Father Nicholas Lang
Tonight we observe the anniversary of Jesus' last day in the life his friends had experienced with him for the three years of his ministry. He did not spend it in solitude or even in deep prayer, nor among the crowds teaching and healing but rather with his friends, around a table, sharing bread and wine.
And here we are, invited to be among his circle of friends, to hear the words he said that night repeated as they have been since all around the world, to eat the holy food he offers us, to rekindle the memory of what he gave us, to recall what he taught us on that night so very long ago.
On Maundy Thursday we remember the two commandments Jesus gave us. With a basin of water and a towel and in bread and wine we learn the power of the Gospel to transform the world as it is manifested by the example of Jesus’ self-giving love.
Maundy means “command” and on this night Jesus commanded us to love one another as he loved us. He didn’t give us rules or laws. He showed us the way to live a fuller, more meaningful life by doing simple, ordinary things in service to one another and in his name.
It is the night of Jesus’ Last Supper with his intimate friends and later we will recall the words he prayed over bread and wine more than two thousand years ago. By the power of the Holy Spirit which is present within the church as he promised it would be, bread and wine will again become his Body and Blood, and we will eat together the Mystical Supper that nurtures us through this life's journey—a meal offered and shared again and again over the centuries since that sacred night.
Rabbi Abraham Heschel once said that what the Bible demands can be comprised in one word: Remember. And so, like our Jewish ancestors who were commanded by God to remember their liberation from slavery in Egypt by the annual observance of a sacred ritual meal, tonight we remember the meal that Jesus shared with his closest friends on the night before he died for us.
In his book of meditations about Holy Week, author Sam Portaro makes a very profound point about the meaning of the footwashing in the life of the early church and beyond. The Gospel of John which relates this story was written fifty to sixty years after the Resurrection—a whole generation removed from the events it detailed. The Christian community had already begun to fracture into alliances centered on particular teachers.
There were growing divisions within these communities and the question of status was an issue. It is curious, however, that this same Gospel omits any record of the Eucharistic meal described in Paul’s Epistle this evening. There is no blessing of bread and wine, no words of institution—only the strange matter of the footwashing.
It made no sense to those disciples that Passover night of long ago. But for those who followed them, there may have been a different perspective. Portaro asks the question: “Did those early Christians gathered around John’s memory understand that this account was addressed to their own fractious divisions? More importantly. Do we understand?
Can we see that the only way to make Eucharist—to embrace the gospel in our own lives, to bring the gospel to this culture of ours, and to bring that culture to the fullness of the Eucharistic table is to do the same? Down on the floor, in service, was where the disciples would see God. Down on the floor, in service, is where they would be the church. Down on that floor, in service, is where we are the church.
We don’t travel dusty roads nor wear sandals, yet we all need refreshment from the burdens we bear and someone to help remove the dust and sooth the calluses—whatever that is for us—our fears, our failures, our pain, our sadness, our loss of hope, our many stresses and tensions. We are all called to wash feet, perhaps in a different way, when we enter into the greatest power we have as human beings—to serve without weighing whether or not someone is “worth it,” nor worrying how our service is being perceived, or what results it will produce.
Sam Portaro’s meditation on this gospel ends with this epiphany: “Our place is at the feet of those whom God has entrusted to us. When our eyes meet the eyes of those who look down upon us they will only see our gratitude to God, our thanksgiving for the gift the each of them is. That is when the eucharistic begins: not when the bread is broken, but when we are.