Pope Francis washed the feet of women and non-Christians, what does it tell the Christians in multi-religious world of ours?
Peter John K.
Jesus’ washing of the feet of His disciples has been ritually re-enacted for the last two thousand years during the holy week by priests, bishops and Popes. Many Christians seem to participate in this ritual like the other rituals celebrated throughout the various seasons of the Liturgical Year without being deeply affected or transformed by them. Though we cannot generalize, it can be observed from the attitude and behaviour of many who are the celebrants of the ceremony of the washing of the feet, those whose feet are washed and those who participate in the ceremony on Maundy Thursday, that there is no significant and positive change in their relationship with other human beings after celebrating this ritual of washing the feet. They continue to enjoy wielding power, dominating, controlling and discriminating others and fail to be servant-leaders of the Kingdom of God. How does it happen? The radical challenge of Jesus to become authentically human by devaluing power and positions, wealth and security etc., are ignored. It is substituted with rituals and ceremonies that have the power to transform when their liberating potentials are unleashed but are made to fail by making them only pious rituals for psycho-spiritual satisfaction and not for personal and societal transformation.
A religious ritual like washing of the feet has a tremendous message that can change the face of the Church and unleash its prophetic power in the world. But unfortunately, the Church authorities, in general, are content with keeping it as a liturgical practice like many other rituals or practices. Probably, they are afraid that it would subvert their system of leadership and governance and that they may have to give up their penchant for power and positions. It is exactly to oppose and subvert those tendencies Jesus washed the feet of the disciples. In washing the feet of women and the people of other faiths Pope Francis attempted to restore the transformative power this religious ritual and its great potential for challenging prophetically the dehumanizing values of the world that is mired in securing power and position employing even violent means.
Jesus Subverts the Systems of Dehumanizing Power
It is said that Jesus came to turn this world upside-down. It is true that He subverted everything which the world thinks as extremely important and absolutely necessary for human life. What the world pursues with a mindset to win and master at all costs, Jesus devalues and rejects with courage and conviction with a ‘heartset’ that sees everything and everyone in relation to their ultimate meaning. He defied the logic of power and subverted the master-servant relationship that is imposed by the society that sets a hierarchical order in human relationships. Jesus’ washing of the disciples’ feet was parallel to God’s becoming human. The Statement of the Indian Theological Association 1989 affirmed: “We look at Christ as one who, by emptying Himself, takes us to the ineffable mystery of God. His kenosis signifies a ‘not clinging to’ His divine status (Phil 2:6). It was an act of unconditional surrender to His Father’s universal salvific will. Christ accepted the human condition to the ultimate consequence. He gave Himself totally to others…This led Him to the final expression of kenosis, namely, the death on the cross, consecrated by the resurrection and symbolized in the Eucharist. This kenotic Christ is present in every human vicissitude as servant and leaven. He belongs to the whole humanity. Through this servant-hood He gives Himself incessantly to men and women of all cultures and leads them unobtrusively to their self-realization. His is a liberative action which makes the person whole, transforms the cultures it encounters by forming them into a community of love in which the other is respected and accepted in his or her self-understanding.” What the Statement of the ITA in 1989 emphasized about the self-emptying or kenotic attitude of Jesus expressed in His servant leadership is not only as a model but an imperative for Christian leadership as Jesus said, “If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet” (Jh. 13:14). It is also a model for others to follow in their process of becoming authentically human.
Since the edict of Milan in 313 by Emperor Constantine which declared Christianity as the religion of the Roman empire, the Church’s self-understanding as a movement and a community of equal disciples who form the Body of Christ and are temples of the Holy Spirit was changed. It was reduced into a religion like Judaism with rituals and ceremonies incorporating Gentile practices. It has made compromises with the radical demands of Jesus to build a household of God where self-emptying love, justice, equality, reconciliation and fellowship flourish. The style of leadership of this community of the brothers and sisters of Jesus was clearly expressed by Jesus as servant-leadership. “Jesus called them to Him and said, ‘You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you; but whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave; even as the Son of man came not to be served but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many” (Mt 20:25). It is unchristian to lord it over the people and creating power-structures that consider others as lower than the leaders. Paul says, “Outdo one another in showing honour” (Rom 12:9).
The words of Jesus on leadership as well as the teaching of Paul about our relationship with one another in the Church are not mere exhortations but commands. Sadly, the Church has been tempted like the Gentiles to lord it over people and many times yielded to it. The washing of the feet is a terrible reminder and a call for conversion to the Church to restore and continue its original vocation to be servant-leader in the world. The subversive divine action of kenosis of God becoming human, and the human self-emptying action of Jesus in washing the feet of the disciples continue to be a powerful, inspiring and challenging sign to the people of all religions and cultures of all times to discover their authentic selves and become truly human. Therefore, it is not just washing the feet of 12 elderly men, or children representing the 12 disciples but including men and women members of the Christian community as well as the people of other faiths who are willing to take part in the ceremony that gives a powerful witness to Jesus and His values of equality and human dignity which is the mission entrusted to the Church. Without taking seriously the radical message communicated by Jesus by washing the feet of His disciples, a re-enactment of action of foot-washing with twelve men representing the disciples is just another ritual, however ancient this tradition might have been in the individual Churches of different rites and whatever be the theology supporting it. Pope Francis’ action of washing the feet of people including some women and the people of other faiths challenges the Christian conscience of all the Churches to be truly sorry for the past failures and to follow the original revelation of Jesus that all humans are equal in dignity and any discrimination in the name of gender, religion, caste, ethnicity etc. is anti-Jesus and is opposed to authentic Christian faith. Seeking exemption from it and finding ways to circumvent the direct command of Jesus to wash one another’s feet which includes all humans without any discrimination reveals a sinful attitude that places human tradition over God’s command. We must humbly submit that any Christian practice that goes directly against the gospel message of human dignity and equality before God is not from the God revealed through Jesus Christ and his Spirit.
Pope Francis Follows Jesus’ Servant-Leadership
Pope Francis with the heart of a universal pastor reaches out to all humans beyond the borders of the Church. His ‘heartset’ is for an inclusive understanding of the Church that it can be the true sacrament of Christ, the light of the world or Lumen Gentium. He faces a lot of opposition even from some Church officials who can only see the Church as an institution rather than a communion where God’s Spirit is active in genuine human relationships. All the statements and actions of Pope Francis reveal that he treats humans with the same love and compassion of Jesus in His own unique way and wants that those in the hierarchy, deacons, priests and bishops must not wield their power to dominate and control people but like ministers or the servants of the Word and the Sacraments to be true servants of the people of God. His attitudes and actions show that the mystery of the Church as the people of God is essentially inclusive and not exclusive as understood in the past. His washing of the feet of women and the people of other faith was a challenge and an invitation to the entire Church to come out of its partriarchal and male-dominating mindset, discrimination of women and exclusion of the people of other faiths and have the ‘heartset’ of the heavenly Father, who is the motherly Father, and includes everyone without any discrimination and positively reaches out to them making his sun rise and rain shower on everyone without any discrimination (cfr Mt 5:45). To be a servant-leader is a vocation and to exercise genuine servant leadership requires the empowerment of the Holy Spirit, courage, conviction and purposefulness. Those who lack inner security and authority cannot exercise servant-leadership but only dehumanizing power. Only strong can choose to be weak but the weak rarely accept their weakness and when they are given power they would use it to cover their weakness and act strong. They cannot be servant-leaders whom Jesus wants for his mission.
In the multi-religious world of ours the paradox of the Christian message that God’s power is revealed in powerlessness and God’s wisdom is revealed in what the world considers foolishness , the action of Pope Francis washing the feet of women and the people of other faiths has given a powerful witness to the world about the God revealed through Jesus Christ. This God is a God for whom human beings are more important than Sabbath, temple and ritual purity. This God is a human-centred God. This God is glorified when humans live in communion as equal members of God’s household. This is the message that Pope Francis sent to the world through his washing of the feet which was an act of inclusiveness. It is a disturbing message for those who are not willing to give up their power to be the servants of the people of God. In the ultimate analysis it is a refusal to be Jesus to others. It calls for repentance and conversion to become human like Jesus and to be a servant-leader like him! Pope Francis shows that it is possible and indeed necessary!
Jacob Parappally MSFS