Posted March 28, 2013
It is very surprising that St John’s Gospel says nothing about the institution of the Eucharist. Nowhere in this Gospel does Jesus take bread and say ‘This is my body’, nor wine, and say ‘This is my blood’. In fact, at the very point in St John’s Gospel where we would expect Jesus to take the bread and the wine, we have the washing of the disciples’ feet instead. Are we to say, then, that St John ignores the Eucharist?
Or does he not rather interpret the Eucharist ‒ disclose to us an aspect of its deepest meaning? The washing of the feet is really an acted parable. It portrays the meaning of Jesus’ imminent Passion and death, to which it acts as a prelude. Jesus’ Passion and death is an act of self-effacing love, just as the act of washing his disciples’ feet was, in the cultural context, an act of surprising self-abasement. There was a saying among the rabbis that disciples of the rabbis should perform every possible service for their rabbi, however menial, except washing his feet, for that was the role of a slave. Here, at the supper, the Lord and Teacher washes his disciples’ feet to interpret for them the meaning of his Passion and death.
If Jesus’ washing of his disciples’ feet interprets his Passion and death, it is also interprets the Eucharist. The Eucharist is the sacrament of humble love. That is why St John places the washing of the feet at the point where the other Evangelists place the institution of the Eucharist. Instead of the commandment ‘Do this is memory of me’, which we have in the other Gospels, we have instead: ‘This is my commandment, that you love one another’, a commandment which Jesus explains with the words: ‘I have given you an example, so that you may do to each other as I have done to you.’
The Eucharist is, of course, more than the sacrament of humble love among Jesus’ disciples. There is first and foremost the whole dimension of our sharing in Jesus’ eternal worship of the Father, a dimension which, incidentally, suggests itself from a study of St John’s Gospel overall. But the Eucharist is also the sacrament of brotherly love and this is the aspect of it which the Church, with St John, puts before us this evening. Today is Maundy Thursday. ‘Maundy’ is derived from the Latin word mandatum which means ‘commandment’ ‒ and in this instance, of course, it refers to Jesus’ commandment in this very Gospel passage that we do for each other what he has done for us.
I know we all try to love and serve one another, and it is consoling to see so many acts of love and kindness around us. We must constantly strive to make our love more like Jesus’ love ‒ more humble, and more pure in motive. For our love to be like Jesus’ love, what matters is not the quantity of things we do, or the time we spend doing them, but the disposition of heart with which we do them. Frantic activity from a heart that is not well disposed is like water gushing from a contaminated source. It is a pure motive that God seeks above all else. Jesus’ washing of his disciples’ feet was not a very laborious task: but it came from a heart that was overflowing with love and humility.
This evening we perform the little ritual of the washing of the feet. It’s a token and a symbol of our desire to follow our Lord’s example of humble, self-forgetting love. Just a token and a symbol. But what will follow it, our Eucharist, is not just a token and a symbol. It is a powerful, transforming action, the action of our Lord himself, present among us as he was present to the disciples at the supper, to make us more like himself. We have come here this evening to say yes to the saving action of Jesus our Lord.
The Roman Missal reminds us that this evening’s Mass commemorates not only the gift of the Eucharist as the sacrament of love but also the gift of the ordained priesthood. The ordained priesthood is the means by which Jesus, our eternal Priest, makes his saving work present and effective in the Church, through the sacraments, through the preaching of God’s word and through pastoral service of all the members of his Church. It makes possible the Church’s worship, and therefore the priesthood of all believers.
For these wonderful gifts we give thanks to God this evening, and commit ourselves anew to this sacrament of love. May Jesus in this Eucharist forgive us our failings and accomplish in us what he has commanded.
Fr Tom Deidun