A few thoughts on Quirks of Holy Week

Thoughts today on three “quirks” of holy week people have recently asked me about:

epa04170481 Pope Francis as he performs the traditional washing of the feet at the Don Carlo Gnocchi Foundation in Rome, Italy, 17 April 2014, during the "In Coena Domini" Mass with the people hosted in the center and their families. EPA/OSSERVATORE ROMANO / HANDOUT EDITORIAL USE ONLY/NO SALES

Foot Washing 101: who gets washed?

Before the Last Supper, Jesus gave us a beautiful example of servant leadership by washing the feet of his Apostles and giving the command (“mandatum”) that we follow his example (Jn 13:1-17).  On Holy Thursday, most parishes recall this event in the rite of the washing of the feet, in which the Pastor of the parish washes the feet of 12 people.  There’s been no shortage of comment on this rite over the last fifty-or-so years, mainly about whose feet ought to be washed.  Until recently, liturgical law said that twelve men (viri, as opposed to homines “people”) were to have their feet washed.  Pope Francis, in a beautiful exercise of his Petrine Office has adjusted procedure so that a group of twelve people representative of the People of God should be called forward.  This brings the letter of the law in line with the practice already widely in use throughout the Church in Europe and the Americas.  I’ve heard some hail this tweak as a “triumph of the modern” (yes, the person actually used that phrase)… or a “real win for women.”  Both claims betray a lack of knowledge about the true history of this rite and a very western mindset.  What Pope Francis has done is to tap into a much more ancient tradition of this lovely rite.

For most of the Church’s history, the washing of the feet was a rite carried out separate from Mass and only in religious communities (of men and of women).  At some point on Holy Thursday, the Abbot of a monastery or the Mother Superior of a convent would, usually in the chapter hall, not the chapel, wash the feet of the other monks/nuns in the community.  The rite never occurred in parishes or cathedrals.  It wasn’t until the twentieth century that Pope Pius XII gave the option of joining this rite to the mass.  Aware that this link to the Lord’s Supper Mass  would suggest those being washed were “apostles,” the Pope specified that men be chosen.

This year’s adjustment maintains the linking of the rite to the mass as an option, and likewise gives Pastors the option to invite whomever they think represents the community.  Cardinal Sarah, Pope Francis’ chief assistant in matters of worship, and the author of his decree clarified these options aware that the Church has many cultural expressions.  The renewed policy needs to be flexible enough to respect them all.

As with so many beautiful parts of our Catholic Tradition, Pope Francis’ adjustment to the rite is a dusting off of ancient practice adjusted to meet contemporary needs.  In any given parish, no matter whose feet are washed, in whatever context the rite may take place, our focus should never be on lording participation in this rite over anyone (cf Mt 20:25).  Rather we should focus on the suffering servant Lord whose quiet humility is an example to us all (cf Is 42:1-4).

Do we have to go to all of triduum (Thur., Fri., Sat.)?  Yes… here’s why:

The celebration of the Sacred Triduum (From the Latin Tri-diem, “Three Days”) is the height of the Church’s year.  Note however, it’s in the singular… one celebration, not three.  I’m not just speaking collectively… it is actually one mega-mass!  We begin “In the name of the father…” on Holy Thursday… but there’s no final blessing at the end of the Mass of the Lord’s Supper.  On Friday we enter the Church in silence and pick right back up again with an opening prayer… but note, the priest doesn’t even say “Let us pray” … we already did that on Thursday.  Only on Easter Vigil crossing the threshold of Easter itself do we finally have a concluding prayer and blessing!  Be sure to come to all three portions  of the one celebration of the Triduum… it’ll be a soul-moving life-changing experience.

Why so much?

Holy Week is extravagant, no doubt about it.  It is, literally, the epitome of Catholic worship for from these events spring the whole of our religious practice.  A parishioner asked me once, “Why so much? Aren’t there more practical ways to spend our time, talent and treasure?”  At Bethany (Jn 12:1-11), Mary was so overjoyed by Jesus’ love (which had raised her brother Lazarus from the dead) that as a ‘thank you’ she poured a year’s worth of costly oil over his feet to anoint them, drying them with her hair.  This extravagance, this total self-gift, expressed bodily in action… this is the only fitting human response to God’s love.  It doesn’t negate our obligations to the practicalities of life (i.e. maintaining our physical plant or serving the poor), but rather it crowns them.  As Catholics our practical works should only ever spring from our worship and then find fulfillment in our worship.  If they don’t we have to ask ourselves why we’re engaged in them.