Tonight we enter the Sacred Triduum, the Christian high holy days that draw us into the mystery of our salvation. By commemorating the passion, death, and resurrection of Jesus, we are invited to remember who we are, and to whom we belong, because we forget. It’s appropriate for us to recall that, as Christians, we belong to Jesus who, on this night, gave us all our instructions for life.
Holy Thursday invites all of us to join the people of Israel in maintaining the tradition of commemorating the passage from slavery to freedom in the exodus. It is the cornerstone of our connection to an ancient faith that uses ritual to help family, community, and religion stay alive.
The Passover meal obviously was a very special occasion. Jesus was faithful to his tradition and was celebrating the Passover meal with his disciples. We know and we remember tonight that he transformed this Last Supper into the first supper of Eucharistic celebration. With the mandate to “Do this in memory of me,” he became the reality of perpetual presence with us. The new covenant that was sealed that day can never be corrupted or destroyed.
Today is an appropriate time to rip open our hearts and pour out our loving gratitude for such an outrageous, overwhelming gift, the gift of sustained nourishment at the heart of our Christian life. How many times have we eaten the bread of life in a semi-comatose state? Has familiarity bred indifference?
Sometimes we wait for ideal conditions to do the right thing. Let’s keep in mind that the setting of the Last Supper was not exactly ideal for Jesus as he ate that solemn meal with his motley crew. This was an important moment. He tried to get their attention, but they were quarreling with one another and fighting over positions of honor at the table. They fussed and complained about who got “special treatment.” They hadn’t yet caught on that in the new world to which they had been called, the leader is one who serves. Sometimes I wonder if we’ve caught on ourselves. I can’t even imagine the frustration Jesus felt in the midst of this bickering! Fortunately, this negative behavior did not get portrayed in Leonardo da Vinci’s famous masterpiece of the Last Supper.
Undoubtedly, the most shocking, unexpected moment following dinner had to be when Jesus took up a basin and a towel. He bowed, knelt, and began to wash the disciples’ feet. The scene is akin to watching President Obama shine the shoes of his staff! Something is wrong with this picture! Jesus turns all sense of power and decorum upside down. So, what does that mean for us? Perhaps our propensity to dominate, to be served, to insist on our rights and privileges suddenly places us on a one-way street going the wrong way. Let’s be on the alert for that red flag that signals “recalculation.”
In the days of Jesus, foot washing was typically done by the servants of one’s household, and it wasn’t exactly a glamorous job. I learned that there was one exception to this rule: a wife could wash her husband’s feet. A rabbi would not let his disciples wash his feet, but he would let his wife, not because she was a servant, but because they were one body. Interesting fact.
To wash someone’s feet was an act of hospitality and care. It was also an act of servitude and humility. Everybody knew that. So, I ask myself, “What would I have done in this situation? Would I have joined Peter in protesting that this is just not right? It’s too humbling, too intimate. Or, would I have said, “OK, Jesus, of course you may wash my feet.” I feel myself vacillating. I like to be independent, and wash my own feet and my own hands in my own way. This role reversal of Jesus is so uncomfortable. And yet, I am asking for the grace that allows me to stand in my own nakedness, my poverty, my sinfulness before the Lord, that special grace that allows me to join Peter in those surrendering words, “Master, then not only my feet, but also my hands and head as well.”
So, is there a lesson in all of this? Jesus is trying to get one across. I quote, “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.” Note that this is the second mandate from the master at this Last Supper, and it echoes the words of the first mandate given at Eucharist, “Do this in remembrance of me.”
The two mandates are connected. Eucharist and loving service to others go together. We cannot choose one over the other. As we are nourished by Eucharist, we nourish others through service. Our Christian living is a seamless garment of gospel, liturgy, daily life, and interaction. Service in the name of Jesus is eucharist. By offering our own body and blood in the service of love, we become Eucharist. Eucharist does not stop at the church door. If it does, our faith is bogus.
One whose faith is not bogus, but genuinely authentic, is Pope Francis. He gets the connection clearly. Tonight he will wash the feet of twelve refugees at a center that assists migrants in the city. Ever since he was a newly-minted pope, he has washed the feet of inmates at a juvenile detention center, residents at a center for people with disabilities, and prisoners at Rome’s main prison. He is the first pope to carry out this ritual outside of the Vatican walls. His message is clear, “I am at your service.”
Christian discipleship is not always easy. The call to Eucharist, the call to mission/service is the call to getting our feet dirty. There is no other way of preaching the Gospel than by passing through the dust, the soot, the smog, and the general mess of our world. Sometimes it’s even broken glass. We need Jesus to wash our feet, heal us, and nourish us for the journey to which we have been called.
Allowing ourselves to be washed, to be broken, and to be nourished is indicative of our necessary dependence on Jesus. We recognize our need for deep humility. In a culture that seeks relentless glory, we recognize the fingerprints of humility marking this holy night: washing feet and hands, stripping the altar, and evacuating the tabernacle. We feel the letting go, the emptiness, but also the hope that had been promised. Throughout the passion we remain closely connected to Jesus because of that hope.
But how do we stay connected day by day? Each one of us appears to receive divine calls with our own distinctive ring. The call to contemplation, mercy, and compassion; the call to live the beatitudes; the call to action on behalf of social justice; these calls impel us to live a counter-cultural life, the kind of life Jesus lived. The consequence? We become the eyes, the ears, the hands, and the feet of Jesus, here and now, every day.
It is never too late to learn how to bow, and how to kneel, and how to serve. It is never too late to forgive. It is never too late to crave and to be eucharist. It is never too late to celebrate love.
One final thought. Why do we take time to commemorate the sacred mysteries of this memorable day? Is it because we claim to be followers of Jesus, like the ragtag group of long ago? Jesus, who knows our deepest desires, asks each one of us today to answer the same question that he posed to his original band of followers: “Do you realize what I have done for you? Then, ….eat my body, drink my blood, wash feet in my name.”