L'Affaire du Lavement des Pieds

This may be the dumbest controversy of all time, and because of that I wanted to avoid this topic altogether.  But, I just can't help it--I have to talk about foot washing.

For those not familiar with this issue, in the service for Maundy Thursday (the Thursday before Easter) in Catholic and other liturgical Christian churches (I know, for example, its in the Episcopalian Book of Common Prayer), there is a part where the priest washes the feet of certain members of the congregation.  This practice is derived from John's Gospel, where Jesus washes the feet of those gathered for the Last Supper.  The symbolism here is that washing feet was something done by a servant, and thus Jesus washing the feet of the Disciples is a sign that leadership in the Christian context involves serving others instead of lording over them.

I go to the Maundy Thursday service every year.  We didn't always go as a kid, so I would estimate I have been to that service around 20 times in my life.  Every time I have gone, they have washed people's feet.  And with two exceptions, the foot washing has always involved some representative sample of the community--men and women, young and old.  The first counter-example was at the Newman Center at Northwestern, where the tradition was for the twelve people who initially got their feet washed to turn around and wash someone else's feet, so that eventually everyone had their feet washed if they wanted to participate (and, yes, it took forever).  The other counter-example was when I attended Maundy Thursday as part of a Dominican community service, so by definition everyone there was a guy.  But otherwise, it has always been men and women.  Always.

Right after getting elected Pope, Francis went to a detention center for Maundy Thursday and washed the feet of a selection of prisoners.  People lost their minds over the fact that some of the prisoners who were washed were women.  Prior to that kerfuffle, I was truly unaware that the technical instructions for the service limited the foot washing to just guys.  Again, every version I have ever attended involved both genders.  I just assumed that this was permitted under the rules, since it was basically universal.  At least here in the U.S., that rule was not followed at all.

Be that as it may, Pope Francis recently changed the rules for the Maundy Thursday ritual, and so now it is officially A-OK to wash women's feet.  And, to the surprise of no one, the usual suspects are mad.  Now, those of you outside the Catholic hothouse may be thinking "what possible reason would people have for being upset about this change?"  A fair question, and as far as I can tell there are basically two objections.

The first is that this change is the harbinger of allowing women priests.  Try to follow the logic--"well, Jesus washed the feet of the 12 Apostles at the Last Supper.  [Side Note:  that's not what John's Gospel says--it says Jesus washed the feet of the disciples, a broader category that includes but is not limited to the 12 Apostles.  Moving on.]  And all of the 12 Apostles were guys.  And Jesus instituted the Eucharist at the Last Supper as well.  [Side Note #2:  John's Gospel doesn't include anything about the Eucharist in the Last Supper discourses, and the Synoptics that talk about the Eucharist in the context of the Last Supper have nothing about foot washing.  Moving on.]  By virtue of being present at the Last Supper, the Apostles gained the power to confect the Eucharist, making the Last Supper the beginning of the priesthood.  If you are reproducing the scene of the Last Supper and including women, you are tacitly implying that women can 'stand in' for the folks at the Last Supper.  Which means that women can be priests, and since women priests lead inevitably to forming covens to sacrifice to Artemis, it must be wrong, so we can only wash men's feet."

You will not be shocked to learn that I find this argument tediously unpersuasive.
More than anything else, it is an example of what you might call "symbolic overdetermination."  Using symbols to stand for some idea or concept are a good thing, and the foundation of liturgy.  But if you insist on every symbol taking on every possible meaning in every conceivable context all the time, symbols become overdetermined, and they collapse under their own weight.  Foot washing is about service, particularly by community leaders to those in their charge.  Left at that singular level of meaning, it is a beautiful and meaningful symbol.  But the moment you load it up with all of these other meanings--the Last Supper, the Eucharist, the Apostles/Jesus's disciples--there is too much going on to have the symbol work as a symbol.

While I believe the "washing women's feet = women priests" is a bad argument (not to mention the fact that I have no problem with women priests), it is a predictable argument.  The argument I was not expecting was that washing women's feet is too sexual for the ritual.  The notion being that for a priest to touch a woman's foot in order to wash it would violate the boundaries of good taste, and will scandalize and inflame those in attendance.

At this point, I feel like it is necessary to engage in Real Talk.  I find nothing about a bare foot, of whatever gender, to be remotely sexual.  But I understand that there is a not-insignificant slice of the population for whom this is not the case.  To the extent that a priest (or anyone) gets a sexual charge out of touching a woman's foot, that is a problem and not in keeping with the spirit of Maundy Thursday.  One should note, however, that I am certain there is some non-zero number of priests who get a charge out of a guy's bare foot, and none of our traditionalist friends seem concerned about that.  Just saying.  In any event, I am willing to stipulate that any priest who is into feet should probably refrain from participating in the foot washing.

However, that's not the way this is argument is being presented.  The idea here is that of course any guy who has an opportunity to come into contact with a woman's foot will get an illicit thrill out of the experience.  I cannot help but think that people who make this argument are, as they say, "telling on themselves."  I mean, it isn't going to do anything for me, bro; and I am a little interested in why you would think that it would be the case for everyone.  I suspect it begins with a "P" and ends with "rojection."

So, to my traditional Catholic friends, I say--it's OK.  You get turned on by women's feet.  It's fine, it's a harmless fetish.  I don't really get it, but whatever--you do you.  Sure, the idea of these exposed female feet during Maundy Thursday may be a little much for you to take on.  So, maybe you should take a pass--Maundy Thursday is not a Holy Day of Obligation, after all.  Or maybe for that one day, you can go to the Tridentine Mass.  Or maybe you already go to the Tridentine Mass, in which case none of this affects you anyway.

Meanwhile, the rest of us that lack your specific predilection can embrace a ritual that shows that the Church is here to serve everyone, not just folks with a Y chromosome.  Our sisters don't get a lot of  reinforcement in that area, you know, and it would be nice to have something demonstrating that there is no man or woman in Christ.  Let us do our thing, without you having to project your issues onto the rest of us.


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