From the Rector: Tradition of the Towel
I’m not entirely sure how I ended up on the mailing list of the “Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond,” but I’m on it and I read through many of their publications. “BTSR” was founded in 1991 in the wake of the takeover of the Southern Baptist Convention by a fundamentalist group that had begun in 1979. The current issue of the school’s development office brochure caught my attention. The cover story is about what has become a BTSR tradition. The night before students graduate, each graduate receives a towel embroidered with the seal of the seminary and her or his name on it at a banquet. The school president who initiated the tradition had heard these words when he was installed as a pastor earlier in his ministry, “Ministry is finding a towel with your name on it.”
Our Maundy Thursday washing of feet is a relatively recent addition to the public liturgy of the Church. In the Middle Ages, though the practice was observed by some monastic communities – and in England, until the Reformation, in cathedrals that were monastic foundations – it was not part of the liturgy proper. Queen Elizabeth I washed the feet of poor women. Echoes of this practice survive today in Britain in the annual distribution of “Maundy Money” by the monarch on Maundy Thursday. The washing of feet was included in the 1570 Roman Missal as a separate ceremony on Maundy Thursday. It did not become part of the Maundy Thursday liturgy for Roman Catholics until they revised their Holy Week rites in 1955. The washing of feet became part of the Episcopal liturgy officially in 1979. (I know it began before that at Saint Mary’s; but, I’m not yet sure when. Research continues.)
The liturgical history of the rite is interesting for a lot of reasons. The first time I observed it, it never occurred to me that it wasn’t an ancient part of the liturgy, going back directly to the Upper Room. I remember being very surprised to learn its history. The washing of feet is an excellent example too of what liturgist Louis Weil calls “bleeding.” In this case, the ceremony has been used too often to read into John’s gospel a liturgical rite and a priestly ministry. Indeed, in a very few Episcopal parishes, those whose feet are washed are always male. This is an unfortunate misuse of Scripture and the rite.
Remember, Jesus did not ordain anyone during the Last Supper. Certainly an understanding of what we come to call ordination was developing in the life of the Church in New Testament times. At the same time, what we would call “sacramental” is coming to be understood in the life of the emerging Christian community. This was through the work of the Holy Spirit. That something is the work of the Holy Spirit, of course, does not make it any less important than a work of the Lord Jesus or of God the Father.
I’m not sure when I came to understand and experience the washing of feet as the sign of the relationship not of priest to congregation but of members of Christ’s Body to one another. It had a lot to do with my growing understanding that the purpose of the services of Holy Week was to confirm the identity of the baptized, our identity, as the Body of Christ. We were not baptized to be Peter or the soldiers or Pilate or Judas. We are Jesus’ brother, sister, mother. We are those Jesus called in John’s gospel, not disciples, but friends.
Since my Michigan City days I have been altering one sentence of the text for Maundy Thursday from The Book of Occasional Services. The presider does not invite people forward so that he or she can recall the “example of my Master” (emphasis added). Instead, the presider invites all to come forward to have their feet washed and then to wash the feet of another so that all of us “may recall whose servant we are by following the example of our Master” (emphasis added).
Back to the “Tradition of the Towel.” Baptists generally take very seriously the royal priesthood of all believers (1 Peter 2:9). Their spiritual and theological challenges are set by different parameters than those of our Anglican tradition. I think that the towel works for the graduates of BTSR in a very useful way. For us, I think our liturgy has it just about right. We don’t need to start handing out towels when we do Baptism or Confirmation. We don’t need to wash each other’s feet more than once a year. I continue to long for our Church generally to have a more apparent and lively sense that an ordinary Christian’s life is the great sign of God’s presence in this world. For the record, we share towels at Saint Mary’s when we wash feet. It is a sign to us of our intimate relationship with each other and of God’s intimate relationship with us. Stephen Gerth
SUNDAY PRAYER LIST . . . Your prayers are asked for Jack, Amy, Daniel, Carol, Frances, Margaret, Eva, Allan, Dorothy, Harold, Marcia, Stephen, Madeleine, William, Gert, Mary, Daisy, Rick, Allan, and Roy, priest; for the members of our Armed Forces on active duty, especially Marc, Omar, Christopher, Benjamin, Steven, Andrew, and Patrick; and for the repose of the soul of Walenska . . . GRANT THEM PEACE . . . July 19: 1891 Louis Edward Bieral; 1897 Francis Austen; 1898 Ethel Motman Chambers; 1899 Frank John Schoen; 1903 Jacob Eiler; 1932 Jeanette Trimarco.
THIS WEEK AT SAINT MARY’S . . . Wednesday, July 22, is the Feast of Saint Mary Magdalene. There will be an additional Mass offered at 6:20 PM, immediately following Evening Prayer as this is a “Major Feast” of the Church year. Saturday, July 25, is the Feast of Saint James the Apostle. Mass will be said for this commemoration at 12:10 PM . . . Father Mead will be away Sunday, July 19 . . . Father Gerth will hear confessions on Saturday, July 18, and Father Smith will hear confessions on Saturday, July 25 . . . The Rector will be on vacation from July 24 through July 30.
AROUND THE PARISH . . . Frances Geer continues in rehabilitation at Mount Sinai Medical Center. Margaret Malone is in rehabilitation at Amsterdam House. Please keep them in your prayers . . . We recently received a copy of Helping Hands for the Addicted: A Renewed Call to Action, a resource booklet published by the Recovery Ministries of the Episcopal Church Inc. We have made copies of the booklet (which is not copyrighted) and the copies are available in the back of the church on the ushers’ table . . . Attendance: Last Sunday 255.
FROM THE MUSIC DEPARTMENT . . . Music at Solemn Mass this Sunday is sung by Ms. Karen Wapner, alto, Mr. James Kennerley, tenor, and Mr. Alan Champion, bass. The prelude is the Allegretto from Sonata No. 4 in B-flat Major, Op. 65/4, by Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847). The Mass ordinary is sung by the choir to the setting for three voices by William Byrd (c. 1540-1623). Byrd was a recalcitrant Roman Catholic in Protestant Elizabethan England. In spite of the political difficulties he faced due to his faith, his career flourished because of his protection by the Queen, Elizabeth I, a great admirer of Byrd’s music. He was a distinguished gentleman of her Chapel Royal, which at that time was the greatest honor a musician in England could receive. Much of his Latin music, however, was written for clandestine Catholic liturgies in private homes (including this Mass), and therefore has a somewhat intimate character. At the ministration of Communion, the choir sings the motet Gloria tibi, Domine, also by Byrd. James Kennerley
OUTREACH MATTERS . . . Are you, or do you know somebody who is, fifty-five years or older and looking for work? The New York City Department for Aging’s Title V Senior Community Employment Program is offering training in three areas: computers, work as a personal care aide, and customer service. The training lasts four weeks and trainees receive a small stipend while involved in job-search activities. In order to participate in the program, applicants must be at least fifty-five years old, unemployed, a resident of New York City, and they must meet certain low-income requirements. Those who are interested should call the NYC Department of Aging at 212-442-1355 . . . Food Pantry: You are invited to bring non-perishable food items and new or clean, gently-used clothing items on Sundays. Those items are then delivered to the Saint Clement’s Food Pantry on 46th Street. Jay Smith
FROM THE ARCHIVES . . . From “The Arrow,” A Parish Newsletter, Vol. I, No. 1, October 1891: “Notes and Queries: The Rationale of Ritual. Courtesy is generally regarded as indispensable in all social relations. It is expressed in a variety of ways, as for instance, by the raising of the hat, bowing, etc. It is not considered necessary to be able to give an account of the origin and symbolism of such acts. It is sufficient that everybody understands the principles underlying them. The same thing, translated into the higher relations of Religion, is called Reverence, and finds its natural expression in Ritual. Ritual is just as requisite to our due intercourse with Heaven as are the social amenities in our dealings with man. In the same way too the general principle underlying all Ritual is of more importance than the exact symbolism of each little detail . . . Persons who have been unaccustomed to the use of much ritual are inclined to concern themselves overmuch as to the precise meaning of every gesture and vestment. One could hardly imagine a less edifying method of assisting at the celebration of Divine Mysteries than that of being on the alert for each detail in order to apply its proper interpretation. In the ordinary affairs of life we do not stop to ask why a man wears two buttons on the back of his coat, nor should we accuse him of stupid mummery if unable to give a satisfactory answer. Life indeed would become a burden were we compelled to furnish symbolic reasons for everything we do . . . The Ritual of the Church is by no means on a level with such matters. Its study is full of interest and instruction, and cannot fail to be edifying to those who systematically take it up. But it is a science, and must be dealt with comprehensively, and not piece-meal. What we wish to insist upon is that it is not necessary to be an expert in ritual in order to participate intelligently in Catholic worship.” (The Arrow was published monthly from 1891 until 1899.)
The Calendar of the Week
Sunday The Seventh Sunday after Pentecost
Eve of Saint Mary Magdalene
Wednesday Saint Mary Magdalene
Friday Thomas à Kempis, Priest, 1471 Abstinence
Eve of Saint James the Apostle
Saturday Saint James the Apostle
Eve of the Eighth Sunday after Pentecost
Sunday: 8:30 AM Morning Prayer, 9:00 AM Said Mass, 10:00 AM Said Mass, 11:00 AM Solemn Mass,
5:00 PM Evening Prayer. Childcare is available from 9:00 AM until 1:00 PM all Sundays of the year.
Monday–Friday: 8:30 AM Morning Prayer, 12:00 PM Noonday Office, 12:10 PM Mass, 6:00 PM Evening Prayer. The Wednesday Mass is sung. The Thursday Mass includes anointing of the sick. Holy Days as announced.
Saturday: 12:00 PM Noonday Office, 12:10 PM Mass, 5:00 PM Evening Prayer, 5:20 PM Sunday Vigil Mass.
Confessions are heard on Saturdays 11:30-11:50 AM & 4:00-4:50 PM.