Evacuating religious power: foot-washing and altar-stripping

By Simon Barrow
April 6, 2012

Two days ago, I had a fascinating conversation with a good friend of Ekklesia's - someone who, though not Christian, has a real and personal concern for spiritual journeying.

We ended up talking about images that had come to her in the midst of her own exploration, and in particular the significance of foot-washing, which she was not fully aware is a central part of the ritual of Holy (or Maundy) Thursday.

Then later in the evening I came across a Twitter comment from an Anglican clergyman who (somewhat to my surprise, I confess!) had apparently just discovered the practice of the Stripping of the Altar as the last ceremony in the Holy Thursday liturgy. Well, it is more regular in Catholic tradition I guess.

Foot-washing and altar-stripping, as voluntary acts, are specific ways in which many Christians prepare for the sombre events of Good Friday, for the waiting and uncertainty of Holy Saturday, and for the life-giving celebration of Easter Sunday.

Significantly, they are the opposite of those acts of self-assertion which characterise religion at its worst, not least when it (perhaps behind shows of bravado or defiance) feels threatened and uncertain.

In the events leading to his betrayal, and at the height of a controversy about status and power (theirs and his) among his closest followers, Jesus washed his friends' feet and enjoined them to wash each others' feet.

Foot-washing is both a very intimate act, but also a symbol of servitude. In the culture of Jesus' time, it was something servants were required to do for those above them. In the way he did it, it was about mutual service not the submission of slaves to masters.

The message is clear and compelling: Jesus' lordship reverses rather than reinforces traditional power relations. The community of Jesus is to be recognised as one of shared service not top-down rule.

We Christians are called upon to wash one another's feet; not just ritually, but in every sphere of life. Likewise, "loving your neighbour as yourself" is perfectly embodied in the notion foot-washing, which is also about sharing resources and offering hospitality. Except that in Jesus' company the concept of 'neighbour' is extended from those close to us to those far away - even enemies, who are also to be loved.

Washing one another's feet is necessary to prepare us to travel precisely this revolutionary path, and it is also an intrinsic part of it.

The central symbol of Christianity is not a 'religious' one abstracted from this revolutionary journey, it is an instrument of torture and death imposed on the just and the innocent by regimes of power. It is also one legitimated by false religion and ideology: the cross. Jesus is made a sacrifice by the powers-that-be because his path of service rather than domination exposes and threatens their power games.

This crucifixion, in which one who embodies a Love so radical that it embraces even enemies is killed by the complicity of a certain kind of religious authority and certain kind of state/corporate authority, is prefigured in the church's liturgy by the Stripping of Altars. This enacts the stripping away of life, colour and meaning in the arrest, trial, execution and desolation of Jesus... whose death, according to one gospel, is marked by the simultaneous renting asunder of the Temple curtain. These two ideas belong together.

In the liturgical act of Stripping,the sanctuary is laid bare to prepare for God's embracing of a suffering and death which is far from merely ritualistic or symbolic in the 'religious' sense of those terms; and in the Temple veil story, the dividing wall that separates the 'religious' from the 'secular' as a kind of 'vestigial state' is torn down.

These are extraordinarily powerful moments: they remind us (through physical demonstration) that 'religion', most especially 'the religion of power' is not what Jesus Christ brings us. Rather, in his death and resurrection, he confronts the forces of suffering, sin and death by absorbing and defeating them through love; and he abolishes all sacrificial ideas (including those re-established by later Christianity, we may assume) by exposing the Lie at the heart of the sacrificial and scapegoating system itself (as Rene Girard potently shows in his writings on passion and mimesis).

There is much, much more that could be said about all this. Not least about the way in which central Christian narratives were (and are) corrupted as the church accommodated itself to the very power-relations Jesus deconstructed through foot-washing, through the manner of his death, and finally through a vindication which rests on divine life-giving not human death-dealing.

But that's the Easter Sunday story, to which we shall return...

* More on Maundy Thursday - http://liturgy.co.nz/churchyear/maundy.html

* Holy Thursday: The arrest of God - http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/14614

* From 'Royal Maundy' to a real Maundy of equality - http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/16512

* The religious betrayal of God and its antidote - http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/14612


© Simon Barrow is co-director of Ekklesia.

Although the views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Ekklesia, the article may reflect Ekklesia's values. If you use Ekklesia's news briefings please consider making a donation to sponsor Ekklesia's work here.