Sharing a meal is a gesture of closeness, and in itself carries a certain vulnerability among people – whether they be family or friends. Often we feel comfortable enough in saying things or sharing feelings or ideas that we wouldn’t speak in another more public setting. There is a certain intimacy in this eating together. Tonight we celebrate the Mass of the Lord’s Supper, when we begin the Easter Triduum, the ‘three great days.” At the heart of this entire celebration is the understanding that it is all about God’s faithfulness to His promises; of His constant invitation to humanity to enter in a close relationship; into a deep intimacy with God. Why not, then, use the setting of an intimate gathering of family or close friends to relate this message.
We are reminded of the first Passover meal recorded in our first reading from the book of Exodus; the ‘last supper’ the children of Israel would eat before God, using Moses, led them out of slavery in Egypt. As great a miracle as this was, accompanied by all sorts of signs and wonders, pillars of fire and the parting of the sea, it was really a living prophecy of a greater miracle yet to come centuries later; when God through the person of Jesus, would lead all of His children out of slavery to sin and death, into eternal freedom as adopted sons and daughters.
The Passover meal becomes a powerful symbol of the relationship of God with the children of Israel; this last supper in slavery is an invitation to a relationship of total dependence on God – of complete intimate trust.
It is quite fitting, then, that the fulfillment of the covenant; of God dwelling among His people in the person of Jesus, should reach its completion in history during a commemoration of the Passover. And yet, even within the ‘Last Supper’ of Jesus with his disciples, while the events themselves are straightforward enough, we can reflect on each word, each movement and draw deeper insight and understanding.
It is only in St. John’s Gospel which we read tonight, that the washing of the disciples’ feet by Jesus is recorded. It’s important to note that in middle Eastern culture – then as now – feet are probably the most ‘undignified’ part of the body. In fact, it is considered very rude to sit in such a way as to show the soles of your feet to your host when sitting in their company; that’s why often when we see news photos of a deposed dictator or leader in the middle East, people are often striking the portraits of these leaders with the soles of their shoes – it is a display of contempt.
So we get a bit of an insight as to how ‘shocking’ or ‘out of the ordinary’ this movement of Jesus is: we see that He is inviting the disciples into an object lesson – that the one who would be his disciple must serve – and not from some great or lofty place – but placing themselves in the most lowly of positions. Jesus the teacher or master, removes his outer garments, his robes – his sign of authority and Lordship if you will – wraps a towel around himself and picks up a basin of water to wash his disciples’ feet; here the host of the Passover meal, is placing himself in the very undignified position of the lowest of household servants or slaves – doing a job that even most household servants would consider ‘beneath their dignity’; here, the Son of God lowers himself to lead back to God the very creatures who fell from grace through their own disobedience; here, the Lord of Glory will shed his divinity, and in his humanity sacrifice Himself, allowing His creatures to brutally torture and kill Him, in order to restore humanity to its original relationship with God.
As Jesus is moving from disciple to disciple, washing their feet, Peter expresses his discomfort with the actions of Jesus – ‘you shall never wash my feet’- Peter has professed Jesus as the Christ, the Son of the living God; as the Messiah – and while we’re not given Peter’s interior motives for his resistance to having his feet washed by Jesus, we can draw perhaps a couple of possibilities for our own reflection;
He sees Jesus’ actions as socially improper and certain to lead to misunderstanding – He is, after all , their Lord, and for Him to strike such an undignified pose is disturbing enough, but it could leave Peter – and the others- wondering where is He going with this? It could be that Peter is uncomfortable watching his Lord humiliating himself in front of the other disciples.
It could also be that Peter is uncomfortable with the intimacy and vulnerability that he is being invited into at this moment by Jesus.
But it is exactly this vulnerability and intimacy that we are all invited into by Jesus Himself. In the Holy Eucharist He gives Himself to us, to be taken and eaten and so to become one with us. Jesus entering into our personal reality and we entering into His reality – This is not some ‘metaphor’ or a symbolic gesture; this is the meaning in what our Catholic faith has always taught and believed; that Jesus is really and truly present in Holy Communion; this is what was meant in the words recorded in the gospels of Sts. Matthew, Mark and Luke and summarized in the first letter of St. Paul to the Corinthians,” This is my body that is for you.” And it is in this Passover meal, the ‘last supper’ that this most Holy Sacrament is instituted by Christ himself, for all time. It is also in this meal that Jesus institutes the Sacramental Priesthood, and we see how intimately connected these sacraments are – the Holy Eucharist to the Priesthood; both mark a total surrender of self to God for the good of all people. It is in this sacrament that the priest, configured to Christ the High Priest, by joining into the eternal sacrifice of Christ, offers that sacrifice of Himself for all people for all time. (that is what is meant by the priest acting ‘in persona Christi” – in the person of Christ, as Christ the High Priest. The deacon, of course, being configured to Christ the Servant, as reflected in this gospel passage of the washing of the feet.)
Being open to that intimacy requires each of us to become vulnerable – and becoming vulnerable is very contrary to our human nature. But Jesus gives yet another example of vulnerability. In a few hours, he is vulnerable to receiving the ultimate gesture of love from a close friend – a kiss – but it is in receiving this gesture of intimacy that He will be betrayed. Yet he does not turn aside from this openness. And He invites us into this vulnerability. It is in that vulnerability; that humility – that Jesus walks with us. To be his true disciples, we must imitate the Master; and while it does not necessarily mean we have to wander around looking for peoples’ feet to wash, it does mean opening ourselves to a life of service to God and to others; it means a shift in attitude from a sense of superiority to a sense of solidarity; rather than thinking of reaching down to help others up, it is a matter of lowering our “selves” to journey upward together with our brothers and sisters; the poor, the sick, the marginalized – it means admitting our own weaknesses and vulnerabilities and sharing in the sorrows and sufferings and the struggles of all those around us. Sometimes it even means allowing others to serve us, as well as for us to serve them. It means doing all of this for the love of a God who holds nothing back in His love for us.
It means that if we would truly be Jesus’ followers; then to open our hearts in humble service to others is not really something that is a burden; it’s an honour in which we are invited to imitate Our Lord and Master and so live intimately with our God.
Praised be Jesus Christ, now and forever!