“He who does not envy the spiritually mature and is merciful to the wicked has attained an equal love for all.” — Thalassios the Libyan
This early Christian leader in North Africa lived between 580 and 640 C.E. Love seems to have been a common theme of his writings. I have been thinking about that recently as I read how Catholics view their new Pope’s washing of the feet of juvenile prisoners (rather than the feet of other priests and bishops). For some this represents a welcome gesture beyond the traditional expectations of this symbolic act of the Pope. As I understand it, canon law prescribes that the Pope perform this rite to appropriate males. To widen the symbol to include both genders, and in this case, even a Muslim, can be understood as either a scandalous disregard for the holy tradition, or an embodiment in today’s context of Jesus’ hospitality to those around him. It has created an animated conversation within the Catholic community.
As part of the Protestant tradition that emphasizes sola scriptura (Scripture alone) as our guiding principle, we in the Anabaptist movement do not value tradition as being as determinative of our faith practice as do the Catholics. Or do we?
Even with respect to footwashing, my experience has been that Mennonites are deeply affected by tradition. While in seminary, my wife and I belonged to a Sunday school class in the Mennonite church we attended that discussed the practice of footwashing. As we approached Maundy Thursday’s communion and footwashing service, the practice of the congregation was to separate the men and the women. That seemed artificial to us. As we discussed the meaning of footwashing that Jesus practiced with the disciples, it seemed to us that it was done within the context of a group of people who knew each other well and had spent much time together. Our congregation was fairly large (by Mennonite standards) and we felt that we were much better acquainted with one another in our 40+ member Sunday school class than we were with the hundreds with whom we worshipped every Sunday. So we petitioned the church leadership to be able to practice footwashing as a Sunday school class. That discussion took some deliberating, but eventually passed. We were likely the first group in that congregation to practice footwashing in a mixed-gender setting.
When I pastored my first congregation, the gender issue was a non-issue for this emerging congregation. We simply went around the circle, washing the feet of the person next to us. But I learned then how powerful the image was to one of our members. He had grown up Catholic and was familiar with the practice of the priest washing one male parishioner’s feet on Maundy Thursday. As it happened, I washed his feet. Philosophically, he was opposed to having designated leadership in our small congregation. But emotionally, my washing his feet (as the pastoral leader) impacted him greatly. He felt a part of the congregation in a way that he had not felt before.
In both of these instances, we broke with the established tradition in ways that allowed footwashing to take on additional meaning, sometimes in ways beyond what we had originally anticipated. I believe acts of service are closely related to acts of love. We cannot honestly perform Christian acts of service unless we love. What does it mean for us to offer acts of love/service not only to our good friends, but also to those who are distinctly different from us? Tradition can be of great value when it helps us to focus on Jesus. It can become an impediment to our faith journey when it focuses on itself instead. May our lives have an equal love for all!