Today Catholics throughout the world who attend the Holy Thursday mass will have their eyes fixed on the washing of the feet now that Pope Francis has brought about a great reform… ‘pastors could choose a group from among the faithful that represents the variety and the unity of the People of God. Such group can be made up of men and women, young and old, the healthy and sick, clergy, religious and laity’. This has indeed been welcomed overwhelmingly by many people. However, if we simply narrow down our celebration this evening to debating who should or should not be included in the washing of the feet, then we have missed the point of being here to celebrate this great moment.
Holy Thursday in fact commemorates Jesus Christ’s last supper and the initiation of the Eucharist. In the past and even in some places today, this day is known as ‘Maundy Thursday’. The word ‘maundy’ comes from the Latin word ‘mandatum’, which means ‘mandate’ (commandment). If translated literally, it is ‘Mandate Thursday’. So what is the mandate / commandment then? In the context of Holy Week, it refers to the commandment Jesus gave to His disciples while washing their feet, as recorded in John 13. At the end of supper Jesus tells His disciples: “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:34-35). The key to understanding this mandate are in these words: As I have loved you. In other words, Jesus sets the model of love for all future disciples.
In these three days, Jesus once again reminds us what God’s love is all about. It begins with today when we celebrate Jesus’ ultimate act of self-giving: first to His enemies, to die on the cross for the life of the world; second, to His disciples and friends, the gift of His body and blood and He said “Do this in memory of me!” Ironically, though we celebrate the day Christ instituted the Eucharist, the scene that is presented to us in the gospel is not that of the Last Supper (the Eucharist scene) as we traditionally know, but it is John’s description of Jesus’ humility and generosity through the washing of the feet.
The gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke have records of the institution of the Holy Eucharist (cf. Mt 26:25-29; Mk 14:22-25; Lk 22:19-23). Even St. Paul records the event (cf. 1Cor 11:23-25). However, John makes no mention of this (possibly because he intended to mention what the others had not written). It is not that the two happened at different times but they are one and the same event but presented in different ways. John already has a lengthy discourse on the ‘bread of life’ (John 6) and probably didn’t see the need to recollect the scene of the Eucharist. Whether the words are ‘Do this in memory of me’ as recorded in the Synoptic Gospels or ‘For I have given you an example, that you should do as I have done to you’ as noted by John, Jesus’ intention at the Last Supper is clear. Both have one key point to communicate and that is, the love that Jesus shows to His disciples and friends must be replicated by all who profess faith in Him.
If the mandate then is to love one another as Jesus loves us, what expressions of love can we show today in the way Jesus would mandate us? Though the highlight of our celebration today might be the washing of the feet but it is not the end of it all… it points to a higher reality: we must pattern our lives after Jesus, whose actions that we recall today, points to the reality of God’s love for us and in return our love for God to be expressed in our love for one another.
We have heard this theme of love only about a zillion times but this is one area that we find it most difficult to live out. In the words of St Paul…
Love is patient… but we become impatient with one another;
Love is kind… but we show kindness to those who are kind to us;
Love shows no envy… but we are jealous of others achievements;
Love does not dishonour others… but so easily we indulge and find pleasure in gossip;
Love delights in truth… but yet we can be dishonest without the blink of an eye;
Love keeps no record of wrong… but we hold grudges and unforgiveness and yet pray ‘forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us;
Love perseveres… but we give up so easily on one another.
The mandate is clear: ‘As I have loved you, so you must love one another… By this everyone will know that you are my disciples’. Jesus shows His love by embracing suffering and the cross. Perhaps we too can show some of His love as we meditate these next few days on His passion, death, and resurrection. Praying that you have a meaningful Maundy Thursday.
Image: Jesus washing Peter’s feet. 12th century Passion and Resurrection stained glass window at Chartres Cathedral (France)