The Divine Servanthood
(Readings: Exodus 12:1-8, 11-14; 1 Corinthians 11:23-26; John 13: 1-15.)
Introduction to Mass
Holy Thursday, or Maundy Thursday, marks the start of the Easter Triduum. The Mass of the Lord's Supper on Holy Thursday evening commemorates the institution of the Eucharist.
In Saint John's account of the Last Supper, which forms the gospel reading tonight, Saint John makes the point that the Church has to make Christ present not only sacramentally, in his Body and Blood, but also in the spirit of service and surrendering of power which Jesus symbolised by washing his disciples feet.
To prepare ourselves to celebrate the sacred mysteries...
By the time that the four gospels came to be written the first communities of Christian believers had already firmly established the practice of meeting together every week, on Sunday, the day of Christ's Resurrection, "for the breaking of the bread".
In the other three gospels, the description of the Last Supper was modelled partly on what the early Christians were already doing in their Eucharistic celebration. And what they were doing was modeled, of course, on the actual event of the Last Supper itself, and Jesus' words over the bread and wine: "This is my Body"; "This is my Blood". "Do this in memory of me".
In John's gospel, that particular aspect of the Eucharist is dealt with in Chapter Six, where Jesus gives his long discourse on the living bread. "The bread I give is my flesh, for the life of the world...whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood, lives in me and I live in them". This is St. John's sacramental theology, or his theology of the Eucharist at any rate.
As we just heard in the gospel reading this evening, when he come to write down his version of the Last Supper Saint John doesn't refer to Jesus offering the disciples bread and wine as his Body and Blood. John uses the event of the Last Supper to emphasise another facet, or another dimension, of the Eucharist.
Saint John never got tired of making the point that if our devotion towards God is real it will express itself in devotion towards our neighbour, an active dedication of ourselves to our fellow human beings. "If God has loved us, so we must love each other", he says, elsewhere in his writings. Or again: "If anyone enjoys the riches of this world, but closes his heart when he sees his brother or sister in need, how will the love of God remain in him?"
It's this aspect of our life in communion with God which John wants to emphasise in his account of the Last Supper as well.
For the true Christian, who is genuinely open to God's influence in their life, taking part in the Eucharist is conditional on this attitude of service and humility - this willingness to take up a stance in life which involves performing menial or servant-like tasks for each other. Washing people's feet in Jesusí time was of course a task that only a servant would perform.
According to St John, no Christian should approach the Eucharistic table, or receive Christ's Body and Blood, without this prior commitment. At the same time, none of us should go away from the table, having received communion, without having this commitment strengthened and reinforced. We have to find the presence of Christ both in the Eucharist and in the washing of feet. They're two sides of a single reality.
Well, the question is: what reality? Why does Saint John say that the followers of Christ have to take on this servant-like commitment? The answer is that that it's a reflection of God's nature, God's character, and so it's something that we take on as we gradually realise or grow into the vocation we all have to be like God.
By the time John's gospel was written Jesus was clearly seen as being divine. "Whoever has seen me has seen the Father". So the gesture of the foot-washing was demonstrating a vital aspect of God's nature - the fact that he chooses to reveal himself in powerlessness and servanthood.
God shows himself - to make the point another way - by reversing the ordinary human values and customs, where important and powerful people demonstrate their superiority with all kinds of badges of privilege and ways of being treated in a servile way by their subordinates. Peter shows how far he still holds to that way of thinking by his embarrassment and by the objections he raises to Jesus' action.
That's why out of the four gospel accounts of the Last Supper, it's especially Saint John's account that belongs within the Easter Triduum: it belongs especially in the context of Christ's journey to the Cross. And it's partly for that reason that the Mass of the Lord's Supper doesn't have a formal ending - it remains open and unfinished, and picks up again tomorrow, with the remembrance of Christ's Passion and Death.
So the institution of the Eucharist, the washing of the feet, and the Path to the Cross, are all part of a single mystery, and they all cast light on each other.
These are the realities of our faith which we can bear in mind and reflect on as we join with the rest of the Church in beginning, once again, this year's re-enactment of the Paschal Triduum.