In his First Letter to the Corinthians, St. Paul gives us the very first and probably the most accurate description of what Jesus did on the night before he died. All of St. Paul’s letters were composed and delivered to their intended audiences before one word of the Gospels were written. So the account we hear tonight is what Scripture Scholars call the oldest and most authoritative account of the Last Supper; in other words the very first time the words of Jesus at the Last Supper were set down in writing. “This is my Body which is for you. . . This cup is the new covenant in my blood. . . Do this in remembrance of me.” St. Paul makes sure that we understand that this is not something he has made up. He is simply handing on to us what had been given to him.
Curiously, the Gospel for the Mass of the Lord’s Supper (Holy Thursday) says nothing about the Eucharist or the Body and Blood of Christ, nothing about the Pasch and only mentions in passing the Passover. Instead it links all of these things together by telling the story of Jesus washing the feet of his disciples.
Foot washing was common in the Middle Eastern culture of Jesus’ time. While people of some means wore sandals, the poor went barefoot. While we can imagine how one’s feet would become dusty or dirty while walking the unpaved streets and paths of the Holy Land, remember that there was no drainage or sewer system at that time. Animal dung and human waste were also found on those dusty streets and paths. One’s feet were bound to be filthy and smelly when one arrived home or at the home of a friend. So it was a common practice to have the servants wash the feet of one’s guests or to wash one’s own feet when entering a home. It was a matter of hospitality for guests, a matter of cleanliness for one’s family.
However, when Jesus, the Lord and Master of this fictive family, gets down on his knees to wash the feet of his disciples, it is not simply a matter of hospitality or cleanliness. He washes the feet of his disciples as a way to understand what is going to happen the next day after he is arrested, tried for blasphemy, falsely convicted, scourged and mocked, spat upon, and forced to carry a cross to Golgotha where he was executed. The service that Jesus renders to his apostles finds its meaning in his dying for us. Just as Jesus served his disciples by washing their feet, so he serves us by dying for us, by taking on our guilt and washing away our sins in his blood.
As we hear in the reading from Exodus at this evening’s liturgy, our Jewish brothers and sisters remember how God set them free from their slavery to Egypt when they celebrate their feast of Passover. Each and every time we celebrate the Eucharist, we remember the passion, death and resurrection of Jesus and how through his dying and rising he sets us free from our slavery to sin. We remember what he did for us freely and without condition out of God’s love for us. However, remembering is not enough. If we wish to receive the Lord’s Body and Blood worthily, a term that also originates in St. Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians, then we must live out that act of foot washing by loving our brothers and sisters, by caring for the poor and the oppressed, by welcoming the stranger and alien, and by comforting the sick and the grieving. When Jesus says, “Do this in memory of me,” he is asking us to do more than to simply consecrate bread and wine. He is asking us to live out the mystery which we celebrate through our worship.
So this Gospel story which will be reenacted for us in just a short while links the Eucharist with the concrete reality of our lives. It is this spirit of love and service of brothers and sisters which is to be the outstanding characteristic of the Christian disciple. This service is what makes our worship come alive. Without such loving service, our worship is a hollow reality.
Each of us is called to serve the needs of our brothers and sisters according to our capabilities. I often recall the words of a fellow friar who is seventeen years my senior and is now living in our care facility in Manitowoc, Wisconsin. When he explains how the senior friars serve, he says, “Now that we are physically incapable of washing the feet of our brothers and sisters, we have been given the ministry of prayer to support those who are still active in the ministry of the Gospel.” The same could be said of many of us here who bear the burden of many years.
As we receive the Body and Blood of Jesus this evening, let the words of Jesus ring in our ears: “Do This in Memory of Me.”
Fr. Lawrence Jagdfeld, O.F.M., Administrator