In tonight’s Gospel, we are not told much about the actual meal, as we are in the other Gospels. All we have is that they were at ‘supper’ (John 13:2) ,during the course of which Jesus ‘dipped the morsel [of bread and] gave it to Judas, the son of Simon Iscariot.’ (John 13:26) There is no “This is my body, which is for you,” nor any “This cup is the new covenant in my blood”; and there is no “Do this as a memorial of me” — as our Second Reading reminds of what took place on this Holy Night. (1 Corinthians 11:23-26) And in fact, in John’s Gospel the meal is not even a Passover Meal. For it took place on the Thursday evening, well away from the Sabbath. What this did, of course, was enable St John to have Jesus’ crucifixion take place at three o’clock in the afternoon on the Friday, on the day before Passover at the time when the animals were slaughtered for the sacrifice to be offered at Passover, that day which was to be marked as a ‘Day of Remembrance,’ as our First Reading reminds. (Exodus 12:14) In so doing, what St John is saying to us at that time is: “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29)

So what are to make of this meal that we re-enact here tonight? The answer lies in: “Do this as a memorial of me,” though it is not mentioned here. A ‘memorial’ in the Hebrew sense, sometimes translated as ‘remembrance,’ is not just the recollection, a calling to mind, of what happened. Rather, this kind of ‘remembering’ is something that leads to action. In the Book of Genesis, after the story of The Flood, we are told that God made a covenant with Noah and every living creature that never again would there be a flood to destroy the earth. God said to Noah, “This is the sign of the covenant that I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all future generations: I have set my bow in the cloud, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth. When I bring clouds over the earth and the bow is seen in the clouds, I will remember my covenant that is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh. And the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh.” (Genesis 9:12-15) In his remembering, God is covenanting to do what he pledged, to do what is necessary to prevent the waters from again destroying all living creatures. (C.f.: Psalm 105:42)

Well, here tonight, when we see the bread broken for us and the wine poured out, we are to remember all of what Jesus said to us. (C.f.: John 14:26) And, in this Gospel, in what is usually referred to as The Farewell Discourse and which follows immediately on from tonight’s Gospel, St John records for us a great many things that Jesus said. (John 13:17) This is largely summed up for us in the opening words of his farewell to them: “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) Here is the doing that our remembering calls us to: when we remember what Jesus did, we are to recall that we are to love as he loved us. In some senses, in the rest of his Farewell Discourse, Jesus teaches us how we might go about loving in this way. I would recommend over these next few days of the Sacred Triduum that you spend a little time pondering on what Jesus had to say to us.

But because actions speak louder than words, Jesus also showed us what he had in mind, in his washing the feet of his disciples and at the end of which he said, “You call me Teacher and Lord, and you are right, for so I am. 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 13:13-15) Jesus is not asking us to go around trying to wash each other’s feet; what he gave us was an example. Foot-washing in those days was a task reserved to slaves. In those days, should a Jew have slaves, he would have had only his Gentile slaves wash the feet of his guests, for such an act was considered beneath the dignity of even Jewish slaves — hence Peter’s strong reaction when the Lord came to wash his feet. (John 13:6-8)

By his action, what Jesus was saying to his disciples is that there is nothing he would not do out of love for them. (C.f.: Matthew 20:25-28) He even washed the feet of Judas, though he knew he was going to betray him. In this way he showed us how we are to love even our enemies. (John 13:1-2; Matthew 5:44-48) In this, too, he showed us how much God loves us: in commanding us to love as he loved us, Jesus wants us to love one another with a love as deep as God’s love for us — as St John put it earlier, ‘God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son.’ (John 3:16) And tomorrow Jesus will show us just how really deep God’s love for us is: as he puts it later in his farewell to us, “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.” (John 15:13) Here, if we care to dwell on it, we might begin to see how we might answer the Lord’s call to ‘take up our cross and follow him’ (Matthew 16:24) — which involves neither literally carrying a cross nor washing anyone’s feet.

 St Benedict puts the love we are to bear one another in this way: “They should each strive to be the first to show respect to the other, supporting with the greatest patience one another’s weaknesses of body or behaviour, and earnestly competing in obedience to one another. No one is to pursue what he judges better for himself, but rather what he judges better for someone else.” (Rule of St Benedict 72:4-7. C.f.: RB Prologue:50) In trying to do such as this, when the Lord asks us, “Do you love me more than all these?” we shall truly be able to answer along with St Peter, “Yes, Lord, you know I love you.” (John 21:15) In some senses, we are to compete in our love for one another.

So, in our ‘remembering,’ we are to love as Christ loved us. This Jesus will go on to say to us in his farewell, “You are my friends, if you do what I command you.” (John 15:14) In return for doing as he commanded us, for keeping our side of the Covenant, we can, then, confidently expect Jesus to keep his side of our Covenant: to ‘remember’ us as his friends and acknowledge us before his Father on the day when we have to give our account of ourselves, so that we may come and make our home with him and his Father for all eternity. ( Luke 23:42-43; Matthew 10:32; Romans 2:16; 14:10-12; John 3:21; 14:23; 17:24; Hebrews 3:6; 6:19-20; 7:25)  Jesus commits himself to this. For this is the covenant in his blood that Jesus makes with us, that we commemorate here on this night, when Jesus took bread, gave thanks, and broke it, and said, “This is my body, which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” And in the same way, when he took the cup, after supper, and said, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” (1 Corinthians 11:23-25) We are to ‘remember’ him, as he is to ‘remember’ us, each and every time we come together to eat the bread and drink the cup; this is our Covenant … with daily eucharist, every day becomes a ‘Day of Remembrance,’ a daily reminder to love one another as Christ loved us. (1 Corinthians 11:26. C.f.: Genesis 9:15) So, our Gospel this evening, though in a different form, is about Covenant, about remembering and the action this calls us to; we miss the point if we just focus on foot-washing. (C.f.:John 2:23-25)

By Dom Steele Hartmann OCSO