Holy Thursday 2013
It is one of the more fascinating aspects of the Gospels that the institution of the Eucharist, as the sacrament which perpetuates Christ’s redeeming sacrifice on Calvary, is related to us in all the Gospels except St. John’s. In St. John’s Gospel we simply have this beautiful account of Jesus washing the feet of his apostles, and simply a brief mention that it took place at supper, which from the context has to be the Last Supper. Since John’s is the final Gospel to be composed, the evangelist can take for granted that his audience knows the account of the institution very well from the other Gospels and the Church’s own liturgy.
St. John chooses not to repeat the narrative itself of the institution, but to give us a profound commentary on the meaning of the priesthood, and the meaning of the Eucharist, both of which sacraments the Lord instituted that night. His commentary, which runs for five whole chapters, or nearly 1/4 of his whole Gospel, begins with the first key to interpreting these two great sacraments, the account of his washing the feet of his Apostles. This humble gesture is done, Jesus says, to be an example to His apostles, and to all Christians who would hope to participate fruitfully in the priesthood of Jesus or in His Eucharistic banquet.
Let us begin with the more important sacrament first, and try to see what Our Lord is teaching us about the Eucharist, and about its fruitful celebration by this humble gesture of washing his disciples feet that night. Peter’s reaction to the Lord washing feet enables us to appreciate the incredible magnanimity and humility of this gesture of Jesus. Peter is scandalized because he knows who Jesus is, the Messiah and Lord, and yet here is Jesus doing something that even a Jewish servant was exempted from by Jewish law. So degrading was this service, that no Jew, not even a Jewish slave was required to wash the feet of his or her master. Only a pagan slave could be required to perform this service, and yet here was the Messiah, the very Lord of the Universe down on his knees washing His slaves’ feet.
Jesus likely meant to shock his apostles, whom he had just ordained priests of the New Covenant, and to whom he had just entrusted the greatest of His gifts, the mystery of the Eucharistic sacrifice and communion. They had to understand what the Eucharist contained and what the Eucharist demanded of them if they were to fruitfully celebrate this mystery and receive what it contained. By his gesture Jesus was teaching them, and all of us as well, that the Eucharist contains the One who has come not be served, but to serve, to wash us clean, not simply by water as in this symbolic gesture, but by His own blood, shed for us on the Cross and given to us in the Eucharist. By washing their feet like a slave, Jesus is teaching them that He is present in the Eucharist as the servant who not only washes their feet but their whole person with the blood of his sacrifice. He is showing them that he is the Suffering Servant of Isaiah 53, and is to be as a servant that he redeems them, not as the glorious Messiah they may still hope, even at this late hour, he will be for them.
This account in John is the living example of what St. Paul says in his letter to the Philippians, when he tells us that we are to have the same attitude toward life that Christ Himself showed, and never more so than when he washed his disciples feet:
Have among yourselves the same attitude that is also yours in Christ Jesus, Who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God something to be grasped. Rather, he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, coming in human likeness; and found human in appearance, he
humbled himself, becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross.
Have among yourselves the same attitude… where do we learn this attitude, if not in the Eucharist, where Jesus is present not only as Lord and Master, but as One who has come to serve, to wash us clean by his service as the Servant of God. This is what the Eucharist is really all about, the Servant of God, who is present there not only in His glory, but above all in His sacrifice, his service which is to wash us clean by His blood. If we fail to understand this, we do not understand the Eucharist. It is the sacrament of the “no greater love,” the love which led Jesus to lay down his life as His service to the Father and to His brothers and sisters. We do not really understand the Eucharist if we fail to see the mystery of the no greater love, and we cannot fruitfully receive this sacrament unless we are willing in turn to have that same no greater love in the service of God and our neighbor. Unless we are willing to “have the same attitude” that we see in Christ Jesus, then the Eucharist remains closed to us, and we remain far from the One who came to serve and not to be served.
If the washing of the feet is the interpretive key to a real understanding of the Eucharist, the Eucharist itself is the interpretive key to our lives on earth. We are called to the Eucharist to learn from the One it contains, the Servant of the Lord, how we in turn are to live our lives if we would have the same attitude as He does, and if we would one day hope to reign with Him. We must serve God by serving one another with the no greater love that is found in Christ. The Eucharist not only teaches us the way of this no greater love, but also gives us an increase of this love as one its primary fruits. It is the Sacrament of Charity, because it gives us greater charity to live the no greater love it both signifies and contains.
Christians who live from the Eucharist have countless ways of imitating this no greater love, the love of One who is a servant but Who is also the master, Who yet lays down his life for those who are in his care. Christian parents learn from the Eucharist, and draw from the Eucharist the charity to serve their children even while remaining their superiors. Christian husbands learn from the Eucharist and must draw from the Eucharist the charity to serve their wives, even while remaining heads of families, and Christian wives likewise learn from this sacrament and draw from this sacrament the charity to serve their husbands even while remaining the queens in their families. And the same will be true of every area of our life. With Christ we are free men and women, masters of our own destiny, but we can do this only in Christ, with the help of His grace and His charity.
That is precisely why the apostles had to learn this same lesson on the very night of their ordination. They would become shepherds ruling the flock of Jesus, but like married couples in their mutual relations, like parents in relation to their children, they above all must have the same attitude toward their ministry that Christ has, they must learn that every form of Christian life is a service, beginning with their own critical service of the Church. The priesthood is primarily instituted and ordered to the celebration of the Eucharist. From that sacrament the priesthood derives its character as a service to the People of God. True, the order of priests will, as Christ personified, and representing Christ, be set over the Church as its pastors. But they will only be truly like Christ, will only imitate his priestly heart, if they too come to serve, and to lay down their lives for the sake of His flock. “As I have done, so you must do.” That is what we must always take away from the Eucharist, as priests and as laity. No greater love, than one who truly lays down his life for his friends.