Apr 17, 2014

Holy Thursday: ". . . so you must do"

This evening we recall the institution of the Holy Eucharist and the establishment of the Priesthood.  While it is a very special day for those of us who have been privileged to receive the sacrament of Holy Orders, it is all the more an evening and a remembrance for the Church universal. I think this is clear when immediately after the bread and wine are offered by the priest during Mass, he invites the congregation: “Pray brethren, that my sacrifice and yours may be acceptable to God, the almighty Father.”

As the priest acts sacramentally in persona Christi (the person of Christ) we are reminded that Jesus is present to all of us in the sacrifice of the Mass under the signs of bread and wine which he established – “Do this in remembrance of Me” – at that evening meal gathered with his chosen inner circle of confidants, the Apostles.

While all that comes to mind this evening even more the Gospel of John recalls a moment during that meal, likely after he broke bread and wine, that Jesus performed a sign which must have shocked the Apostles and humbled them tremendously. That act has become for all of us an illustration of what it means to live a life of Christian service, after the example of Jesus, who came to serve and not be served. He stooped to wash the feet of his Apostles.  I think we can say that in doing so, God washed our feet!

Washing feet was the work of a slave.  The host of such a gathering, meaning Jesus himself, would never imagine doing this menial task. It was never viewed as having any symbolic purpose other than an act of duty to one’s master.  My feet are dirty so wash them.  That’s what slaves do.

Yet, knowing this, Jesus used this singular opportunity to take on the role of a slave in order to impress on his Apostles the whole purpose of his life and how they, as future leaders of the early Christian communities, must do the same for all.  But, it doesn’t mean that I (we) must go around literally washing feet.  It was far broader in symbol than that. It wasn’t about washing feet as much as it was for Jesus a profound teachable moment on the meaning of discipleship.  The connection to the cross is also interesting since that tortuous punishment was something reserved for slaves. Did Jesus die for doing good? How ironic and thought provoking for us.   

For Jesus, the Last Supper was a farewell dinner.  It was his last chance to impress on his Apostles the whole purpose of his life and prepare them for the dark events which will begin just a few hours later.  The glory of the resurrection was yet to happen but these events of the Eucharist and washing feet would forever offer these men, and through the Scriptures and tradition us as well, that the life of a Christian is a life lived for others. Through the Eucharist Our Lord is forever connected to us. The Church would come to see that the priesthood is a particular role in the Christian community and quintessentially a life lived for others – a sacrament of service.

I found the following explanation of this event and the entire farewell dinner of Jesus explained this way.  I think it also offers us a definition of the Church.  Pope Francis has shown this to the entire world beautifully:

“A community fed by him and totally devoted to opening the way for God’s reign, in an attitude of humble and all-inclusive service, with their hope placed in the feast that will bring them together at last.” (Jesus: An historical approximation: Jose A. Pagola)
John 13: 1-15
Before the feast of Passover, Jesus knew that his hour had come
to pass from this world to the Father.
He loved his own in the world and he loved them to the end.
The devil had already induced Judas, son of Simon the Iscariot, to hand him over.
So, during supper,
fully aware that the Father had put everything into his power
and that he had come from God and was returning to God,
he rose from supper and took off his outer garments.
He took a towel and tied it around his waist.
Then he poured water into a basin
and began to wash the disciples’ feet
and dry them with the towel around his waist.
He came to Simon Peter, who said to him,
“Master, are you going to wash my feet?”
Jesus answered and said to him,
“What I am doing, you do not understand now,
but you will understand later.”
Peter said to him, “You will never wash my feet.”
Jesus answered him,
“Unless I wash you, you will have no inheritance with me.”
Simon Peter said to him,
“Master, then not only my feet, but my hands and head as well.”
Jesus said to him,
“Whoever has bathed has no need except to have his feet washed,
for he is clean all over;
so you are clean, but not all.”
For he knew who would betray him;
for this reason, he said, “Not all of you are clean.”

So when he had washed their feet
and put his garments back on and reclined at table again,
he said to them, “Do you realize what I have done for you?
You call me ‘teacher’ and ‘master,’ and rightly so, for indeed I am.
If I, therefore, the master and teacher, have washed your feet,
you ought to wash one another’s feet.
I have given you a model to follow,
so that as I have done for you, you should also do.”

A blessed Triduum to all.  More will come . . .
O God, who have called us to participate
in this most sacred Supper,
in which your Only begotten Son,
when about to hand himself over to death,
entrusted to the Church a sacrifice new for all eternity,
the banquet of his love,
grant, we pray,
that we may draw from so great a mystery,
the fullness of charity and of life.

(Collect for Holy Thursday, Evening Mass
Of the Lord’s Supper)