Friday, April 12, 2013

Episcopal Burlesque

Recently I was sent a smartphone camera image from a Maundy Thursday Liturgy. In a provocative scarlet hue, created, I suppose, by a felicitous complex of light, vestment fabrics and tented space, . . . there in this near tangible haze was a casual grouping of our clergy. Given the gauzy hue of the iPhone image, the ambiance appeared to be that of a final glowing moment of release from ceremonial intensity, the Episcopal witness to a satisfactory finish or in liturgy language, Dismissal. In fact, our prelates had just finished washing the feet of some clients from a local medical clinic for indigent folk. The obvious stand out clergy was a bishop arrayed in a deluxe exquisitely fitted cassock with purple cord trim and topped off with a fine draping cape. He had finished himself off with a fine  tiptop, the biretta cap, a playful gesture of traditional  masculine cleric form. From my alien perspective, this most elegant bishop compared superlatively and in fact in superior array to Pope Francis, himself earlier in proximity to and washing some young Italian ladies’ feet at a Rome prison. (Perhaps someday as a gesture of humility, he will invite them to his papal apartment for good wine to view his art collection.)

I could not help but wonder what it must have been like and tried to put myself in the shoeless feet of a clinic client on Maundy Thursday as our  senior prelates explained and conducted this most eccentric ancient Christian rite of feet washing. As I became immersed in my fantasy, I wondered, “Well, okay, do I get a little something for this. . . whatever it is?” Or, “Well, I guess, okay, if it makes ‘em happy and I still get to get my teeth cleaned. .”   And then, “I know what they told me, but what the hell is this and guess I oughta be nice!” “Washing my feet, . .  really!? Have at it.” “What the hell is he doing in that outfit?”

In another foot play narrative, a friend of mine went to a Eucharist where the priest preached about the girl who lathed Jesus’ feet with some nard, the biblical stuff, the ointment, the expensive oil. (Check out references in Wikipedia; my cats go crazy for it. . . ) Anyway, this girl gets all devotional, so the story goes, and lathers up Jesus’s feet in front of God and everybody at the dinner party. (Personally I just have no reference for this whole thing but have seen stuff on television in dance bar scenes that give me some idea. . . ) The preacher stated that the big deal was the young woman had to finance her nard purchase by dipping into her dowry. Well, could I see some kid trying to get money out of a trust fund for nard?  Then, I thought, well, the dowry is supposed to go to the guy she is to marry not herl! Now how was she going to go to the trustee, daddy, I would think, get permission to nard up Jesus and still have a little something to finance the wedding contract?

Now I gotta tell you, the preacher has a PhD, really. . . . The old fashioned name for this sort of biblical analysis of putting interpretation into the biblical text for what you want to get out is eisegesis. So here we get a MDiv/PhD, telling a story which is really his weird thing and calling it,  “Preaching The Gospel.”  Well, it is sort of sexy and fun but, well, it ain’t Bible exposition. . .

Back to feet washing. . . You know, it is just plain weird in today’s world. When the Church does it,  whether with Pope, pomp or party time in ritual and homily, washing folks’ feet, well, unless you are too sick to bathe yourself, it’s just weird. . . unless you get it done, drunk in a sailor’s bar. . .  


  1. I know the picture you refer. That was one strange outfit. Goodness. Hey- let's look relevant to the poor! Let look cool and all outreachy once a year, and wash their feet, and hey look, umm, let the nurses do it, I don't want to get my fine garments too messy. oooo look a camera, let me pose and look like I'm having a good time doing this holy outreachy thingy. Somehow these pointed hat primates missed the scripture on Ash Wednesday.

  2. All behavior is “need fulfilling” so we do well to ask what “need” is met by grandiose vestments or sermons? The array of answers all point to persons in need.

  3. Ron, I felt a slight wince as I first read your biting satire on episcopal and priestly pontificating. Then upon reading your blog the second time, I saw the humor and, shall I say, the truth that lay underneath the humor. I like the comment that sometimes what we do, say and look like tells us more about fulfilling our needs than anything else.

  4. Apparently they didn't read the story. Jesus strips to wash the disciples feet. So they wash the feet of strangers, not disciples, and they pomp around doing it. Nice odd in your piece to match the odd in the photo.

  5. The American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) describes personality disorders as often, first appearing in childhood or adolescence and persist throughout a person's lifetime. Aside from their persistence, the other major characteristic of personality disorders is inflexibility. Persons affected by these disorders have rigid personality traits and coping styles, may not perceive that there is anything wrong with their behavior and are not motivated to change it, and have impaired social and/or occupational functioning.

    The Narcissistic personality disorder consists primarily of an inflated sense of self-importance coupled with a lack of empathy for others. Individuals with this disorder display an exaggerated sense of their own importance and abilities and tend to fantasize about them. Such persons also have a sense of entitlement, expecting (and taking for granted) special treatment and concessions from others. Paradoxically, individuals with narcissistic personality disorder are generally very insecure and suffer from low self-esteem.