The expression “smells and bells” is used pejoratively by some and proudly by others. I’m in the second camp. To my way of thinking, smelling and hearing—along with touching and tasting and seeing—are indispensable human faculties without which worship is impossible. What, after all, are sacraments, but “sensible signs”? Christ has bound unseen realities—his own Christ-life—to such realities. Pope Benedict calls liturgical participants to be “more sensitive to the language of signs and gestures which, together with the word, make up the [liturgical] rite” (Sacramentum Caritatis 64; emphasis added).
The liturgy puts a number of human elements before our eyes (and senses) these days. December saw the opening of a door, the Holy Door of Mercy. February featured both candles and a chair (on the 2nd and 22nd, respectively). And before March’s end we will celebrate the birthday of a chalice (natalis calicis) on Holy Thursday, adore wood, and sing of bees and stars. All very physical and worldly, and all signs and foretastes of a new heavens and a new earth.
But there is one human feature that has gained headlines in many Catholic circles recently: feet.
In the Gospel of John, read at the Mass of the Lord’s Supper, Jesus’ example of humility and charity is recounted. In the rite of the washing of the feet, this same gesture is demonstrated. Christ’s mandate – “To love one another, as I have loved you” (John 13:34) – gives this first day of the Triduum its name, Maunday Thursday (“maunday,” from the Latin root, mandatum, “command”).
The ritual action of washing feet on this day has taken many forms through the centuries: at times in the Mass, at other times not; at times within the church building, at other times not; at times limited to clergy, at other times not. (See Archbishop Roche’s commentary, “I Have Given You an Example,” beginning on the previous page.)
Most recently (that is, until Holy Thursday of this year), the Third edition of the Roman Missal contained the following rubric at the washing of the feet: “The men who have been chosen are led to the places prepared for them.” While the English word “man” or “men” can refer in some instances to both males and females (as in “mankind” or “maneating shark”), in this case it referred to males, as it translated the Latin word vir, or viri slecti, as in the “males who have been chosen.”
Why is this the case? What does the selection of males symbolize? If sacramental actions are meant to be sensed, what “sensitivity” were we to bring to the washing of the feet? After all, the ordinary form of the Missal had been revised as recently as 2000: why wasn’t the change made then? What was the Church trying to convey by reserving the washing of feet to men?
One possible answer is its association with the ordained – and male – priesthood. Holy Thursday commemorates the institution of the priesthood of the new covenant. The “birthday” of this priesthood is marked in other ways on this day. At the Chrism Mass, for example, priests renew the priestly promises made at their ordinations; they concelebrate with the high priest par excellence, the bishop; they themselves kneel in the person of Christ and wash the feet of others. In past centuries, Holy Thursday witnessed the reconciliation of the Order of Penitents – another priestly act. And Holy Thursday restricts the homily to the priest, unlike on most other days when a deacon may preach. Whether these associations were accidental or coincidental or intentional, associations they were. Was one thus “insensible” by associating the male recipients of the foot-washing with Jesus’ new priests, the apostles?
But now the rubric has been changed. Whereas only “selected males” were to be chosen, moving forward, those chosen come from the “entire people of God – lay, ordained ministers, married, single, religious, healthy, sick, children, young people and the elderly – and not just one category or condition” (see “Commentary”). Here, too, the same questions need to be asked: What does the rite of washing such a group symbolize? What are we to “sense”? What does it mean?
The answer to these questions, at least from my first reflections, is considered along the same lines as my reflections here on the priesthood, the meaning, or at least a meaning, of the former practice of foot-washing reserved to men.
The Mass of the Lord’s Supper commemorates three things: the command of brotherly (and sisterly!) love, the institution of the priesthood, and – last but not least – the institution of the Eucharist. And where the mandate could be interpreted with some sense to the ordained priesthood, it can equally be seen (i.e., “sensed”) in relation to the institution of the Eucharist.
St. John Chrysostom speaks emphatically about the obligation – we might say mandate – that the reception of the Sacrament of the Eucharist places upon us: “You have tasted the Blood of the Lord, yet you do not recognize your brother…. You dishonor this table when you do not judge worthy of sharing your food with someone judged worthy to take part in this meal…. God freed you from all your sins and invited you here, but you have not become more merciful” (in CCC 1397).
Like the theme of the priesthood signified on Holy Thursday, the mandate to serve others is prevalent. In the offering of gifts of bread and wine for the Eucharist, the rubric indicates that “gifts for the poor” may also be included (a rubric unique to this Mass, the “birthday of the chalice”). In the same spirit, during the reception of Holy Communion, the Eucharist is entrusted to Deacons and Extraordinary Ministers of Holy Communion to take to the homebound. Last, during the adoration of the Blessed Sacrament following the Mass, the faithful are encouraged to read “some part of the Gospel of St. John (chapters 13-17),” which contains the mandate to “love one another” (Paschales Solemnitatis 56).
There are many ways to see liturgical rubrics, decrees, and disciplines, some more or less accurate. In the end, though, they are meant to make the mysterious also sacramental; the invisible, visible; the divine, human. Don’t lose sight of what – of Who! – is made present before the world during the washing of feet. It is Jesus Christ, the High Priest and Lowly Servant. And to miss him is to miss the point.
Christopher Carstens is director of the Office for Sacred Worship in the Diocese of La Crosse, Wisconsin; a visiting faculty member at the Liturgical Institute at the University of St. Mary of the Lake in Mundelein, Illinois; editor of the Adoremus Bulletin; and one of the voices on The Liturgy Guys podcast. He is author of A Devotional Journey into the Mass and A Devotional Journey into the Easter Mystery (Sophia), as well as Principles of Sacred Liturgy: Forming a Sacramental Vision (Hillenbrand Books). He lives in Soldiers Grove, Wisconsin, with his wife and eight children.