On that final evening of his life, Jesus sent disciples to the town or city (it is not named, but it is Jerusalem), and told them they would see a man carrying a pitcher of water. Such activity was normally that of women. He told them to follow that man. They were to ask him, not, where is a room where I can eat Passover, but, where is my resting place, now that my life has run its course? The man, symbolically, is God the Father, the real proprietor of the final rest, the ultimate Sabbath, of Jesus. [Jesus could also be imitating John the Baptist: at the beginning of the gospel, John told his disciples, ‘follow him’ in reference to Jesus; now Jesus tells his own disciples, ‘follow him’, in reference to this man.]
Note: Many believe that the place called The Cenacle is where the last supper took place. It was once in Franciscan hands, then with the Moslem, and later, and still now, with Orthodox Jews. It is where the putative tomb of David is to be found. At present, Catholics are forbidden by Jewish laws to worship there – though they can freely come and do so at places like Capernaum, and the Mount of the Transfiguration.
Once the group is there, Jesus says, ‘One of you is about to betray me. The Son of man is going to be handed over, as Scripture says.’ He then took bread, pronounced the blessing prayer, gave it to them, and said, ‘This is my body’. Note that he is still alive at this time. Body does not mean, in Hebrew, a part of the human composite. It is not separate from the soul. It is not separate from the blood that animates it. It means the whole human being, in its totality, in its entire identity, with all its history. To receive the body is to accept the person. [Mark does not say that they ate it…]
Then Jesus took the cup, pronounced the thanksgiving prayer, passed the cup around, and all drank from it. He said, not ‘This is my blood of the covenant’, but ‘This is the blood of my covenant’. He replaces the old covenant of God with Israel with this new one with him as a person. In it they must accept his person as the norm of their life, and go like him to the end of life’s course, and give their life as gift, in love.
In Luke’s gospel, immediately after Jesus has announced that one of those at table is going to betray him, those men ask a question. It is not which one among them will betray him. It is which one among them is the greatest. Perhaps in thinking and talking like that, they have already betrayed him. He replies to that betrayal by what he does.
That is what we recall on this Holy Thursday evening.
The first two readings of the liturgy this evening describe two rituals. The first is from the book of Exodus, the ritual of the Jewish Passover. The second is from Paul’s letter to Corinth, and is the memorial of Jesus in the community Eucharist.
The washing of the feet is actually not a ritual – it is a prime example of the real thing. There is full realism in the gospel description of it. Jesus hitches up his robe, fastens it round him, and gets into action. He doesn’t pour just a few drops of water on their feet – he uses a full basin. When he went on to tell the foot-washed to do this for other one another and for other people, he didn’t mean them to do it as ritual. He meant them to do it as real service to the real needs of others around them. The point is not ceremony, it is actual service.
It is interesting to look at the context of it in the gospels. In the Synoptics, Jesus has been talking to his disciples (or rather, they to him) about who is the greatest. Who is the prime minister, and the head of cabinet among them? Jesus told them that such ideas and practices are not to happen at all among them. He was not into that sort of thing. In fact he wanted to deconstruct it. His Father had put everything into his hands, but he had given that everything away to others in need. They must do something like that. When he healed a cripple, he told him to pick up his mat and walk away – in his newfound freedom. He did not tell him to stay around and defer to any or all of the apostles.
Christian life is not made up of rituals and practices for their own sake, it is made up of a memorial – the Eucharist – which takes participants into the same kind of practice that Jesus did.
It is interesting to look at another gospel context for the washing of the feet. John 13 (the supper washing of the disciples’ feet by Jesus) is preceded by John 12 (Mary, the sister of Martha, at Bethany, washes Jesus’ feet). In fact, she does more than that: she anoints his feet with costly and fragrant perfume. This was at a meal. It was not normal at a meal to wash the feet of guests. It is against Jewish practice. The Jews (or better, their servants) washed the feet of the guests when they arrived before the meal. The feet would have come – barefoot or at most in sandals – on very dirty and rough walkways. (When Jesus arrived at Mary’s house, did a servant wash his feet – before Mary anointed them later?) Did Mary wash his feet before or after she anointed them? (Did Mary have a bad hair day as a result of drying them?) Mary loved Jesus in an overwhelming way and with abandon.
To anoint him, and wash his feet, was an extravagant and unbounded thing to do. For that reason, we could think there was a kind of sacramentality in it. I suggest it was the extravagance that appealed to Jesus….he hadn’t seen that kind of thing before.
At the last supper, Jesus had no precious perfume with which to anoint the feet of those present, and he did not have hair long enough to use to dry them if he did. But he did kneel down as Mary had done. It was a sudden, humble, unexpected act. I wonder if the washing of the feet at the last supper was – could I say reverently – a sudden ‘mad’ idea that popped into Jesus’ head at that time….or in the few days since Mary had done it…. Was it a spontaneous thing, done in the spirit of the moment?
I even wonder if Mary of Bethany was there and had her feet washed by Jesus?
Judas objected to both scenes, at the meal in Bethany and at the last supper. He tried to disrupt both of them. Note that at the last supper, Judas’ feet were washed. Jesus defended Mary’s prodigality in response to Judas. He said she had acted in the light of his coming death, for his burial. He said that what Mary did would be told in memory of her, wherever the good news would be preached in the whole world. At the last supper, Jesus told Judas to go and do what he felt he had to do, and do it quickly.
It might be thought that the later church has often acted more like Judas than like Mary and Jesus. Judas didn’t approve of something that looked unplanned and inappropriate. He didn’t like losing money as a result…. Hypocrisy and cunning were stronger in him, and humility and the spontaneous service of love were not strong enough. The real issue is the level of self-respect that Judas, and Mary and Jesus thought important. Real service demands a letting go of a certain level of self-respect. Judas couldn’t let that go. The church is often not good at that, either.
I wonder too – when Jesus had everyone washing someone else’s feet – who got to wash Jesus’ feet that night? Who dried them? Anyone? Or had it been done at Bethany?
Was the Eucharist that followed a similar spontaneous, unplanned act?
Have theologians and scripture scholars merged the last supper with the many earlier meals of Jesus – and lost something of its distinctiveness, and originality, and surprise quality? Have we assumed that the Eucharist was planned from all eternity in the mind of God to begin on the first Holy Thursday night, and planned from all his adult life in the mind of Jesus to be done on that night?Is it possible that Jesus actually never thought about it earlier, and – like the washing of the feet – just on the spur of that very special moment just felt it was the right and best thing he could do with his own on that night? Did he see bread and wine there on the table, and think, the bread could stand for my body, my body about to be surrendered, the blood could stand for my life-energy, about to be spilt and spent, let me take them in my hands, and say that, and then share them with everyone around this table?
Somehow I feel that is more like what really happened than imagining it like an 8.p.m. vigil mass scheduled for that Thursday evening….
When we come to this Eucharist on Holy Thursday evening, we are being drawn into a gesture of God to us, a wholly unplanned one, as if Eucharist had never happened before….as if it had never been conceived before….
In a real sense, every time we take part in a Eucharist, it has never happened before.
Neither has holy week.
Note: Writers are not expected to produce a book, a play, or even a poem without drafts and rewrites. Artists can occasionally come up with a spontaneous masterpiece. Even they don’t know that it is the distillation and capturing of long years, maybe a lifetime, of experience. Slow learning can erupt into exuberance.