Since I’ve been really busy lately, I thought I’d take a break from Thesis Thursday. (Even though we’re in the home stretch — just three lectures left!)
Everybody knows about Good Friday, the day of the crucifixion, but for a long time I’d thought of Maundy Thursday as bit of Catholic (or Anglican, a.k.a. Catholic-lite) extranea, like Fat Tuesday and Ash Wednesday and Lent and Epiphany, and most of the rest of the traditional church calendar.
However, my church is on a trajectory towards higher-church liturgy, and few years ago we instituted a Maundy Thursday service. But even though Maundy etymologically refers to the foot-washing of John 13, our service only has a simple church dinner in the “Fellowship Hall,” followed by moving into the “Audiosacramentorium” for a short homily and communion.
As far as I can tell, the Reformed tradition has never cottoned to the whole foot-washing thing — agreeing with Rome that it is not a sacrament, contra some Anabaptist groups like the Mennonites. However, it seems to me that John 13:14-15 pretty clearly meet the SC92 definition of “A holy ordinance instituted by Christ.”
If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you.
Is that not even stronger language than “Do this in remembrance of me”? So why don’t we have foot-washing as a third sacrament? Checking with go-to-guy (Calvin’s commentary), I find him to be unhelpful:
It deserves our attention that Christ says that he gave an example; for we are not at liberty to take all his actions, without reserve, as subjects of imitation. The Papists boast that, by Christ’s example, they observe the forty days’ fast, or Lent. But we ought first to see whether or not he intended to lay down his fast as an example that the disciples might conform to it as a rule. We read nothing of this sort, and, therefore, the imitation of it is not less wicked than if they attempted to fly to heaven. Besides, when they ought to have followed Christ, they were not imitators, but apes. Every year they have a fashion of washing some people’s feet, as if it were a farce which they were playing on the stage; and so, when they have performed this idle and unmeaning ceremony, they think that they have fully discharged their duty, and reckon themselves at liberty to despise their brethren during the rest of the year. But — what is far worse — after having washed the feet of twelve men, they subject every member of Christ to cruel torture, and thus spit in Christ’s face. This display of buffoonery, therefore, is nothing else than a shameful mockery of Christ. At all events, Christ does not here enjoin an annual ceremony, but bids us be ready, throughout our whole life, to wash the feet of our brethren and neighbors.
I don’t get how Calvin can escape “follow my example” so easily by simply asserting that “Christ does not here enjoin an annual ceremony”?
Maybe it is problematic to have a “sacrament” that is administered by everybody (i.e. administered by lay-Christians, not just the ordained)? But if that’s the problem, then surely it would be quite in the spirit of the original foot-washing to have the ordained leaders of the church (pastor, elders, deacons) wash the feet of the parishioners?
I also wonder whether the answer lies in how foot-washing fits with the rest of SC92: “wherein, by sensible signs, Christ, and the benefits of the new covenant, are represented, sealed, and applied to believers.” But that seems to me to fit pretty well. Obviously it is a sign that we would apprehend by our senses, and it would represent the same washing benefit as baptism, as well as the benefit of Christ’s humiliation on our behalf. Does the argument then head in the direction that the bible nowhere promises that foot-washing will seal and apply benefits to believers?
Do any readers have any further thoughts (or better yet, actual historical citations) that would explain why the Reformed do not have sacramental foot-washings?