Holy Thursday, Footwashing, and the Institution of the Priesthood | Leroy Huizenga | CWR
Interpreting Scripture for its moral import alone, while common and understandable, can cause us to miss the deeper meaning of Christ's actions
In many Catholic parishes on Holy Thursday, a footwashing ritual is incorporated into Mass. Although optional, most parishes choose to do it, for it is a most powerful symbol in the present day, just as it is a powerful symbol at its Scriptural roots in the thirteenth chapter of the Gospel of John, when Jesus himself washes his disciples’ feet.
But a symbol of what? The most obvious answer is that the footwashing ritual is a symbol of humble service, given the extreme indignity involved in washing feet in the ancient world, a task usually reserved for the lowest slave of the house. Indeed, Jesus’ own explicit words seem to present it as such: “If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you” (Jn. 13:14-15).
However, some see the footwashing ritual not as a symbol of service but a symbol of exclusion serving to reinforce patriarchy, for when done according to the Church’s rubrics, only the feet of males are to be washed. The question, then, concerns why the rubrics for the ritual command that viri selecti—“chosen males”—have their feet washed, and not women.
Basis for Holy Orders
The answer is that the footwashing scene in the Gospel of John is not only meant to be an example of humble service, but primarily a record of the institution of the Christian priesthood and thus the Scriptural root of the sacrament of holy orders.
Interpreting Scripture for its moral import is the default approach for most novice readers and many professional interpreters of Scripture, as it’s the easiest way to read the Bible and seems to make the Bible relevant.