Holy Thursday 2015
For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the death of the Lord until he comes. 1 cor. 11:26
It is one of the more fascinating aspects of the accounts of the institution of the Holy Eucharist, as the sacrament which perpetuates Christ’s redeeming sacrifice on Calvary, that it 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 which follows an almost passing comment that it took place after the supper, which from the context has to be the Last Supper. Of course one explanation of this absence of the institution in John’s Gospel may well be that since it was is the last Gospel to be composed, the evangelist simply takes for granted that his audience knows well the account of the institution from the other Gospels and the Church’s liturgy.
This being the case, St. John, rather than repeating the narrative itself of the institution, chose to provide us with a profound commentary for Christians on the meaning of the priesthood and the meaning of the Eucharist, both of which sacraments the Lord instituted that night. His lengthy commentary stretches over five chapters from 13 to 17, all of which are well worth rereading on this night. And of course, there is also that most important prelude to these Last Supper discourses in chapter 6 with its illuminating teaching on the real presence of Jesus, in the Sacrament and the Sacrifice, as well as the link between the reception of the Eucharistic body and blood and the gifts of Eternal Life and the Resurrection of the body. That Eucharistic discourse really sets the context of the Last Supper discourses later in the Gospel of John.
But tonight’s Mass presents us with the event which is the key to interpreting these two great sacraments and the discourse that follow in successive chapters, the account of Jesus washing the feet of his Apostles. This humble gesture by the Lord of heaven and earth is, by Jesus’ own words, to be understood as an example to His apostles, and to all Christians who would hope to participate fruitfully in the priesthood of Jesus and in His Eucharistic banquet. This gesture shows what the Eucharistic banquet demands of the true disciple in his or her daily life as a Christian; “as I have done for you, you should also do.”
Let us begin with the more important sacrament first, and try to see what Our Lord is teaching us by this humble gesture of washing his disciples feet that night about the Eucharist, and about its fruitful celebration. Perhaps Peter’s reaction to the Lord washing his feet best enables us to appreciate the incredible magnanimity and humility of this gesture of Jesus. Peter is scandalized precisely because he now knows who Jesus really is, the Messiah and Son of God, the Lord, and yet here is his Master doing something that even a Jewish servant was exempted from by Jewish law. So degrading was this particular service seen to be, 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 surely 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 not only what the Eucharist contained but also what the Eucharist demanded of them, if they were to fruitfully celebrate this mystery and then put this sacrament into action in their daily life and ministry.
By this gesture Jesus was teaching them, and all of us as well, that the Eucharist contains the One who has come not to be served, but to serve, that is, to wash us clean, and not simply by water as in this symbolic gesture, but by His very 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 in this humble gesture that he is in fact the Suffering Servant, mentioned in Isaiah 53, and He is teaching that it is truly as a servant that he redeems us, not as the glorious Messiah whom they may well still hope for, even at this late hour, but as one who comes to serve and save what is otherwise lost.
This account in St. John can be seen as 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 that Christ Himself had, 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, says Paul. But 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 is present there not only in His glory, which He certainly is, but above all in His sacrifice, in his service which is to wash us clean by His blood.
If we fail to understand this truth, we do not really understand the Eucharist and its purpose for us. It is truly the sacrament of the “no greater love,” the love which led Jesus to lay down his life as His service to the Father and His service for His brothers and sisters. We do not really understand the Eucharist if we fail to see in this mystery, in this sacrament, the no greater love, which is the underlying truth of the life and death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
And we cannot fruitfully receive this sacrament unless we are willing in turn to live out that same no greater love in the humble service of God and our neighbor, helping to meet his or her human needs and the deepest need of all, the need for God and His salvation. Unless we are willing to “have the same attitude” that we see in Christ Jesus, then the Eucharist remains essentially closed to us in terms of its true fruit in our lives, and we remain distant from the One who came to serve and not to be served.
From this we can conclude that as the washing of the feet is the interpretive key to a true understanding of the Eucharist, so the Eucharist itself is the interpretive key to fruitfully living our our lives on earth. We are called to the Eucharist to learn from the One it contains, the Servant who is also Lord, how we in turn are to live our lives if we would have the same attitude as He does, and if we are one day to reign with Him. We must serve God by also serving one another with the no greater love that is found in Christ. And the Eucharist not only teaches us the way of this no greater love, but this sacrament also gives us an increase of this love as its primary grace, as its primary fruit. It is precisely the Sacrament of Charity, because it gives us greater charity to live the no greater love it both signifies and contains.
Christians who live in and from the Eucharist have countless ways of imitating Jesus’ no greater love, the love of the One who while being the Master is also the servant who lays down his life for those who are in his care. Christian parents must learn from the Eucharist, and they must draw from the Eucharist the Charity to serve their children even while remaining their superiors. Christian husbands must learn from the Eucharist and must draw from the Eucharist the Charity to serve their wives, even while remaining head of their family. And Christian wives likewise must learn from this sacrament and draw from this sacrament the Charity to serve their husbands even while remaining equal to them and acting as the ruling heart of their family. And the same lesson must be learned by every Christian and must be lived in every area of our life. With Christ we are indeed free men and women, masters of our own destiny, yet we can only accomplish our lofty destiny in and through Christ, with the help of His grace and His Charity.
That is precisely why the apostles had to learn this critically important lesson on the very night of their ordination. They have become shepherds ruling the flock of Jesus, but like married couples in their mutual relations, and like parents in relation to their children, they above all must have the same attitude toward their ministry that Christ has. They, above all, must learn that every form of Christian life is a service, beginning with their own vital service of the Church. The priesthood is primarily instituted for and ordered to the celebration of the Eucharist. From that sacrament the priesthood derives its true character as a service to God and to the People of God. It is true that the order of priests, while acting as Christ personified, and representing Christ, is set over the Church as its pastors. But these pastors will only be truly like Christ as pastors, 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 all must always take away from our celebration and reception of the Eucharist, both priests and as laity: no greater love, than one who lays down his life for his friends.