Updated: August 16, 2018 04:43 AM GMT
A husband washes his wife's feet as part of a special ritual organised by the Kerala State unit of the Indian Christian Women's Movement (ICWM) on March 28, one day before Maundy Thursday. The ICWM works to promote the equality of both genders and all castes, among other agendas. (Photo provided)
Amid fears of possible adverse consequences, the Kerala state unit of the Indian Christian Women's Movement (ICWM) organized foot-washing rituals on March 28, the day before Maundy Thursday. The idea was to promote the equality of both genders and all castes.
Part of this year's plan was to have the husbands and wives wash each other's feet amid a persistent refusal of the Eastern-Rite Catholic Churches, the dominant Christian communities in this southern state, to include women in the popular foot-washing ritual.
For some who opposed the ICWM's move, the women who organized the ceremony were considered "rebels," a group merely "looking for some cheap popularity through media coverage."
In their opinion, these "gimmicks" will have no impact on the traditions of their church or on society.
The question then is this: Why did these women risk their reputations and take a subversive step in celebrating this ritual during this year's Passion Week, or Holy Week, which ran from March 25-31?
Perhaps a glimpse into the history of this ritualistic tradition in the Catholic Church will clarify the reasons behind their move.
In the Catholic tradition, foot-washing is a ritual conducted on Maundy Thursday, one that commemorates the Biblical narrative of Jesus washing the feet of his disciples before the Last Supper.
In 2013, Pope Francis gave a new meaning to this ritual when he washed the feet of many "broken ones" on the margins of society. That included women and people of other faiths.
In 2016, a Vatican directive opened up the possibility of having a representative group of people whose feet could be washed for the ritual. "Such small groups can be made up of men and women, and it is appropriate that they consist of people young and old, healthy and sick, clerics, consecrated men and women and laity," the directive said.
Kerala's largest Syro-Malabar Church, which accounts for four million Catholics among the state's six million Christians, is yet to adhere to the directive.
This is based on the contention that the Eastern liturgical tradition allows only men to be part of this ritual. They also argue the Vatican directive is meant for the Latin rite Church, and not the Eastern-Rite churches.
During Holy Week last year, some members of the ICWM, an autonomous group of Christian women, celebrated the foot-washing ritual at a center for battered women and children in Kottayam, a central Kerala town.
What moved the ICWM to initiate this celebration was the conviction that the liberating significance of this powerful Gospel narrative needs to go beyond the politics of the churches and become a catalyst that can have a transformative impact on society.
Drawing energy from this powerful experience, which holds the potential to unify people stuck under oppressive hierarchies, the scope of the ritual was widened this year.
It was conducted at various venues in Kerala, and different dimensions of social discrimination in the Indian context were addressed.
Hence it was decided to hold the ritual in three major towns that have a considerable Christian presence — Ernakulam, Kottayam and Thiruvalla.
The event planned at Ernakulam was ultimately aborted as the authorities of a Christian center where the program was to be conducted backed out presumably fearing adverse repercussions from the church hierarchy.
In Thiruvalla, the event was held at a center for destitute and sickly women run by a secular charitable trust.
The sight of senior officials of the trust, all retired male college professors, washing the feet of these women was indeed a persuasive sign of self-emptying, healing and solidarity
In Kottayam, the primary focus was on washing the feet of the residents at a centre for homeless and people with disabilities run by the Navjeevan (New Life) Trust.
Founded by P. U. Thomas, the trust feeds some 5,000 poor people daily in the city and offers shelter, care and love to hundreds more.
The ICWM chose Navjeevan to conduct the ritual as the life of its founder Thomas Chettan has become symbolic of what "washing the feet" signifies in today's world.
Several couples were also invited to wash each other's feet. But many excused themselves for a variety of reasons. Some openly acknowledged their fear of being ridiculed by friends if they were to wash their wives' feet in public.
Only two couples finally went for the program. The gesture of seeing husbands wash their wives' feet posed a radical challenge to the prevailing social system based on gender hierarchy.
That hierarchy defines marriage as a life-long commitment of servitude for a great majority of women.
Indian society continues to be deeply marked by a male-dominated hierarchical attitude where differences of class, caste and gender become the locus of violent and discriminating interventions in all its tyrannical intersections.
Exactly a week before Maundy Thursday, a 21-year-old woman, Aathira Rajan, was stabbed to death by her own father on the eve of her marriage to a man from a low-caste Dalit community, formerly considered "untouchables."
The killing signals the alarming prevalence of caste-based discrimination and how the patriarchal ownership of women persists even among the educated in India today.
Hierarchical structures colored by the complex of purity-pollution continue to inform the mindset of the average Indian, meaning our society remains a so-called "lunatic asylum" of caste-based discrimination, just as Swami Vivekananda described it 125 years ago.
The social relevance of Jesus' act of washing his disciples' feet becomes clearer when juxtaposed with Indian society.
The Gospel vision of Jesus as the Lord and Master washing his disciples' feet holds a potent message that would have a transformative impact on our society.
While subversion poses a threat to the established system, the women who organized the foot-washing ceremony were prepared to take the risk of being labelled "bold rebels."
They were merely trying to realize the liberating potential of the powerful Gospel imperative, "Do for one another what I have done to you."
Kochurani Abraham, a feminist theologian based in Kerala, coordinates the work of the Indian Christian Women's Movement in the southern Indian state.
….As we enter the first months of 2022, we are asking readers like you to help us keep UCA News free.
For the last 40 years, UCA News has remained the most trusted and independent Catholic news and information service from Asia. Every week, we publish nearly 100 news reports, feature stories, commentaries, podcasts and video broadcasts that are exclusive and in-depth, and developed from a view of the world and the Church through informed Catholic eyes.
Our journalistic standards are as high as any in the quality press; our focus is particularly on a fast-growing part of the world - Asia - where, in some countries the Church is growing faster than pastoral resources can respond to – South Korea, Vietnam and India to name just three.
And UCA News has the advantage of having in its ranks local reporters who cover 23 countries in south, southeast, and east Asia. We report the stories of local people and their experiences in a way that Western news outlets simply don’t have the resources to reach. And we report on the emerging life of new Churches in old lands where being a Catholic can at times be very dangerous.
With dwindling support from funding partners in Europe and the USA, we need to call on the support of those who benefit from our work.