( This article is from my regular column, Bridge Work, in Ministry and Liturgy Magazine for the February 2015 issue. I posted the feature article a couple of weeks ago from this same issue)
Washing the church
Pope Francis challenged all liturgists during his first Triduum at the Vatican. Not only did he wash the feet of people in prison but also of a Muslim woman. He not only wanted to take the liturgical gesture into the world but he also did not celebrate the Holy Thursday Evening Mass of the Lord’s Supper inside Saint Peter’s Basilica.
The shock waves have grown stronger in these past few years. Pope Francis touches deformed people. He caresses the tight bodies of diseased children. He cups his hand around the face of a crying father. He wipes the tears from the cheeks of a grandmother with his fingertips.
Pope Francis creates havoc for liturgists that are tied to rubrics alone. He sends shock waves among his nervous security guards when he steps out of his car but more importantly among anxious bishops that are to follow his example. Pope Francis is expanding our notions of ritual itself, how the Mass is celebrated and lived in our time and in our cultures across the globe.
I relish Pope Francis’ example even though I cannot keep up with him. I remember last Holy Thursday as I bent down to wash people’s feet in the aisles of our church. I prayed for him and his example to me. I still need to bend down further to wash the feet of the unexpected immigrant, the fragile cancer patient and the lost teenager.
I recognized that evening the faces that belonged to the feet I just washed. I had already celebrated four funerals of loved ones from the twelve people I just bent down toward. I recognized the faces of those who grieve most especially that year and the faces that were still shocked that we would ask them to have their feet washed in the first place.
The Washing of the Feet is a daringly dangerous ritual. The ritual is designed to disengage us from comfort and security. I realize that the dirty feet of other people bring me to surrender my own life. I bent down to our people last year knowing that I cannot solve their grief nor can I solve their problems of job loss, fixed incomes or the fact that their grandchildren no longer believe the church is worthwhile or important. The ritual is as much for me as it is for them because I know my sheer dependence on Jesus whom I trust will still bend down so low as to wash my feet and wipe the unrelenting tears from my own cheeks. The Washing of the Feet exhausts me since I do not have the power to heal all the broken lives or mend their relationships. I find my doubt so clearly in the scum that is left in the bottom of the bowl on Holy Thursday evening.
All liturgical ministers must uncover the meaning of these Triduum rituals for themselves. Musicians must put down their horns and their stringed instruments, close the lids on their keyboards and flee the church to discover again why they are creating music for our rituals. Musicians cannot escape the pastoral needs of people in hospitals or soup lines.
Liturgical planners must connect the pitcher and bowel that is used on Holy Thursday to their prayer and conversations about how people use bedpans for the elderly or how parents have to care for their children who vomit in the nighttime. These rituals are profoundly related. Liturgical items and physical objects must be tied to real life, not just rubric.
Deacons must again see their service at the altar during the Triduum as a gift and not as a privilege. They must discover for themselves the Good News and not keep it bottled up for safekeeping inside the church. They must see in the eyes of the dying person in a hospital the reason to proclaim the gospel of good news at the ambo.
Pastors also need to find again the reason for these rituals. Pastors need to put worry aside about this year’s budget. We must make sure we sit in a chair in a soup kitchen to hear stories of hope from people without homes and shed the notions of security that we want to build our parishes upon.
The Washing of the Feet is a yearly ritual that must speak loudly to our people and even more clearly to those of us in liturgical ministry. Do not short-change this ritual. Do not substitute hand washing. Do not think this ritual is meaningless to our younger generation. This ritual is designed to change us all, to challenge the notions about people we serve and people whom we outright neglect. This ritual helps us realize our own selfishness as liturgists. This liturgical act shows us that the real meaning of ritual is how we live our daily lives.
On Holy Thursday, I will shower before Mass and I will pray that the ritual of the Washing of the Feet will cleanse my soul again. I will continue to pray for Pope Francis who is washing the Church in ways we still cannot imagine. This is our faith, our faith in the real presence of Christ Jesus.