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More about sandals!

I remember, when learning about the Roman emperors at school, being fascinated to be told that it was not strictly correct to speak of the “Emperor Caligula”, as Caligula was neither a formal Roman praenomen (personal name) nor a patronymic (from the father’s name) but rather a nickname for Gaius Caesar Augustus Germanicus, who was given the nickname by troops of his father, the renowned Roman general Germanicus Julius Caesar.


When aged perhaps just two or three, Gaius was taken by his father on the military campaigns in Germania. The little Gaius was dressed as a soldier complete with miniature boots and armour, and it is these boots or caligae that give rise to the nickname Caligula or “little boot”.


A caliga was not really a boot as we would understand the word today, something completely enclosed, but rather a heavy-duty, thick-soled sandal or open-work boot, sometimes complete with hobnails in the sole.


Decades later, when studying liturgy at the seminary, I was intrigued to discover that at one time before the liturgical reforms of the Second Vatican Council, there was a whole range of episcopal and papal footwear which fell out of use, including papal slippers, papal shoes (these you may remember re-introduced in red leather under the pontificate of Pope Benedict XVI), and papal sandals (known variously as campagni or sandalia). These papal or episcopal sandals were worn with “liturgical stockings” originally called udones and later caligae – so the word lived on in ecclesiastical usage, and should remind us again perhaps that so much of church life within the Catholic experience is drawn historically from Roman civil life.


One of the history teachers at school was always reinforcing in us the idea that history was so much more than the learning of dates and battles; the people of history could only be discovered through studying their diets and foodstuffs, their clothing and footwear, the development of education, working practices, and leisure.


* * * * *


Assorted sandals (photo: Adam Jang, Unsplash)

Sandals carry a cultural significance; they assume a particular relevance for people of faith and for those somewhat familiar with scripture. Sandals have marked the important events in the story of God’s dealings with his people, both collectively and individually.


A member of the Thursday evening prayer group asked me a while ago, what else could be said about “the sandal strap” as it had come up three times in recent weeks for the Sunday Gospel.


“Did you talk about x?” “No.” “Do you know about y?” “No.” “What about …?” “No.” In the light of that conversation, I think there is probably much still to say about sandals and their symbolic and cultural importance.


* * * * *


In the beginning was … no, not the Word, but the sandal.


We are probably familiar with the idea that each evangelist not only wrote a gospel for a particular audience (Greek converts, Roman Christians, etc.) but also to present Jesus in a particular way. Arguably, amongst other ideas, the evangelist Matthew seeks to portray Jesus as “the new Moses”. The life of Moses, as we know of it from canonical scripture, can be mapped onto the recorded life of Jesus; but it is exceeded in the life of Jesus at every point, so not only the new Moses but rather the new and greater Moses.


The book that we know as Exodus (from the Greek Septuagint translation) is called Shemot (“names”) in Hebrew. Exodus is about journey, the liberation from slavery in Egypt, covenant, promise and law. Early on we have the story of the Burning Bush (Exod 3:1-6) and we read of the first encounter between God and Moses, including the passage:


“Take off your shoes, for the place on which you stand is holy ground.” (v.5)


In the New Testament this same passage is directly referenced in Stephen’s speech following his arrest, in which he gives a summary of Jewish faith history:


“… Take off your shoes; the place where you are standing is holy ground ...” (Acts 7:33)


Some of us may have encountered something similar if we have ever been on pilgrimage to the minor basilica of Our Lady of Walsingham. The “Slipper Chapel”, not in Walsingham at all but in Houghton St Giles, was the last of the stational chapels before arriving at the shrine and pilgrims would put off their footwear to walk the last “Holy Mile” barefoot.


Excursus: The Hebrew word נַעַל (naal or naalah) from na’al, a verb meaning to bar, bolt or lock, is variously translated as “shoe” but most often as “sandal” and rendered in the Greek as ὑπόδημα (hupodéma), literally, “what is bound under”, from hypo (under), deō (to tie, bind), for what is a sandal but a sole fastened to the foot with thongs. The sole could be made of wood, leather, palm leaves or papyrus stalks, and different cultures preferred soles turned up like skates (Egyptians and Phoenicians) or rounded or pointed (Hebrews). The sense of binding, bolting or locking is best preserved in the KJV which has the word “latchet” or “shoe-latchet” to translate “thong” or “lace”. Another, less frequently used in scripture, Greek word for sandal is σανδάλιον (sandalion), phonetically much closer to our own word.


If the evangelist seeks to portray Jesus as the new Moses, those who follow after Moses are shown to have similar experiences, described using identical words, that appropriate and fitting for his successors:


The captain of the army of the Lord God answered Joshua, “Take your sandals off your feet, for the place you are standing on is holy”. And Joshua obeyed. (Joshua 5:15)


But, you may say, if Jesus is the new Moses where is he shown taking off his sandals and walking on holy ground. Well perhaps consider the account of the Transfiguration (Mt 17:1-8; Mk 9:2-8; Lk 9:28-36) when Jesus reveals a glimpse of his glory to his closest disciples: there is here some resonance with the Burning Bush experience; it is Jesus who makes the place holy. Alternatively, think of the incident of Jesus walking on the water (Mt 14:25-6; Mk 6:48-49; John 6:19), that elemental remnant of the primordial chaos over which God’s spirit moves or “touches gently” (Gen 1:2). Jesus in control of the elements, calming the storm; Jesus with mastery over creation, walking on the water; Jesus showing that creation is infused with the glory of God even as Jesus himself makes it holy by his very presence.


After announcing the ten plagues on the land and people of Egypt, Moses leads God’s people from their bondage by safe passage through the Sea of Reeds. The most significant of the plagues is the tenth, the death of the first-born. It is at this point that God gives Moses instructions for the institution of the Passover and the observance of the Passover meal:


“You shall eat it like this: with a girdle round your waist, sandals on your feet, a staff in your hand. You shall eat it hastily: it is a Passover in honour of the Lord.” (Exod 12:11)


This image of preparation for, and setting out on, journeys may offer New Testament resonances for us. For example, the instruction given to the twelve: “with no haversack for the journey or spare tunic or footwear” (Mt 10:10); and the similar instruction given to the seventy-two: “carry no purse, no haversack, no sandals” (Lk 10:4).

Jesus’ question to the twelve, after Peter’s denial has been foretold: “when I sent you out without purse or haversack or sandals, were you short of anything?” (Lk 22:35), echoes the words of Moses to the people of Israel, “For forty years I led you in the wilderness; the clothes on your back did not wear out and your sandals did not wear off your feet.” (Deut 29:4[5])


Two associated references use the word σανδάλιον (sandalion) instead. Firstly the parallel instruction to the twelve in Mark, “They were to wear sandals, but he added, “Do not take a spare tunic” (Mk 6:9). Secondly, the miraculous deliverance of Peter from prison through angelic intervention: The angel then said, “Put on your belt and sandals”. After he had done this, the angel next said, “Wrap your cloak round you and follow me” (Acts 12:8).


* * * * *


It was the apparent sense of repetition of Gospel readings on certain of the Sundays of Advent and Christmastide that prompted the initial question: What else is there to say about sandals? Well, quite a lot really, even taking those particular Gospel readings and associated references as a starting point:


Mt 3:11 I am not fit to carry his sandals

Mk 1:7 I am not fit to kneel down and undo the strap of his sandals

Lk 3:16 I am not fit to undo the strap of his sandals

Jn 1:27 I am not fit [worthy] to undo his sandal-strap

Acts 13:25 I am not fit [worthy] to undo his sandal


There are subtle differences both in vocabulary, meaning and intent. In the synoptic accounts, John is not ίκανός (ikanos) “fit” to perform this action; in John and Acts, John is described as not άξιος (axios) “worthy”. In the synoptics, the noun “sandals” is plural; in John and Acts it is singular, υποδημα (hypodema).


Is the Baptist acknowledging Jesus as The Redeemer so that he is not worthy even to do the most menial task of a slave by undoing his sandal? Is the state of being unworthy to touch even the strap of the sandal, a mere part of the whole, indicative of a greater degree of unworthiness? If, though, “of all the children born of women, a greater than John the Baptist has never been seen” (Mt 11:11, Lk 7:28), who then is worthy to undo the sandal? Fanciful as it might be, the one dressed as a slave appears at the account of the Last Supper in John’s Gospel: “he got up from table, removed his outer garment and, taking a towel, wrapped it round his waist; he then poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel he was wearing.” (Jn 13:4-5). The one who is worthy is Jesus, the Lord himself.


If John is acknowledging Jesus as the Redeemer then another cultural aspect of sandal symbolism comes into play.


* * * * *


Those who are well travelled may have received advice as tourists to Arab, Muslim, Buddhist and Hindu countries, that to show the soles of your feet, whether in shoes or not, is a sign of great disrespect; the soles of the feet being considered the lowest and most unclean part of the body as they come into continual contact with the dirty ground. Care is also needed if sitting in a chair or on a wall with one’s legs crossed at the knee – the toe must not point at a person or holy image or relic; the advice is usually not to sit with legs crossed at the knees. Elsewhere, particularly in some African and Caribbean cultures, it is expected that you will take off your shoes before entering.

In the Gospels, there is the problem posed reductio ad absurdum of the woman with seven husbands (Mt 22:25-32, Lk 20:27-38) by which the Sadducees seek to trap Jesus. The encounter hinges on the differing interpretations of what was called “levirate marriage” – essentially that the brother-in-law of a childless widow must marry her to give her a child in his brother’s name. Within the rules of the levirate marriage there is what is called “The Law of Halitzah”. Halitzah is the ritual that releases a childless widow from levirate marriage to a brother-in-law.


If brothers live together and one of them dies childless, the dead man’s wife must not marry a stranger outside of the family. Her husband’s brother must come to her and, exercising his levirate, make her his wife, and the first born son she bears shall assume the dead brother’s name; and so his name will not be blotted out in Israel. But if the man declines to take his brother’s wife, she must go to the elders at the gate and say, “I have no levir willing to perpetuate the name of his brother in Israel; he declines to exercise his levirate in my favour”. The elders of the town shall summon the man and talk to him. If he appears before them, and shall say, “I refuse to take her”, then she to whom he owes levirate shall go up to him in the presence of the elders, take the sandal off his foot, spit in his face, and pronounce the following words, “This is what we do to the man who does not restore his brother’s house”, and the man shall be surnamed in Israel, House-of-the-Unshod. (Deut 25:5-10)


Further, there is a practical application of the Law of Halitzah given in scripture:


Now in former times it was the custom in Israel, in matters of redemption or exchange, to confirm the transaction by one of the parties removing his sandal and giving it to the other. In Israel this was the form of ratification in the presence of witnesses. So when the man with right of redemption said to Boaz, ‘Purchase it for yourself’, he took off his sandal. (Ruth 4:7-8)


Ruth was a widow without children; Boaz was a kinsman-redeemer. To complete the legally bind redemption of the land and marriage, Boaz removes his sandal and hands it to the other party.


The associated symbolic action of taking possession by throwing the sandal is twice mentioned in the Psalms in an identically worded phrase:


Moab a bowl for me to wash in!

I throw my sandal over Edom. (Pss 60:8, 108:9)


Marriage and love are, of course, referenced in the Song of Solomon where the Bridegroom sings:


How beautiful are your feet in their sandals,

O prince’s daughter … (Song 7:[1]2)


The prophet Ezekiel uses an allegory of the Israel’s (Jerusalem’s) relationship with God, in which Israel is depicted a girl coming to womanhood and turning against her lover and protector. The lover lavishing all manner of care and gifts upon the beloved:


I bathed you in water, I washed the blood off you, I anointed you with oil. I gave you embroidered dresses, fine leather sandals, a linen headband and a cloak of silk. I loaded you with jewels, gave you bracelets for your wrists and a necklace for your throat. I gave you nose-ring and earrings; I put a beautiful diadem on your head. (16:9-12)


The leather of which these sandals is made represents luxury, extravagance and is sometimes translated as “dolphin skin”, “porpoise skin”, “seal skin”, “badger’s skin”, “goat skin” or “finest purple” – whatever the actual truth, some immensely precious commodity.


So the sandal in some sense symbolises aspects of possession, redemption, relationship and marriage. Who is our Redeemer? Who is the Bridegroom? Who pays the price of our redemption?


* * * * *


If one were to check a Greek or Hebrew lexicon or a biblical concordance it would be possible to list every last verse which includes the word “sandal” – and this would be a very much longer article. Without resorting to that sort of exhaustive search, there are, if we think about it, texts from the cycle of readings at Mass which might come readily to mind as well as passages of scripture we know well.


Abraham’s (Abram) encounter with the king of Sodom following the blessing, with Eucharistic overtones, by Melchizedek, king of Salem:


But Abram replied to the king of Sodom, ‘I raise my hand in the presence of the Lord God Most High, creator of heaven and earth: not one thread, not one sandal strap, nothing will I take of what is yours; you shall not say, “I enriched Abram”. For myself, nothing.’ (Gen 14:23)


Threads and sandal straps” is idiomatic, like “jots and tittles”, “not one iota”, and “not one dot, nor one little stroke” (various translations of Mt 5:18). The phrase, “For myself, nothing”, beloved of those saints who embraced poverty, trusting entirely in the providence of God, and all those who practise self-abnegation, self-denial, self-sacrifice.


Not every prophet mentioned in scripture gives their name to one of the books of the Old Testament. For example, the people of Israel listen to God’s message spoken through the prophet Oded. Their actions remind us, perhaps, of the Last Judgement (Mt 25:31-46), the parable of the Good Samaritan (Lk 10:29-37) and all that we learnt recently about spiritual and corporal works of mercy during the Extraordinary Jubilee Year of Mercy (2015-16)


… From the booty they clothed all those of them who were naked; they gave them clothing and sandals and provided them with food drink and shelter. They mounted all who were infirm on donkeys … (2 Chr 28:15)


There is much in the Old Testament which offers rich reflection on such contemporary issues as social and economic justice. The descriptions of sandals can reflect the state of economic and political success or failure: invading armies with new sandals, defeated armies with broken, dirty, worn out sandals. Sins and crimes, punishment and penitence are represented in putting off sandals and walking barefoot. Prophets inveigh against the failure of Israel to follow God’s laws, familiar to us from reflections on social justice:


For the three crimes, the four crimes of Israel

I have made my decree and will not relent:

because they have sold the virtuous man for silver

and the poor man for a pair of sandals,

because they trample on the heads of ordinary people

and push out the poor … (Amos 2:6-7)


… by lowering the bushel, raising the shekel,

by swindling and tampering with the scales,

we can buy up the poor for money,

and the needy for a pair of sandals … (Amos 8:5-6)


Perhaps the passage that will spring most readily spring to mind that I have not mentioned is the parable of the prodigal son (Lk 15:22):


bring out the best robe and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet


Fanciful, perhaps, but again overtones of marital imagery, the idea of redemption, the dressing of the beloved as in the Song of Solomon.


* * * * *


In recent months, the Thursday evening prayer group have looked at the Marian apparitions at Kibeho (The Gathering of the Displaced) in Rwanda and at Gaudalupe (Our Lady of the Roses) in Mexico.


Within Marian piety and devotion there is also something we can learn about our present subject.

Byzantine icon of Our Lady of Perpetual Succour

You may be familiar with the Byzantine icon of Our Lady of Perpetual Succour; you may indeed have a copy at home. The original icon has been in Rome since 1499, and is currently in the church of Sant’Alfonso di Liguori all’Esquilino. If you are familiar with the picture, have you noticed and perhaps wondered why the infant Jesus is shown with a sandal on one foot and the other sandal hanging by the strap from the other foot?


As always explanations abound, but from the didactic function of the icon it is thought that the foot with falling sandal shows the divine nature of Christ, barely clinging to earth, whilst human nature is symbolised by the other foot to which the sandal is more firmly bound. This little detail teaches perhaps the truth that Christ has two natures, human and divine.


There is a more fanciful, fond and pious story which relates that the manner of his death had been revealed to the child by angels. The knowledge was almost too much to bear in his child’s fear and knowledge, so he ran with childlike trust to the safety of his mother. He ran so fast that the one of his sandal straps came loose as he jumped into his mother’s embrace. Secure in her arms, he could then contemplate the truth of the cross and the suffering that lay before him and, resting close to his mother’s Immaculate Heart, his own fear was allayed.


* * * * *


And you asked what else could be said about sandals?

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