Over at Fr Hunwicke’s Mutual Enrichment, the good Father gives us a salutary refresher course in the real meaning of the washing of feet—what he terms the pedilavium in literal translation, but what we more commonly refer to as the Mandatum, the commandment. Or rather, he offers several meanings—for footwashing as a more general symbolic act such as king to his subjects; as a liturgical act within fairly strictly limited parameters such as an abbot with his monks; and (a relative novelty in the liturgical context) as a symbolic act of mercy and welcome to all, especially the marginalized, which is the only way to explain decently his allowing women’s feet to be washed on Maundy Thursday’s Mass of the Lord’s Supper.
For what Fr Hunwicke rightly reminds his readers is that in its original context—Jesus at the Last Supper—the washing of feet on Maundy Thursday has a very particular meaning. The Lord Jesus did not wash the feet of his disciples per se, of whom there were many even then, though soon they would mostly melt away till after the Resurrection. Jesus washed the feet of the Twelve, the apostles including Judas Iscariot who Jesus knew was about to betray him (cf John 13). Jesus was in the upper room with his intimate circle, those (save for Judas who was about to break communion) whom he would shortly commission and send forth into the world to preach the Good News and repentance (for this is what the Greek word apostolos means, one who is sent with a message).
So let us reflect on this further. The Last Supper was not just the occasion of the institution of the Eucharistic Sacrifice, the Mass. It was also the institution of the Christian priesthood, to be passed from the apostles to the next generation, and from that to the next again, and so on until today, and beyond. It is these priests who will perpetuate and extend through all the earth the one sacrifice of Christ in the Cross that is the Eucharistic Mystery. That is why at the Maundy Thursday Mass of the Lord’s Supper all priests are to concelebrate, if not acting as principal celebrant, as a symbol of their unity in the apostolic and priestly ministry. And this is why until this papacy it had been a practice of many popes to write a letter to the priests of the world on Monday Thursday. Sorry to say to those sensitive to the position of the laity today, the Maundy Thursday Mass is not least a celebration of the apostolic priesthood.
So what Jesus did at the Last Supper in John’s account was done to the apostles, and mandated to be done by them also, to each other. In other words, in the apostolic ministry of the Church, leadership was never to be lordliness. Or rather, it was to be lordly insofar as it reflected the acts and commandments of the Lord Jesus. The apostles were to serve each other, even those they suspected of ill-will or serious imperfection. They were to support each other not contend with each other. If Peter, who is clearly to be inferred as first among the apostles in John’s narrative, must correct one or another of them, he is to do so not holding a rod but a bowl of water and a towel. And even Peter, Prince of Apostles, was not too proud to accept correction from that apostolic johnnie-come-lately, Paul. The corrector and the corrected both acted as Jesus mandated in John 13.
On a wider level, this has implications for our much divided Christian family in the world today. Bishops should not be sniping at each other, undermining one another, forming schisms, one from another. Even in dispute, and especially, Jesus would have them each each other’s feet, certainly metaphorically but, if needs must, literally as well.
So as we look at bishops in dispute within the Catholic Church over such issues as the admission or not to Communion of civilly-remarried divorcees, do we see clearly enough any attempt to obey the commandment Jesus gave to them through the apostles at the Last Supper? Could they wash each other’s feet? Can they celebrate a truly authentic Eucharist if they are not truly, interiorly, holding to communion with each other in the Body of Christ, the Church?
Furthermore, as we look beyond our own Church to the churches of the East in schism from us, do we see their bishops and ours seeking vigorously enough to wash each other’s feet, to speak boldly but fraternally to each other, to accept correction when they see well enough that it is justly given? When bishops anathematize each other, however right one of the parties might be, they should do so with heavy heart and with a view to such breaking of communion as being necessarily temporary. By washing the apostles’ feet and commanding them to so the same to each other, Jesus was commanding them to ensure that they would seek above all the communion of the Church, so that Christ’s prayer to the Father for his Church might be realised: ut unum sint—that they may be one.
Maybe it is time all the bishops of the world, of whatever denomination, committed themselves more actively and concretely to keeping the Lord’s commandment to the apostolic ministers of the Church at the Last Supper. Let them wash each other’s feet, literally if necessary, and submit to the Truth, that the Church might again be one. This is the true mandatum from Christ encapsulated in the washing of feet at the Last Supper. The rest is little more than preciousness and pussyfooting if we are not careful.