Some people are extremely upset with Pope Francis. It seems he had the temerity to include women and Muslims in his Holy Thursday ritual washing of feet, which he conducted at a juvenile prison in Rome. People who have set themselves up to be “holier than the pope” are outraged, since there is some lore to the effect that the feet should only be of the male gender. The same people are equally upset that Pope Francis eschews fancy robes, red shoes, and the papal apartments. He is setting an example of simplicity and humility; his already-tiresome critics are accusing him of virtual heresy.
The chronic, corrosive intolerance of people who claim to be holier than others, or who claim to know the Truth, is one of the oldest and most debilitating sins of humanity. Intolerance is one of the obvious large themes of this sacred week on the Judaeo-Christian calendar, as Jews observe Passover and Christians observe Holy Week leading up to the feast of the Resurrection.
Intolerance is one of the great themes coursing through the stories of persecution and passion of this religious season, even as forgiveness and hope are the ultimate lessons of the narratives of liberation and resurrection told over countless Seder tables and in Gospel readings this week.
Intolerance was one of the obvious drivers of the Roman persecution of the Jews, setting up the too-easy betrayal of Christ by Judas since the Roman rulers were quite anxious to get rid of that troublemaker, and the greedy disciple was an easy target for corruption.
Passover contemplates the sorrow, shame and abysmal suffering of intolerance — the slavery of the Jews in Egypt — and the courage and fortitude of people on their way to liberation as Moses led his people into the desert on their way to the Promised Land.
Betrayal is almost always part of the narrative on intolerance. Whether in the form of the Israelites worshipping the golden calf, or Peter denying he knew Jesus, or Pilate who had his doubts washing his hands of the whole sordid affair, the Biblical tales of this season necessarily expose the corruption of self-interest, which causes betrayal among even close friends, in order to frame the considerably heroic virtue of forgiveness.
Forgiveness is essential for hope and faith to flourish —- without forgiveness, the Israelites would never have made it to the Promised Land, and the Gospel promise of the Resurrection might have ended on Calvary. The idea of forgiveness in these narratives — from intolerance and persecution, through betrayal and suffering, to acts of atonement and contrition, which are truly acts of charity — is the essential premise for the final message of hope, which is essential for faith to flourish.
People who pick on the superficial points of ritual and tradition — the style of vestments, the gender of the feet — miss the whole point of our faith tradition, which is the triumph of God’s love over human sinfulness, including the sins of intolerance and betrayal, which have caused most of the egregious grief in human history.
By including women and Muslims in the ritual of feet washing on Holy Thursday, a symbolic re-enactment of the Last Supper, Pope Francis has made a simple statement about the pervasiveness of God’s forgiveness and love for all of his children — not just for a chosen few who might be the right gender, or right religion, or right social class or race. That’s the real message of the Easter season.
Blessings to all in this holy season!