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THE MAUNDY
April 3, 2015
 
Here in America, we usually see the Pope doing it first, on television -- for centuries, until our current Pope, it has been twelve priests who got their feet washed by the Vicar of Christ. Vatican guidelines specify in writing that the recipients of this honor be adult males. As in so many other instances, Francis has a different take on the custom: last year, he did it at a juvenile detention center: two women and two Muslims were among the washees. This afternoon, it was eleven prison inmates and a baby.

Foot washing the way both Jesus and Francis have done it has been primarily about the inversion of power: the leader washes the feet of those he leads. The master serves the servants. It is a shocking reversal of hierarchy, radically conceived in a world in which hierarchy was the unquestioned fact of mortal power. Jesus lived in a world of kings and emperors. Francis was formed in such a world as well: his church is as imperial in structure as the Roman Empire ever was. In his imagination and in the community that formed around him, if not in the larger society, Jesus turned that world upside down. Francis seems in a fair way to do the same.

But the inversion of human power arrangements which foot washing represents makes a further revision thinkable. Perhaps a further scandal is possible -- perhaps it is not only the leader who can demonstrate the servant love of God in this dramatic way. Well, of course -- that's the whole point, isn't it? That we will serve each other, every last one of us?

We no longer live in a universe of princes. The monarchical language we apply to God is less satisfying to many than it once was. Its quaintness conceals a more sinister reality: the power of the monarch arose from his capacity to coerce -- the king was the one who could enforce his will. But there has been an emancipation of the people of God that reflects the egalitarian spirt toward which modern politics strives.

And so the Maundy now is strongest when it is not just a rite about the leader: it preaches more powerfully if it is a rite about the people. The deacons and I begin it, but we do not hold onto it. Your feet are washed and you then wash the feet of another, who washes the feet of another, who washes the feet of the next, who washes the feet of the next. This is what power is now, Jesus says, and then he demonstrates. We all have this power. We can use it together. Whatever happens to the leader, we will still have each other.
Copyright © 2018 Barbara Crafton
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