Thursday, March 28, 2013

The Mandatum

By now, the crazy trads are going crazier over the fact that Pope Francis included two girls and two Muslims among those whose feet he washed this night.

I have my own grave reservations about Francis's liturgical style and flouting of tradition. But to be honest, this foot-washing question is one of the flashpoints of identity-politics in the Church which I've never understood at all. I'm much more concerned that he didn't do this major Triduum liturgy in a proper basilica than that women were included. I've never understood why, in the age of altar girls and readeresses, conservatives (including just your run-of-the-mill neocon Novus Ordo types) were always so concerned about women being included in the maundy of all things. (Perhaps it was a "hyper-investment of outrage" given that it was one of the last contested hold-outs when many of the other traditional gender boundaries had already collapsed?)

And it's not that I'm some sort of radical feminist when it comes to liturgy or symbolism. I strongly acknowledge that the gender duality, male and female, masculine and feminine, is one of the most (perhaps the most) fundamental symbolic elements of liturgy and Scriptural typology and even just the human psyche. By the sheer elegance of the logic of the nuance of the symbolism, I am a firm supporter of the all male priesthood (the diaconate, I think, is a slightly more complicated question; but a probably dangerous slippery slope at this point either way). I think that public roles in liturgy (like altar server and reader) should be limited to actually [minor] ordained acolytes and lectors (and thus men; though, I'll say, once you admit lay substitutes, concern with limiting it just to male lay substitutes seems sort of like too little too late). And I think it's unfortunate that after 1900 years, the symbolism of Corinthians is being lost because women stopped covering their heads.

But I've never really understood the limitation of the feet washing to men, because it seems to me that the symbolism of the rite of the mandatum in general is historically vague and shifting. Just consider the Catholic Encyclopedia's description of its evolution:
This tradition, we may believe, has never been interrupted, though the evidence in the early centuries is scattered and fitful. For example the Council of Elvira (A.D. 300) in canon xlviii directs that the feet of those about to be baptized are not to be washed by priests but presumably by clerics or at least lay persons. This practice of washing the feet at baptism was long maintained in Gaul, Milan, and Ireland, but it was not apparently known in Rome or in the East. In Africa the nexus between this ceremony and baptism became so close that there seemed danger of its being mistaken for an integral part of the rite of baptism itself (Augustine, Ep. LV, "Ad Jan.", n. 33). Hence the washing of the feet was in many places assigned to another day than that on which the baptism took place. In the religious orders the ceremony found favour as a practice of charity and humility. The Rule of St. Benedict directs that it should be performed every Saturday for all the community by him who exercised the office of cook for the week; while it was also enjoined that the abbot and the brethren were to wash the feet of those who were received as guests. The act was a religious one and was to be accompanied by prayers and psalmody, "for in our guests Christ Himself is honoured and receive". The liturgical washing of feet (if we can trust the negative evidence of our early records) seems only to have established itself in East and West at a comparatively late date. In 694 the Seventeenth Synod of Toledo commanded all bishops and priests in a position of superiority under pain of excommunication to wash the feet of those subject to them. The matter is also discussed by Amalarius and other liturgists of the ninth century. Whether the custom of holding this "maundy" (from "Mandatum novum do vobis", the first words of the initial Antiphon) on Maundy Thursday, developed out of the baptismal practice originally attached to that day does not seem quite clear, but it soon became an universal custom in cathedral and collegiate churches. In the latter half of the twelfth century the pope washed the feet of twelve sub-deacons after his Mass and of thirteen poor men after his dinner. The "Caeremoniale episcoporum" directs that the bishop is to wash the feet either of thirteen poor men or of thirteen of his canons. The prelate and his assistants are vested and the Gospel "Ante diem festum paschae" is ceremonially sung with incense and lights at the beginning of the function. Most of the sovereigns of Europe used also formerly to perform the maundy. The custom is still retained at the Austrian and Spanish courts.
So the symbolism here seems multivalent and thus inevitably confused if any sort of strict logic is imposed on it. The history of the rite raises serious questions about what it should be taken to signify, or whether any one "tradition" or significance can be nailed down

Is it a rite whose origins should be connected with the catechumens about to enter the Church (consider the custom in many cultures of washing the feet before one enters the house)? In this case, the inclusion of Muslims isn't so out of line. Admittedly, they weren't catechumens; still the notion of "guest" might be seen to apply in their case, invoking the symbolism of the hospitality among early monks. 

Is it a rite strictly to be associated with performance by a bishop or a priest? Or is it something even lay people might do for each other, as the traditional performance of the rite by lay monarchs might suggest?

Is it a rite whose origins in Christ washing the feet of the Twelve Apostles should see it remain somehow connected to the idea of ordination? Or is it just an act of humility and charity more generally, an example to all Christians without any particularly sacerdotal connotations?

The limitations might make sense if one chose to impose a strict logic on it in terms of whom was selected. If you are a bishop really limiting it to, say, a logically "complete unit" like your cathedral chapter of twelve canons, or the Pope's traditional washing of twelve subdeacons, etc...then maybe it makes sense. Though, even then, I have to wonder "Why twelve subdeacons?" If the symbolism is allegedly the Apostles, why not twelve priests or bishops? And which twelve subdeacons? Was there a logical unit there, a college associated with, say, the Lateran that contained twelve subdeacons?

But when (as must needs be the case on the parish level, or was the case when the Pope did the second washing, of the feet of thirteen paupers after his dinner) we are talking about lay people anyway...the importance of the sex distinctions seems even less clear. Yes, only men can be ordained priests. But the laymen whose feet are washed in the rite...do not thereby get ordained. It would seem, then, there would be a much more profound lay/clerical confusion (and has been traditionally) in the rite if the rite is in fact to signify some sort of connection to ordained ministry. Limiting it to men doesn't really mitigate this if those men are (and remain) lay.

On the other hand, if it's an act of humility...then whomever, anyone suffices. But at that point, one in turn wonders why the obsession with keeping the number at twelve (or thirteen) specifically? There seems to be much debate on this number point too! (Including one legend I heard that it used to be twelve paupers until one day a mysterious thirteenth showed up when Gregory the Great was preforming the maundy, a beggar who was revealed to be our Lord Himself):
This number is not prescribed in the rubrics of the Roman Missal, and many conjectures have been hazarded as to the origin of the number thirteen, some supposing that the thirteenth represented the Lord, whose feet were washed some days before by Mary Magdalene; some, that the thirteenth represents the master of the house where the Last Supper was taken. But the solution given by Cardinal Merati is, that in the earliest times the Pope was wont to wash the feet of twelve sub-deacons; and that from the time of St Gregory the Great it has been the practice to entertain thirteen paupers daily; and he is of opinion that the former practice having become obsolete, the Roman Church revived it, and kept in memory also the charity of St. Gregory, by combining both of these customs on Holy Thursday - namely, both by washing the feet of thirteen poor priests, and entertaining them at supper.
And again, if you're washing the feet of just anyone, of lay people or random priests...it becomes a real question of whom. Why these twelve (or thirteen) and not others? Do they represent some sort of logically complete unit? Or is it just an arbitrary "representative" sampling of the clergy or of the community or of the poor? (Such "representative sampling" usually not being a traditional liturgical concept in the West!) And, indeed, is twelve more traditional, or is thirteen??

I suppose my suggestion, then, for imposing some "order" on the tradition would be as follows; there would actually be three types of mandatum on Holy Thursday:

1) Bishops (including the Pope) would, during the Chrism Mass, wash the feet of their chapter of twelve (priest) canons of their cathedral. (This would require a regularization whereby every cathedral would have a chapter, and a chapter of twelve specifically; though perhaps there could be "supernumerary" canons, etc, but they would not affect the mandatum.)

2) Pastors would, during the Mass of the Lord's Supper, wash the feet of all that parish's catechumens (women and men; the number would be simply how many catechumens there were. Including the already-baptized "candidates for full communion" might be considered as well, especially if there were no full-fledged catechumens that year).

3) Monarchs, including the Pope, and any bishops who also felt so inclined, would (as a ceremony separate from any other liturgy) wash the feet of thirteen paupers (women and men, potentially; and possibly of any religious affiliation) chosen by some sort of lot. (Divergent traditions of various royal houses, however, would be encouraged to continue; in England, for example, many more than thirteen have traditionally received the royal maundy and it was at one point tracked to the monarch's age; when it comes to the gender question, I might add, in the joint reign of William and Mary the issue was addressed by the King giving to poor men and the Queen to poor women).

Additionally, abbots should wash the feet of all their monks (and abbesses their nuns) and the heads of households or families could be encouraged to (as a private devotion of the domestic church) wash the feet of their dependents.

This way, I think, the various divergent traditions on twelve versus thirteen, lay versus cleric, catechumens versus clergy versus paupers...could all be maintained and reconciled.

4 comments:

Mark of the Vineyard said...

Washed my wife's feet the night of our marriage. Seemed like the appropriate thing to do.

jordan said...

1) Bishops (including the Pope) would, during the Chrism Mass, wash the feet of their chapter of twelve (priest) canons of their cathedral.

Catholicism in Britain and Ireland still distinguishes between Rev. Canon and Monsignor. However, from what I understand the concept of the cathedral chapter is quite week there. Anglicans still retain many more medieval titles related to cathedral officials (Canon, Prebendary, Archdeacon etc.) "Member of the papal household" is not as local in scope as canon of the cathedral chapter, I'd say.

Another non-gendered issue I have with the mandatum is envy/jealousy. If I were a priest (thank God, I am not) I would do one of two things. Either I would interview persons who wish to partake of the maundy, and seek their motivations (vainglory or piety?) Either that, or choose the maundy like the parish car raffle -- everyone's name in a tumbler. At least in this case the "winners" don't need to pay tax on their "gift" (das Gift, perhaps socially).

jordan said...

However, from what I understand the concept of the cathedral chapter is quite week there.

Certainly, weak, not week. As all know, Mass in Ireland is measured in quarter-hour increments.

Christos anesti! (red dyed eggs, gross)

Agellius said...

I always supposed, admittedly not based on much external evidence, that they should all be men because the one washing is a celibate man, and it might have seemed scandalous, not too long ago, for a celibate man to wash (and especially kiss, when that's made a part of it) the bare feet of women.

And now that it's come to be considered more scandalous for a priest to exclude women from anything when not absolutely necessary, than to publicly wash and kiss their feet, it's become more and more common.