Maundy Thursday Problems Again

Maundy Thursday Problems Again April 5, 2012

As I explained last year, Maundy Thursday is the day I feel least comfortable attending Mass:

I don’t like to be beholden to anyone.  I don’t like accepting a favor from someone I have no way of repaying or being indebted to someone I don’t know and may not like. I frustrated my boyfriend for more than half a year by never taking food from the post-Mass receptions the campus church hosted. In my mind, the food was for people who had bought in, and it would be inappropriate to benefit from the Church’s largesse when I had no intention of supporting. Not to mention, raised on a diet of mythology and fantasy/scifi novels, I have a slight distrust of accepting food in strange places.

And this year, I might be off the hook, but I think I feel worse.  There’s been a discussion going on across the Patheos Catholic portal about whether it’s appropriate to include women in this part of the service.  Fr. Longenecker of Standing on My Head is adamant:

We should get this straight. The tradition and the rubrics mandate that men are to have their feet washed. Not little girls, not women, not boys. Men. Why is this? Because the foot washing ceremony is not only an example of Christ being the lowest servant of all, as Tom’s article makes clear, but it is also a consolidation of the apostolic ministry.

And Thomas McDonald of God and the Machine concurs, saying “Sadly, this [men-only footwashing] is rarely the case in modern parishes.”  I don’t have the standing to criticize their interpretation of the liturgy, but that “Sadly” stuck out to me.  They don’t seem to be talking about balancing two goods (the humility required to serve or accept service, which is presumably salutary to everyone in the Church versus the symbol of the apostolic ministry), but as though there is just one good, and it is under siege by the ignorant.

The simple fact is that many institutions and traditions which excluded women from participation and membership have done so for reasons which we now consider dishonorable.  Absent any other data, we’d bet that the next exclusion we find is also not well-founded.  So it’s unkind for the defenders of men-only footwashing to act as though the cause of the policy is obvious or that we should be in the habit of accepting these kinds of distinction uncritically.

Even after reading several posts on the subject, I don’t really understand why these bloggers have such a high degree of confidence in the purpose of the ritual.  When one commenter writes:

Right now I live in a diocese that has an overwhelming majority of liberal Catholics and priests. So I asked the question “Will women be participating, i.e., getting their washed?” The response was an incredulous “Yes, of course. Why not?”. I said that would not be Biblical, since Jesus did this (according to the Gospel of John) for the Apostles, the first priests – at the first Eucharist where no women were present for a reason.

All I can think is that I don’t understand why he thinks it’s permissible for women to participate in the Eucharist either, since that sacrament was created at an event from which they were purposefully excluded. And all the Apostles were (to the best of my knowledge) Jewish, but that quality is treated as more incidental when it comes to modern practice.  If you want to overcome my reasonable skepticism, you need to flesh out your arguments more.

Mark Shea had the most approachable posts on this topic.  As a layperson, he sought out data and then explained it without using it as a cudgel or berating the people who had questions.  Up til his post, it felt like the discussion was falling into the arguments as soldiers error that Yudkowsky describes:

Arguments are soldiers. Once you know which side you’re on, you must support all arguments of that side, and attack all arguments that appear to favor the enemy side; otherwise it’s like stabbing your soldiers in the back. If you abide within that pattern, policy debates will also appear one-sided to you—the costs and drawbacks of your favored policy are enemy soldiers, to be attacked by any means necessary.

Your ‘enemies’ are usually attacking you in good faith, and if you can’t summarize their position as something nicer sounding than a will to destroy, you might convince a straw-man, but you sure as heck won’t move your audience.


One other note: a number of the commenters on Shea’s post seemed to think the all-serving-all model was diminishing the message down to a treacly let’s-be-nice kind of thing.  If any of them end up over here, I’d really ask you to read my post from last year’s Maundy Thursday.  I didn’t find the practice cloying, I found it terrifying.

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  • Joe

    Is there a particular reason you attend Catholic liturgies? Im sure the Episcopal church might be in better keeping with your feminist sensibilities.

    • Ted Seeber

      She’s an atheist attending her boyfriend’s church (or is it husband now? I’m going on last year’s post and I don’t normally read this blog). NO Christian church is going to fit her I am Woman Hear Me Roar Louder Than God sensibilities.

      • leahlibresco

        It’s ex-boyfriend, now. The probability of my conversion looked small enough to make it improbable that our relationship could progress toward marriage.

        The second part of your comment seems a little strong, esp given you don’t read the blog very often. Are you making a claim about all atheist women or me specifically? It’s not only women who have qualms about some of the Church’s teachings on sex and sexuality; cis-gendered straight men can have the same misgivings. As long as you have mothers or sisters or female friends, ‘women’s issues’ are your issues, too.

    • That is the opposite advice anyone needs. Truth is what matters, not your pre-conceived sensibilities.

  • Joe

    Women have a pretty strong presence in the Church and get to do a lot of the heavy lifting with doing most of the education and charitable work in most parishes. It makes sense that the Church would make certain pastor liturgical steps to sort of call out men to take on more responsibilities in the life of the Church. At my parish most alter-servers, lectors and eucharistic ministers are women. Excluding women from one liturgy a year doesn’t seem like that big a deal.

  • Kyle

    I can’t say that I blame you for your experience last year. It almost sounds like the foot washing was more like an altar call that you might find in evangelical churches; I have only been to an evangelical church a few times with friends, but the altar call always put me on edge.

    When my fiancée began getting interested in the Church, she was initially very turned off by mass. Everyone but her knew what to do and say and she felt like a major intruder. She felt like she was intruding on something intensely personal and was uncomfortable because she didn’t share that with them and felt like a voyeur. Even when she did get more comfortable, it was still hard for her and she actually preferred to go alone and not with me for at least a few months.

    I would try to convince her that anyone was welcome and that her feelings were unfounded…well, nobody likes being told their feelings are unfounded 🙂 What I did not appreciate at the time was the respect she had for something that others, including myself obviously, found sacred but that she did not understand.

    I was initially going to comment on here about how silly it would be to not accept food at an after-mass gathering, because I am sure that the mind of the people involved would have been to welcome you regardless. I don’t know what exact feelings you had that precluded you from just gratefully accepting the food and not feeling somehow in debt, but it seems like a similar predicament.

    At the mass I went to tonight, the homily touched on St. Peter’s humility. He also did not want to be beholden to the Lord, but in his case I think he already felt like he owed much to Jesus. He had to be taught to accept it against his will. That can be the most humbling of all.

    I am also reminded of a passage in Orthodoxy (probably because I just reread this part the other day and was looking for somewhere to use it). It is speaking about democracy and how the best rules is the one who doesn’t think he can rule.

    If our faith comments on government at all, its comment must be this–that the man should rule who does NOT think that he can rule. Carlyle’s hero may say, “I will be king”; but the Christian saint must say “Nolo episcopari.” [I do not wish to be bishop] If the great paradox of Christianity means anything, it means this–that we must take the crown in our hands, and go hunting in dry places and dark corners of the earth until we find the one man who feels himself unfit to wear it. Carlyle was quite wrong; we have not got to crown the exceptional man who knows he can rule. Rather we must crown the much more exceptional man who knows he can’t.

    Maybe I am misjudging your character, but I can appreciate the humility in not wanting to be beholden to anyone. At the same time, though, there is also a humility in accepting that which is uncomfortable for the sake of someone else. You clearly tried that and were horrified last year with the foot washing…so I don’t know where the balance is. But I’m pretty sure it’s there somewhere.

    • leahlibresco

      I’m sure they would have welcomed me to take the food. That’s why I didn’t want to do it. It felt like accepting kindness from them meant giving them power over me. And hence I’m pretty sure the balance lies way closer to steeling myself and taking the food or having my feet washed than I currently live. I know it’s an excess of pride, and I’m trying to remind myself it’s a failure to charity to rob my friends and others of the opportunity to be generous. But it’s hard.

      • Ted Seeber

        What is hard, I think, for many agnostics and atheists, is accepting the idea of authority (many Protestants too- that’s why the reformation happened) over them. Power, even the power to give in charity and love- is repulsive to some people, no matter how benign and kindly that power is used.

      • I know it’s an excess of pride, and I’m trying to remind myself it’s a failure to charity to rob my friends and others of the opportunity to be generous. But it’s hard.

        You can’t do it without Christ, you know. Nobody in the Church claims you can. Remember: We only tell people the diagnosis when they don’t know. For those who are aware, we first and always must preach the cure.

  • leahlibresco

    I feel compelled to add that I did go to Maundy Thursday Mass tonight (the footwashing was for a mixed group of 12) and neglected to bring a jacket. Seeing me shivering outside, a friend of mine offered me his jacket and I thanked him and declined.

    “Oh, come on, Leah,” he said. “I read your blog, I know you need to get better at accepting help.”

    Reader, I wore it.

    • You did it! Good job.

    • Love it.

      “It felt like accepting kindness from them meant giving them power over me.”–This seems to be the thing you might need to work. Accepting kindness can be exploitative (in either direction!), but often it is not. Maybe you need to get your sensors checked.

  • On a quick flip through the Gospels it looks like footwashing is in John, but the Eucharist is instituted in Matthew, Mark, and Luke. This could be part of the disconnect between traditions on the ritual with regards to gender, though I don’t really know if it means anything (or if I missed something in my quick look).

    I have to say, liturgical nitpicking makes me grumpy. But with regards to footwashing I only want to mention one thing: there are groups of footwashing Baptists that wash feet at every service. Apparently, from some stories I’ve heard, it makes them especially willing to directly help people in need. In other words, the frequent repetition of the ritual shapes their character towards being willing to serve and be served. I think that is very interesting. Practices that shape character towards service as a built-in weekly liturgical ritual? Sounds like a great idea to me.

    • Kyle

      That is a cool practice. Lex Orandi, Lex Credendi, Lex Vivendi.

    • @b

      Interesting anecdote. Has academia studied whether this ritual really effects an individual’s servitude?

  • Lynn

    I totally understand your thing about not wanting to take food. I’m not that much older than you, and when I was in college the #1 way churches attracted students was by feeding them, and then preaching while they ate. And if someone at church had need to correct someone else, they would inevitably ask them over for dinner or coffee and pretend to be social first. It felt so manipulative and controlling. I have to listen to you scold me because I’m at your house and I just ate your food. Even now I am far more likely to give a person in need of TLC a meal packed up as a picnic rather than invite them to eat at my house.

    My parish has 12 people sign up to be washed, and they have to be persuaded. There are never more than 3 men, and always at the last minute somebody has to convince half a dozen people. I think women are just more likely to step in at the last minute to make sure it all works, but my impression is that nobody really wants to do it.

  • I invite the readers to read the Gospel of John. Is footwashing an honor or a rebuke? As with the priesthood, it seems to me to align far more closely with a rebuke. It’s men who need it.

    Liturgy without form is not liturgy. When liturgical form is clear, there is adherence, there is ignorance, and there is abuse. Abuse in some things leads and has led to abuse in far more serious others, so any abuse must be surely intolerable.

    There are three questions:

    Is it clear?
    Is it known?
    Is it done?

  • @b

    >>Arguments are soldiers. Once you know which side you’re on, you must support all arguments of that side, and attack all arguments that appear to favor the enemy side; otherwise it’s like stabbing your soldiers in the back. If you abide within that pattern, policy debates will also appear one-sided to you

    This is the way half the population thinks. No, not the males. The conservatives.

    • deiseach

      If you think only conservatives rely on martial metaphors like treating arguments like soldiers, with the implication that liberals know the and adhere to the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but –

      – then you yourself have sent out your forces, banners flying, into the fray.