Exodus 12: 1 – 8, 11 – 14;
Responsorial Psalm 116
1 Corinthians 11: 23 – 26
John 13: 1 – 15
Tonight we begin the Triduum, the three most important days in the liturgical year of the Church.
Tonight we celebrate a more happy event. It is the Passover, the Last Supper, and Jesus is gathered
together with his disciples, and he is there to tell them how much he loves them, how much he cares
for them, and also how he must leave them. And so the great joy of gathering around the great feast
of the Passover is tinged with sorrow.
And then you would think at the celebration of this Mass of The Last Supper, that the Gospel would
be about the institution, about the institution of the Eucharist, and yet we have this very strange kind
of beginning. Jesus, having told his disciples how much he longed to be with them, he takes off his
outer garment and he goes to the outside, really, and he brings in the bowl with which the servants
wash the feet of those who come to the banquet.
You know they come a long distance and they’re all very important people and it’s a very important
feast, but there has to be someone who’s going to wash their feet before they enter the household of
the host. And this job is given to the lowest of the lowest slave. And Jesus comes back with the
water and he kneels down in front of each of them and he begins to wash their feet. And he comes
to St. Peter and a pin could drop through the whole dining hall. And Peter, as we know, is an
impetuous man and he sees his Lord and master degrading himself in this way and he says to him,
“You’re not going to wash my feet.”
And then Jesus says something even more strange. He says to them, he says, “Peter, if you do not
let me wash your feet, you will never know who I am. You can have nothing, nothing, to do with
me, because you will never understand.” And then Peter, as usual with his ups and downs, he cries
out, “Not only, not only my feet, but my head and my shoulders and my arms and my whole self,”
because if there’s one thing that Peter knows, he does not want to lose the love he feels for this
person who has changed his life. And then Jesus proceeds, one after the other, washing their feet,
drying their feet.
And finally he goes back, puts on his garment, and he says to them, “Do you know what I have
done to you?” And of course they don’t. And they’re quite silent. He said, “You call me Lord and
master, and that’s what I am. I am your Lord and I am your master, but I have washed your feet.”
And then there is a great pause and he says, “I do this, because you will never know who I am until
you wash each other’s feet.”
This is the meaning of the Eucharist. This is the meaning of why he, the Son of God, came down to
share our humanity, that we might share in an understanding of the great dignity that God has given
us and the great gift that he continues to give us each day. It seems like, from one point of view,
that what Jesus is doing is playing a game or making a parable by what he does. How can the Son
of God kneel down in front of these men who in a very, very short time will all run away from him
when he needs them most.
One will betray him. Others will deny him three times, their leader. When he says to the little lady
who says, “You’re one of them,” he says, and he curses and he swears, “I have never known this
man.” And Jesus knows that this is all going to happen. Why and what does it mean? When he
kneels down what does Jesus see?
He sees the humanity of all of them, and he loves them in a human way. But he also sees the
presence of God. He knows that each one has been formed individually, particularly, out of the
greatness and glory of God. And each one is worthy of respect, because, not for what he is, but what
he has become when God created him in His own image and His own likeness. And what Jesus is
really doing is telling the truth of who they really are. They are not, even in the most remote way,
even near an understanding of the greatness of being the children, the sons and daughters, those
made in the image of a loving Father.
And it is Jesus who pays homage at this time. And that’s why he says, “If you cannot see in me, and
what I do here, and why I do it, you cannot be my disciple.” Because what he is saying is: a
disciple, in response to the love of God, serves other people.
It’s the same story. Each and every one of us, no matter what we have done, or how we behave, or
what we do with the treasures that God gives us — use them well or use them poorly — we are
indeed the precious children of God. And our dignity and our feeling and the great gifts that God
gives us, we must first recognize in ourselves.
You’re not fishermen, you’re not just ordinary people, because when I look at you, I see what you
really are. I look to the depths of your heart. I know when you weep and I know when you laugh.
And I know the storm about your life. I know the troubles you have and I know your ambitions.
And this is what they must understand: he’s sending them out now to look at other people the way
he looks at them.
The teaching, then, of tonight’s Gospel is that we must, as Jesus once said to his disciples and to the
people of his time, “You have eyes to see, but you’re blind; you have ears to hear, but you’re deaf;
you have hearts to love, but you don’t.” And because of that, the great mystery in each other is lost.
What Jesus is saying to them is: when you learn how to serve, you will learn how to live; and when
you learn to love others, you will understand what love is; and when you learn to give happiness
and joy to people, you will understand what it means to be happy and full of joy.
Jesus takes on himself the role of a slave and washes the disciples’ feet, provoking a protest from
Peter. Normally when someone came in from outside in the time of Jesus their feet would have
been washed of the dust and grime of travel by slaves, but there was one exception to this rule: a
wife could wash her husband’s feet, not because she was his slave, but because they were one body.
When Jesus washes the feet of his disciples he acts out a kind of prophetic sign or sacrament of his
whole life and mission. He is the sacrificial Lamb of God. St John emphasises this by saying that he
‘lays down’ his outer garment before he begins; and afterwards ‘takes it up again’ – the same
language that he has used of Jesus as the Good Shepherd, laying down his life for his sheep, and
taking it up again. On the night he was betrayed he invites his disciples to follow him in that way of
sacrifice. John’s teaching on Jesus’ instituting the Eucharist is given earlier in his gospel on the
teaching of Jesus that he is the bread of life, the bread from heaven that gives life; here, he shows us
what it means. The washing of the feet is the Eucharist: the acting out of Eucharistic living, of
loving service to each other in the Lord and following his example.
But the story goes on. The central statement of Jesus’ teaching in this section (John 13:1-38, in
verses 18-20) we read earlier on Tuesday of Holy week, where Jesus stresses for both the
footwashing and the gift of the morsel: Jesus has chosen fragile disciples, one of whom will betray
him; he does this that they may believe ‘I am he’; these disciples are then sent out that both Jesus
and the one who has sent him may be received. The unconditional self-gift of Jesus on the Cross for
his fragile disciples and for all has not yet taken place, but is anticipated in the loving gestures of
the footwashing and the gift of the morsel (Jesus takes the piece of bread, and gives it to his
betrayer – the language is Eucharistic). This is what it means to love ‘to the end’ – to show the
incomprehensible love of God, and the disciples of Jesus are identified as those who follow Jesus’
example and love to the end, despite their (and our) failures, fragilities, betrayals and denials.
We have heard St Paul’s account of receiving and handing on this tradition in the excerpt from his
first letter to his church in Corinth. Paul here is delivering a stark reproof – raging that the
Corinthians, in importing the trivial divisions of wealth and status into the communion of the Lord’s
supper, are subverting its very nature. To celebrate blessing/thanking the Father or Eucharist is to
commit oneself to a discipleship that remembers Jesus not only in breaking the ritual bread and
sharing the ritual cup, but in imitating his whole sacrificial attitude of self-giving love to the end in
obedience to the Father. Accordingly, Paul adds ‘You proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes’.
The disciples are to live the Eucharist they celebrate, even to the breaking of their bodies and
spilling of their blood, embodying the saving mission of Christ until he comes again. This is only
possible because of the depth of communion in a shocking level of intimacy to which we are called
by Jesus and empowered by his Spirit: in the self-giving to the other in footwashing and in sharing
the one cup.
While breaking bread and dipping the morsel into a central dish would have been common
behaviour at table in Jesus’ time, sharing drinking vessels -especially in a ritual context – would not
have been. This was his big innovation in the rituals of dining. Again, cups can be shared, but
usually for us rarely, except for lover and beloved or between parent and child.
Just now the washing of feet and sharing the one cup is taking place outside the church buildings in
the life-giving charity we are showing each other – this very widespread example of love in action
reminds us of what this liturgical drama is pointing us toward.
And the lesson of course is this: Jesus washes feet, God washes feet, and until we learn to wash
feet, to serve others, no conditions, no counting the cost, but to learn to serve others, then we will
know that it is God who washes our feet and it is God’s Son who dies on a cross for us.
And the real meaning of it all is will we ever learn to love as Jesus loves, will we ever realize that
we’re surrounded by the great mystery and love of God who is with us all our days.
And the way we understand it is by turning to each other and saying, “Let me help you, let me serve
you, let me take care of you.”
This is the lesson of tonight, it’s the lesson of tomorrow, and it’s the lesson of new life, for Jesus
says, “He who gives his life away, will have life in abundance.”
God bless. Have a wonderful day