13 April 2017
Rev Tony van Vuuren
Holy Thursday, or Maundy Thursday, marks the start of the Easter Triduum. The Mass of the Lord’s Supper this evening commemorates the institution of the Eucharist. In John’s account of the Last Supper, which forms the gospel reading tonight, 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 symbolises by washing his disciples feet.
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 modelled, 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 evening John doesn’t mention anything about bread and wine becoming Jesus’ body and blood. He uses the event of the Last Supper to emphasise another facet, or another dimension, of the Eucharist. John’s version of Lord’s Supper describes Jesus washing his disciple’s feet – and informing them by this gesture that he’s the Messiah who’s come to serve rather than be served. And, just as important, he’s telling the disciples that they’ve got to do the same if they want to think of themselves as his followers.
John’s point in putting that incident right in the middle of the Last Supper illustrates how we can put our belief in the Eucharist into practice. The meaning of the Eucharist is lived out in practice when we all treat each other with that attitude of humility, self-emptying, service and love that Jesus himself demonstrated.
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. 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 Jesus’ time was of course a task that only a servant or lowly slave would perform. According to 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 John say that we as followers of Christ have to take on this servant-like commitment? The answer is 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” he said. So the gesture of the foot-washing demonstrates a vital aspect of God’s nature – the fact that he chooses to reveal himself in powerlessness and servant hood. 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. ‘You shall never wash my feet.”
Christ is present in the bread and wine as a sacramental sign and when we celebrate Mass together we are making him present in that way. But Christ must also be made present in real life, by a concrete commitment to servant hood. We make Christ present when we renounce our own pride and self-interest and respond to the needs, and especially to the suffering and the distress, of others. The Mass of the Lord’s Supper is to remind us not to separate those two aspects of the Eucharist and always to see them as belonging together.
That’s why out of the four gospel accounts of the Last Supper, it’s especially 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 come together once again to re-enact and celebrate this year’s Paschal Triduum.