“Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God …” (John 13:3)
In some senses, the Eucharistic Meal on that Holy Thursday night is a parable that Jesus acted out. It is disputed whether this Last Supper meal was actually a Passover, as the Synoptic Gospels portray it, or a meal that preceded the Passover by twenty-four hours, as in John’s Gospel. Nevertheless, the original meal of Jesus and his disciples was undoubtedly surrounded by Passover associations, and the background for our annual Christian feast has always been the Israelite Passover — hence our first reading. (Exodus 12) Passover is the annual ‘memorial’ of God’s redemptive act that constituted the Israelites as his Chosen People. As a ‘memorial’ of the event, it is meant to be more than just a mental recollection of it. For the devout Jew, the re-membering makes them once more one with their forebears in actually coming out of Egypt with them and making them members of the Chosen People. So here for us: we need to re-member, making ourselves one with those who gathered there with Jesus on that holy night, and becoming once again members with them of the People of God that gathered with Jesus in that ‘upper room.’ (Mark 14:15; Luke 22:12) This we do here tonight.
The original Passover meal was eaten before they were liberated from slavery in Egypt. So, it was eaten in haste and great expectation; things were about to happen. Over the centuries, this expectation transformed into an expectation of the Messiah, who was to come on that night. In their memorial of Christ and the Easter event, the early Church, too, looked for the Christ to come again. When this Second Coming did not occur, the Church came to see and experience him present with them in their Easter Eucharist, in the giving and the receiving of the bread and the wine, as an anticipation of his final coming. In our memorial of the Easter Event, in the giving and receiving of the bread and wine, we need to recognise the Christ actually present giving it to us. This is what Paul means, in our second reading, when he speaks of what he ‘received’ and ‘handed on’ (1 Corinthian 11:23) Down through the ages, we, too, are meant to ‘hand on’ what we have ‘received’ from the Lord, much after the Psalm:
‘We will not hide it from their descendants;
we will tell the next generation
the praiseworthy deeds of the Lord,
his power, and the wonders he has done.
… So that the next generation might know it.’ (Psalm 78:4)
Much as the Jews on Passover night recall the story of what happened in Egypt for their children, each time we celebrate our Eucharistic Passover, we, too, are meant to remember what happened in the Easter Event and teach the story of our salvation to our children: This is what he did on that holy night. (1 Corinthian 11:24-26)
In our memorial of the Easter Event, our Gospel this evening concentrates on what Jesus did when he washed his disciples’ feet. (John 13:1-15) It speaks of Jesus getting up from table and removing his outer garment, of his wrapping a towel round his waist and then proceeding to wash his disciples’ feet, and then recalls that when he had completed this task, he put his clothes back on and returned to the table. (C.f.: John 13:3) In this action we can see what Paul was to say later: “Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” (Philippians 2:5-11) This whole foot-washing event is a ‘parable’ about the Mystery of the Incarnation, and thus making of the Banquet Table, which we gather round tonight, a symbol of the ‘glory Christ had with the Father before ever the world was’ and to which he has now returned. (John 17:5) So, we can think of our seeking eternal life as a desire to take our place with him at the Lord’s Table and in this way share in his glory. (C.f.: Mark 10:37; Psalm 23:5)
In this ‘parable,’ the foot-washing itself, then, corresponds to his time on earth. In it we are meant to see God coming to us … as a humble servant. This really is a shocking image: our Messiah, our mighty Saviour-God, coming as a mere servant, with a towel round his waist and a basin of water … to wash our feet — this is our God! (John 13:6-8. C.f.: Matthew 21:5; Mark 12:2ff) No wonder he could say to us elsewhere: “What you did to one of these least sisters and brothers of mine, you did it to me.” (Matthew 25:45) For our God comes to us as one who is poor, a nobody — perhaps he is sick, hungry, homeless even, maybe he is in trouble with the law! (John 18:12ff)
However, that said, if we are to be what we are created to be, ‘images of God’ in this world (Genesis 1:27), then we must live as the Christ lived in this world, as the servant of all. (Mark 10:45) This is his cross that we are to carry. (Luke 14:27; Mark 15:21) So he says to us: “If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another's feet. For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you.” (John 13:14-15) This is how we are to live here in this world — doing as he did, washing each other’s feet (Luke 7:38), making 3 ourselves fit and worthy to be at Table with him at the Heavenly Banquet. (John 13:8; Luke 7:44, 48. C.f.: Rule of St Benedict 53:12-13, 15; Galatians 6:1) Later Jesus will say to us: “A new commandment I give to you: that you love one another; just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another.” (John 13:34) Why must we wash each other’s feet? Because in this way we show each other ‘such great love,’ in a way that is real. (Luke 7:47. C.f.: John 3:16; Galatians 6:2; 1 John 4:10-11, 19-21) This is how we put on the ‘mind of Christ’ (1 Corinthians 2:16; Philippians 2:5), that we might be the Christ for one another, making him really present in our loving service of one another. (C.f.: Rule of St Benedict 38:6) This is what our Eucharist is to teach us; this is what we are to hand on.
By Dom Steele Hartmann OCSO