ knirscht das Sündenherz entzwei, daβ die Tropfen meiner Zähren angenehme Spezerei, treuer Jesu, dir gebären.
Thou, dear Redeemer, when Thy disciples foolishly quarrel because this pious woman would prepare with ointment Thy body for the grave, then grant me meanwhile that streams of tears from my eyes pour water upon Thy head.
Penance and remorse grind the sinful heart in twain, that the drops of my tears be acceptable anointing to Thee, faithful Jesus.
(Johann Sebastian Bach, St Matthew Passion (1727), English translation by Sandra von Valtier (2005).
While foot washing was, and continues to be, an essential tradition of hygiene in the hot, dusty cultures of the Middle East, the woman and the spikenard foreshadow a new depth of meaning to the washing of the feet. The woman with the ointment washed the feet of her Lord with oils and her tears, anointing him for death. In Islam, the faithful is required to wash his feet before entering into the mosque to pray. In a strange twist of definitions, I approached this act beginning with a sense that both the anointing and foot washing were images of baptism or purification. Fusswaschung is an essential act of community entwined with the other communal sacraments of the sharing of bread and the wine. While the individual is responsible for the purification of his or her own inner heart, there is an aspect of purification that is granted by the community. Traditionally, an important part of the story of that first Fusswaschung is the fact that it was inappropriate, if not difficult, for the guests at the party to wash their own feet. Someone had to do it. No servants were available. Christ, the Lord, yet Servant of All, girt his loins and washed the feet of his disciples and followers. Christ demonstrated an act of humility, of respect, of servant-hood and yet also, of purification.
In the Catholic tradition of the Triduum, the washing of feet is the first of three services culminating in Saturday’s Easter Vigil – the service of baptism. Thus, water plays a dual role in the Triduum – the fellowshipping, humbling washing of feet – the role of the servant in care of the brethren – culminating in the image of the baptism, the ultimate purification and spiritual washing. The Fusswaschung foreshadows the baptism and in its way, I believe indicates the role of fellowship in purifying the minds and hearts of the brethren. Through the echoes of Bach’s masterpiece, this foreshadowing and symbolic act was given additional deeper meaning.
The second aspect of Fusswaschung which engaged my attention was the symbolic nature of my participation in the Catholic rite. Foot washing is a long-standing tradition amongst the Mennonites of Europe and the Americas. At one time, it was a rite that separated us from other church denominations – and one that was considered to embody the specificity of Anabaptist theology – servant-hood, discipleship and humility. The Mennonite Church is different than the others. This difference has historically been understood to lie in the humility, discipleship, spirit of service and quiet witness of the church ie Gelassenheit. No other rite, including baptism, so clearly communicates the essence of communal Anabaptist spirituality, discipleship and fellowship.
Though I have been raised in the Mennonite faith, it has been the Roman Catholic Church that reached out to me, provided me with an affordable education and has remained in fellowship with me throughout my travels, career moves and life changes. I feel a deep sense of gratitude for this fellowship and the spirit of Catholic generosity and hospitality. Unlike many Evangelical Mennonites, I have personally long moved beyond the pain of the 16th Century persecutions and have consciously embraced Pope John Paul II’s efforts to reconcile with the victims of Catholic oppression throughout the last millennium. Comparing and contrasting the Vatican’s Inter-Faith Dialogue with the Mennonite Faith of 2003 with recent efforts to reconcile with the American Lutheran Church in the last decade, the Vatican document is greatly superior for its spirit of compassion and a true sense of contrition for the role Catholicism has played in creating historic divisions amongst God’s faithful and the unchristian deeds that led to the deaths of too many non-Catholics historically. While certain key divisions remain, these have been openly acknowledged and respectfully engaged, even if a few centuries late. In contrast to the Lutherans – there was no hedging as we encountered in discussing the historical writings of Martin Luther which were not only anti-Anabaptist, but continue to prescribe death, ethnic cleansing and the sword as the appropriate remedies for the “Mennonite disease.”
As such, I was deeply honoured to receive an invitation from Chicago’s St Vincent de Paul Parish Worship Commission to participate in the Holy Thursday service as a foot washer. As an individual, participation in the service was a way to communicate my deep sense of gratitude to my fellow believers and to acknowledge the deepening fellowship I have enjoyed with members of the Catholic Church. As a Mennonite, I felt a strong sense of performing such a small act to demonstrate an appreciation for the new spirit of dialogue and understanding that is part of John Paul II’s spiritual legacy. As Father Chris Robinson remarked – the rite of foot washing is something that deeply unites the two faiths. Interestingly, in a church often criticized for exclusivity, the ability to serve as a foot washer is not restricted to Roman Catholics, but open to anyone to volunteer.
As a rite, the procedure of foot washing is a bit different in the Catholic Church. Holy Thursday is set aside as a yearly service centered on the Mandatum of foot washing. It is not practiced in relation to the Eucharist nor performed throughout the year as is often the case in Mennonite churches. The central role of foot washing is also indicated by its participation in the opening processional – along with the ministers (those performing readings or other functions during the service), the offering plates, the gifts, the Scripture and the Cross. As such, we entered into the service with a spirit of offering of gifts and service. During the service, the rite is located after the readings and the priest’s homily or sermon – which is expected to note the symbolic importance of the foot washing which follows. The priest then proceeds to the basin and chairs to wash the feet of the first member of the congregation.
Once the first foot washing has occurred, other members of the congregation are free to approach any of the four stations. It is a matter of personal conscience – you are neither required nor expected to participate – only encouraged to do so. In fact, those who approached my station apparently participated for the first time – which was both encouraging to me as I found myself worrying about making mistakes and in the fact we were all responding to a movement of the Spirit to participate in that particular foot washing in that particular service. An immediate bond of fellowship was established. I felt especially touched when a young woman approached my station to have her feet washed and then asked if she could wash my feet. As a Mennonite – that was the point of humility for me – that someone else would wash my feet. There has always been a sense of ethnic pride in being of the foot washing Christians – now someone else humbled that pride in a positive and fellowshipping manner by washing my feet. Remember Peter insisting to wash the feet of the Lord? The cantor reminded me that we participate not as a matter of pride or in respect of tradition, but rather faithful re-enactment of an image of our Lord.
Common to both traditions, you might wash one or both feet depending on the individual. The individual removes their shoes and socks and places their foot or feet over the wash basin. The foot washer gently supports the foot with one hand while pouring a small amount of water from a pitcher over the crown of the foot – enough to get it wet and symbolically pour over into the basin. The foot washer then wipes the excess water off the crown of the foot with his or her open palm before wrapping the foot in a clean towel and gently drying it. The process is repeated if both feet are presented – or the individual replaces his or her shoes while the foot washer drains the basin and exchanges towels. Sometimes, as was my experience, an individual will ask to wash the feet of the foot washer – as I explained – a truly humbling and touching gesture.
Interestingly, Catholics are also allowed to participate in the more Mennonite custom of washing the feet of another person whom they have chosen – both participants merely approaching the wash basin together.
The great lesson to me is that despite the traditions, manners, customs, theological fine points and delicate matters of religious jurisdiction, at our base, Christians are united in their faith. Fundamentally, despite centuries of arguments to the contrary – we are the Church of Christ, chosen, anointed and recognized by Him – it is not as if the church or various churches chose to elect Him as our Saviour – He elected us. Whether Catholic, Mennonite, Baptist, Anglican, Orthodox, Coptic or Lutheran – Christ elects us in all our diversity. How wonderful to have a moment in which this diversity might be recognized and our unity established.
Building on this point, I did ponder at the time what the effect would be if every Holy Thursday, a Mennonite volunteered at a local Catholic parish to serve as a foot washer under the fellowship of Christ. I cannot help but feel that the effect on inter-denominational rhetoric would be palpable and immediate. Were the move reciprocated, a whole new inter-faith aspect of Easter would be established celebrating old and cherished traditions from both bodies in Christ. Even crazier – what if every Mennonite congregation exchanged foot washers with the neighbouring Mennonite body once a year at Easter? Perhaps it would be easier to stick to the Catholics.
Regardless, the ultimate lesson is that the image and rite of foot washing reflects a deeper internal spiritual attitude. Sometimes we need such rites to strengthen this realization or to bring forth the internalized conviction into the everyday world. Returning to Bach, it is only a slight stretching of context to note, in yet another beautiful alto solo, recognition of the relation between rite and attitude:
Können Tränen meiner Wangegen nichts Erlangen,
o, so nehmt mein Herz Hinein!
If the tears on my cheeks can achieve nothing,
O, then receive my heart!
(ibid, Bach, von Valtier, 2005)
So my experience in foot washing at the De Paul Parish led to several observations. The first was accidental and related to the performance of Bach’s St Matthew Passion in which the foreshadowing role of the anointing of Christ with oils and tears was connected to the foot washing service the following evening and the water baptisms to be performed on Saturday. Second, foot washing and its message are to date the closest form of true fellowship open to Catholics and non-Catholics in which both might openly and equally participate in their faith – a powerful experience. Third, while the act of foot washing is profound and moving in each culture respectively, the act of washing one another’s feet and having the act reciprocated as moved by the Spirit is an even more heightened spiritual instance as the image and example of Christ become immediate to both participants and we join together in the spirit of Holy Week. Finally, while Fusswaschung is slowly disappearing from the Mennonite churches in North America, perhaps we should make more of an effort to rediscover the power of this rite within our tradition and seek more diligently to preserve such a powerful experiential message. As an aside, what more powerful message as to the openness of the Anabaptists towards restoring dialogue and peace with likeminded Catholics and others could we show than to volunteer to participate as foot washers in the churches of our neighbours – both being willing to wash their feet in obedience to the example of our Saviour – and even more – to humble ourselves to ask that our feet be washed in recognition of a universal faith and communal purification that might only be formally recognized on that particular night through that particular rite.