5th of April. Holy Thursday
Exod. 12:1-2, 11-14. Israel’s celebration of the Passover thanked God for taking them out of slavery in Egypt and into the promised land. This feast looked forward to Emmanuel, God with us.
1 Cor 11:23-26. Christians obey their Lord’s will when they proclaim his saving passion and death by offering the eucharistic sacrifice in the reinterpreted seder meal, which makes Jesus present with us
John 13:1-15. Jesus at his last supper gives memorable example of humble, loving service – as a guide to all who eat the eucharistic bread of eternal life.
Washing their Feet
On “He began to wash the disciples’ feet and wipe them with the towel…” Moya Hegarty OSU writes in “Bat Kol” for 5 April:
I was left a legacy of an earthenware basin, belonging to a poor man called John Harte. It belonged to his mother, and I use it every time that I have an opportunity to engage in the ritual of feet washing that Jesus left us. The earthenware basin acts as a reminder of our humanity.
The Passover, described in the first reading from Exodus, not only acts as a rich backdrop tapestry to the ritual, and interprets the living out of the title “Lamb of God”(Jn 1:29) given to Jesus by John the Baptism. Jesus the Pascal Lamb, knows “that the hour has come to pass from this world to the Father.” It is to the person of the one whom he called Abba that he will make his exodus. His going will be the pouring out of his life- giving love for those he “loved to the end” (Jn 13:1)
There follows a series of deliberate actions, each highlighting very beautifully in Water into Wine by Stephan Verney, in which the “the inner reality of the death and the resurrection of Jesus …(is) being communicated to the disciples.”(pg.144) Jesus rose from the table, the same verb used to describe his Resurrection, then he “laid aside his garments and received a towel, which he tied around himself.” These words echo the command of the Father, “lay down your life and receive it back again.” The towel, a servant garment, is taken to himself, wrapped around his waist. The action of pouring water into a basin follows. The pouring makes present the generous self giving of Jesus, on feet that bear the burden of years of living. These feet are washed clean and refreshed. Then, there follows the wiping with the towel, this was not just a cursory wipe, the word “wipe” links with the word massage, coming from the Greek ekmassein. Jesus is reviving the hardened calloused feet by wiping them with the towel he was wearing, and facilitating the life flow of blood to parts of the feet that were hardened by life.
This one basin and one towel are shared among them all, though, not all are of one mind. We are reminded of Judas; “the devil had already put it into the mind of Judas Iscariot to betray him”. “The literal meaning of the word devil (dialobus)… is that he is the one who splits wholeness apart.”(Water into Wine: Stephan Verney pg.143) The seamless towel of servant-hood is already torn apart by Judas. Peter also struggles with this upside down world of the master bent over him with basin, towel and water and tries to find a way out of the experience but he is starkly reminded of the reality that, “if I do not wash you, you can have no part with me”.
When Jesus returns to take his place at table he leaves a command and a blessing, “you must wash each other’ feet”, and “blessed are you if you behave accordingly.” Unlike the other evangelists John has Jesus give two blessings in the gospel, the blessing of the washing of the feet and the blessing given “to those who have not seen and yet believe.”
Reflection: What would it be like to reflect and attend to each of the actions of Jesus in his ritual legacy to us and share them with others? How can you behave so as to be open to this blessing?
The Lord’s Supper
Holy Week and especially the Sacred Triduum with which it finishes has a unique place in the consciousness of every Christian and as we begin these celebrations with the Mass of the Lord’s Supper we have a special opportunity to highlight the unique character of the Eucharist as the representation of the Lord’s Paschal Mystery and the heart of the Church’s existence.
The gospel tradition clearly situates the Lord’s Supper in the context of the Jewish Passover meal and the first reading in our Mass this evening provides us with the description and significance of this feast. It was to be a memorial feast recalling the greatest saving act of God in the Old Testament, the exodus from Egypt, the liberation from slavery. As such it can be used to open us up to the idea that God does enter human life to save, to set us free from whatever oppresses us. So “opened up,” we are prepared for the good news that the definitive saving of God is done in Jesus Christ.
This evening our thoughts are directed to what St John calls the “hour” of Jesus, the high point of his saving work, the new exodus, the passage of Jesus from this world to the Father through which he brought into being a new relationship between God and us human beings. This new exodus is our ultimate liberation, freeing us from enslavement to our petty self-interest and making us capable of that love for which we were originally created in the image of God.
Jesus achieved this by overcoming in his own utterly unselfish heart all of human selfishness through his act of love-without-limit. Precisely this love (which it is the Father’s will for us all to have) is the heart of Jesus’ exodus. It is just this self-sacrificing love which Jesus wished to be kept alive, in memory of his life among us. So with his disciples in the Last Supper he anticipated his sacrifice, giving himself to them in the sacramental symbols of bread and wine. From now on the celebration of this meal (our Eucharist) is the living memorial through which we are joined to Our Lord’s saving act of love. From now on this is to be the way for us to share in the new exodus, to be freed from the isolation of self-concern so that they may become fully human in God’s new creation.
The Eucharist achieves this as a memorial (an idea which links it again with the Passover, memorial of the exodus.) It is important to bring out that we are not just “remembering” a past event, something which may inspire us but still remains only in the past. The Jewish and Christian traditions believe that these defining events in the life of God’s people never remain simply in the past, but continue to be life-giving through the memorial celebration. Sharing in the memorial involves us in the original event, as the Jewish tradition on the Passover puts it: “In every generation we must so regard it as if we ourselves came out of Egypt… Therefore we are bound to give thanks… and to bless him who brought all these “wonders for our fathers and for us.”
So the Christian Eucharist is thanksgiving for what God has done for us in the “Paschal sacrifice of Jesus. We ought to highlight the importance of our involvement or participation in this event through the celebration. We commit ourselves by an act of faith to share in the sacrifice of Jesus; it is not something that has happened and which can be effective without our involvement. At the same time our sharing in this is not something that we do for ourselves but something that we let the Lord do for us, a gift to be accepted in gratitude.
St. John brings this out in his own unique way. We are united with Jesus by allowing him to wash our feet, to perform for us his great act of loving service. Having accepted the gift we must embrace it as a value to be effective in our lives. What Jesus does for us is an example of how we are to live: in some real sense, like Jesus, we must live “for” service of God and others. Celebrating the Eucharist is the living and life-giving memorial of what Jesus has done and is doing for us. A true Eucharist makes us into the Body of Christ, ready to practice in our lives what we receive in faith, the life-giving love of the Lord.
Jesus The Helper
In our first reading the prophet Jeremiah pronounces a word of doom on the shepherds of Israel. He was talking of the kings. The kings in Israel were regarded as adopted by God as his son on the day of their coronation. They were to be a reflection of the love of God but unfortunately most of them were poor leaders who were more interested in looking after themselves than their people. And so in our first reading Jeremiah says, Doom to the shepherds who allow the flock of my pasture to be destroyed and scattered. But there is hope at the end of the passage because God promises through Jeremiah that he will send them someone who will reign as true king and be wise, and that of course refers to Jesus coming as Messiah. We can see our beautiful Psalm “The Lord is my shepherd, there is nothing I shall want” fulfilled in Jesus, the ideal future ruler promised by God, who was generous instead of selfish like many Old Testament kings.
In our Gospel we see Jesus doing the opposite to those arrogant rulers who only looked after themselves. Jesus looked after the disciples by taking them to a quiet place for a rest and then when he was besieged there by people looking for him he looked after them by teaching them at length. On another occasion Jesus said, The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve (Matt 20:28; Mark 10:45). The new community, the kingdom of God, that Jesus came to found is to be characterised by serving one another, not by being served. So Jesus said we were to love our neighbour as ourselves and he said, By this will all know that you are my disciples, if you have love one for another. (John 13:35). We come to Mass to meet the love of Jesus but as we depart from Mass we are asked to go in peace to love and serve the Lord in those around us.
One of our Eucharistic Acclamations after the Consecration is When we eat this bread and drink this cup we proclaim your death, Lord Jesus, until you come in glory. That is what Paul wrote to the Corinthians (1 Cor 11:27). How can we say that when we gather for the Eucharist we proclaim Jesus death? When we gather for the Eucharist it is to be an act of love, reflecting the love of Jesus sacrificing himself on the cross for us. If we gather for the Eucharist and we really don’t care about each other then our Eucharist is meaningless. When we eat this bread and drink this cup we proclaim your death, Lord Jesus, until you come in glory.
Since there were no churches at the time of Paul each Sunday Eucharist had to be celebrated in the house of someone in the community. When you ask for Mass in your house you give a cup of tea and sandwiches afterwards. But during the time of Paul the Corinthians used to have their meal before the Eucharist. The well-to-do used to host a Sunday Eucharist but it seems they invited their rich friends to come early to enjoy the meal and the other poorer Christians came along later and got only the leftovers. Paul declares that sort of Eucharist a sham, if they do not show loving respect for each other. “The point is: if you hold meetings in this way, it is not the Lord’s Supper that you are eating, since everyone is in such a hurry to start his own supper that one person goes hungry while another is getting drunk. When you meet for the meal wait for one another” (1 Cor 11:18-21, 33). Paul would equally say that our Eucharist is a sham if we do not love one another. When we gather for the Eucharist it is to be an act of love, reflecting the love of Jesus sacrificing himself on the cross for us. When we eat this bread and drink this cup we proclaim his death, for love of us.
I have heard it said that mental health begins with serving others and mental illness begins with serving only ourselves. Perhaps another way of saying this is that by helping others we improve our mental health. Many of the Old Testament kings were only interested in looking after themselves. Jesus looked after others. How well his spirit is expressed in the Prayer of St Francis:
Where there is hatred, let me sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; where there is sadness, joy;
O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console; to be understood as to understand; to be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive; it is in pardoning that we are pardoned; and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.
Eucharist and the Washing of Feet
Life in Palestine in the time of Jesus was hard. The popular means of transport was your feet. People walked long distances on rough, dusty roads to go from Galilee to Jerusalem, for example. Travellers often arrived their destinations with sore and aching feet. As a sign of hospitality, the host would see to it that his guests were given a warm foot bath and massage as a way of relieving their aches and pains. This was usually done by the house servants or slaves.
This service of bathing and soothing the tired feet was also provided by the rest houses or inns found at strategic locations along the major roads and highways. Travellers worn out along the way could go into these rest houses and have food and foot bath. Their energy thus restored they would then be able to continue and complete their long journey. That is how such rest houses along the way got the name “restaurants” – they restored strength to tired and exhausted travellers on the way. The disciples would have understand Jesus washing their feet in light of this cultural background. And for us it is a pointer to the meaning of the Eucharist we celebrate.
Understood in light of the washing of feet, the Eucharist is a place of restoration for people on the way. The life of a Christian in the world is a pilgrimage, a long, hard journey. Along the way we get tired and worn out and we are tempted to give up and turn back. But Jesus has provided us with the Eucharist as a place where we can go in to bathe our aching feet and to be refreshed in body and soul for the journey that is still ahead. When we give communion to a sick person we call it viaticum which means “provisions for a journey.” The Eucharist is always a viaticum: in the Eucharist we derive strength to continue our upward journey toward God.
In the story we find that Peter was uncomfortable with having Jesus wash his feet. Peter, who was somewhat of an activist, would have preferred to see himself doing the washing, washing the feet of Jesus and even of the other disciples. Sometimes it is harder to remain passive and allow someone else to bathe us than it is to bathe someone else, as every toddler can tell you. But having our feet washed and washing the feet of others are two sides of the coin we call the Christian life.
The first and most essential part is to let the Lord wash us. As Jesus said to Peter, “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me (John 13:8). First, the Lord washes us clean so that we belong to the Lord. Only then are we qualified and empowered to wash the feet of our sisters and brothers in the Lord. When this truth dawned on Peter, he overcame his reluctance and cried out, “Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head.” (v. 9). For this to happen all that the Lord needs from us is simply for us to be there, to present ourselves to him and to let him wash us.
The other side of the coin, which is equally important, is that after our feet have been washed by the Lord, we must go and wash the feet of others. After Jesus had washed his disciples’ feet, he said to them: “Do you know what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord – and you are right, for that is what I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you” (John 13:12-15).
Jesus establishes a close link between him washing the disciples’ feet and the disciples washing the feet of others. If the Eucharist is the place where the Lord washes our feet, daily life is the place where we ought to wash the feet of others. Eucharist leads to life leads to Eucharist. True Eucharist piety must lead to service of others. Jesus who broke the bread of the Eucharist also washed the feet of his disciples. We must follow his example both at the altar of the Eucharist and at the altar of life.
First Reading: Book of Exodus 12:1-2, 11-14
Now a man from the house of Levi went and married a Levite woman. The woman conceived and bore a son; and when she saw that he was a fine baby, she hid him three months. One day, after Moses had grown up, he went out to his people and saw their forced labor. He saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew, one of his kinsfolk. He looked this way and that, and seeing no one he killed the Egyptian and hid him in the sand. When he went out the next day, he saw two Hebrews fighting; and he said to the one who was in the wrong, “Why do you strike your fellow Hebrew?” He answered, “Who made you a ruler and judge over us? Do you mean to kill me as you killed the Egyptian?” Then Moses was afraid and thought, “Surely the thing is known.”
Second Reading: First Epistle to the Corinthians 11:23-26
For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, “This is my body which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way also the cup, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.
Gospel: John 13:1-15
Now before the festival of the Passover, Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end. The devil had already put it into the heart of Judas son of Simon Iscariot to betray him. And during supper Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him. He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?” Jesus answered, “You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand.” Peter said to him, “You will never wash my feet.” Jesus answered, “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.” Simon Peter said to him, “Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!” Jesus said to him, “One who has bathed does not need to wash, except for the feet, but is entirely clean. And you are clean, though not all of you.” For he knew who was to betray him; for this reason he said, “Not all of you are clean.” After he had washed their feet, had put on his robe, and had returned to the table, he said to them, “Do you know what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord-and you are right, for that is what I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.