Washing of feet

Question: I fled one parish over its strange observances of the foot-washing ceremony (and other liturgical abuses). The parish I am in now is better, but lo and behold, at the foot washing, they are planning to dismiss everyone to the church basement for a service project of sorting canned goods, washing their hands as they return. Why do such strange things persist?

Name and location withheld

Answer: The idiosyncrasies that continue to surface regarding the foot washing are indeed a continuing problem in the Church. That the Lord intended this gesture to be a sign of love and unity makes such diversions from the liturgical norms all the more troubling. Instead of being a unifying sign consistently celebrated throughout the Church, it has become a matter of rather heated debate and even of “one-upmanship.” As such, it becomes a countersign.

The hymn Ubi Caritas, which the Church requests be sung at the Holy Thursday liturgy, has a verse that speaks against the very kind of division the abuse of this rite has sadly generated: “Where charity and love are, God is there. As we are gathered into one body, beware, lest we be divided in mind. Let evil impulses stop, let controversy cease, and may Christ our God be in our midst.”

As for the reasons for the liturgical inventiveness, it likely stems from the perceived oddity of the sign. Even at the time, Peter experienced surprise at it. Though foot washing was common then, in an honor-based culture, it was unthinkable for the head of the household to do it. For us, the oddity of the sign is for different reasons. The washing of feet is remote to our modern and Western experience. We just don’t do anything like it. And thus, one can see a human tendency to try and modernize the sign and make it more relevant to our experience. But such tendencies should be resisted both for the sake of charity and continuity. We ought to allow the Lord’s chosen signs to speak to us still and adapt to them, not force them to adapt to us. And this is the Church’s instinct. Even though certain external aspects of the liturgy, such as language, may need to adapt, the fundamental reality and signs of that reality are not in our power to change.

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Liturgical norms, like most rules, exist to provide a framework for charity. They are the “good fences” that make for good neighbors. As such, they should be humbly and lovingly observed.

Crucifixion accounts

Question: Matthew says that both thieves crucified with Jesus derided him. But Luke says only one did and the other honored him. Which is true, and why this difference?

— Paul Bonaserra, New York

Answer: The most common and likely answer is that not every Gospel records every detail of each event described. Thus it would seem that Matthew (27:44) and Mark (15:27-32) speak in a general way of the thieves on either side deriding Jesus. But Luke (23:39-43) supplies the detail that one of them, at some point, repented of this. This should not surprise or trouble us. We often recount events with a different level of detail based on our purpose and our audience, the amount of time we have to speak, etc. We may leave whole details out and elaborate others. Thereby, we do not deny that events we did not recount never happened; we simply focus on the details that seem most opportune to share.

The main point is that there is no essential or absolute conflict in the texts of Matthew, Mark and Luke.

Msgr. Charles Pope is the pastor of Holy Comforter-St. Cyprian in Washington, D.C., and writes for the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C., blog at blog.adw.org.