Words on the Word
Ex 12:1-14: You shall eat it in haste!
1 Cor 11:23-26: Do this in memory of me.
John 13:1-15: Lord, will you wash my feet?
On Maundy Thursday we celebrate the institution of the Last Supper. It follows upon the washing of the feet. In two different ways, the Lord Jesus shows us that we, when we have something vital to say, need more than just words. There is insight we cannot immediately grasp with our minds. It must be exercised first, imprinted on us. In this respect the liturgy is a magnificent pedagogical system. It enlarges our consciousness; it prepares our understanding. We must approach it, therefore, modestly, with openhearted expectation.
The washing of the feet, or mandatum (‘a new commandment I give you’), has gone through a long evolution. It was at first a domestic ritual. We see that from monasticism. Monks are foot-washing maximalists. St Benedict’s Rule, written around 530 AD, prescribes that the brethren charged with kitchen service for the week (a service from which no one is excused, ‘for it strengthens love’) should on Saturdays perform a thorough house-clean, then wash all the brethren’s feet. Thus the monks are reminded that everyday chores have a sacred dimension. Ordinary housework can become liturgy when carried out in Jesus’s name.
On Maundy Thursday this action acquired a further dimension, a specific format. The porter assembled in the cloister a number of poor people corresponding to the number of monks. Each monk took up position before a guest, bowed deeply, and knelt. He then washed, dried, and kissed the poor man’s feet. In this way he professed that Christ’s new commandment of love does not just apply within the community, but embraces all, especially the needy. Bishops performed a similar ritual at home, then served the invited poor a dainty dish. The aspect to the fore was humble service in homely surroundings, the air thick with tempting fumes from episcopal cauldrons.
A further aspect of the washing of the feet was given visibility, with time, in the church itself on Maundy Thursday, woven into the Eucharistic liturgy. This aspect is, we might say, more explicitly historical, like an enactment of what took place in the Upper Room. Gathered there were the twelve apostles. Jesus, who knew that his hour had come, consecrated them to the ministry we still call ‘apostolic’, transmitted by the laying-on of hands to the bishops of today. In this perspective, the washing of the feet appears as a reminder of the rite of ordination. The Twelve were consecrated to service, not just in a generic ethical sense, but as personal incorporation into Christ’s oblation. Participation in the rite on these terms presupposed ordination, that is to say, a man’s free ‘Yes!’ to administer the Sacred Mysteries by self-denial until death. So it came about that bishop, before the altar, washed the feet of twelve ordained priests.
These two aspects of the mandatum are not in conflict; they complement each other. They help us grasp what this action means, what through it God reveals to us. Too easily we focus on ourselves: we want to be counted, included, made visible. Ultimately, though, the washing of the feet is not about us. What we see before our eyes, is God kneeling at the feet of his creature. We see an image of that self-emptying Paul writes of, which led Christ to crucifixion (Phil 2.8). The washing of the feet conveys more than just a precept to be good to the underprivileged; in it, we encounter the mystery of the cross. And are told to make it our own.
Here we are at the heart of today’s celebration. Jesus, says John, loved his own who were in the world. Yet he needed to make their hearts ready for his imminent departures. He had tried to talk to them about it; the message of the Cross had become explicit in his preaching. But they would not, could not hear it. So he found other means to open their eyes.
I think of something I know from a wise Italian abbess, a woman now almost 100 years old. Her mother died when she was eleven. The mother was very ill. She knew she would die. But how could she make that known to her child? She played the message across. The day before she departed, on her Maundy Thursday, if you will, she let her daughter play on her large hospital bed. The abbess has described how they spent the day together:
She pretended to be dead while I prepared her body, folding her hands and giving her a flower to hold. I was not pleased with the arrangement, and so instead crossed her arms on her breast and twined a rosary through her fingers. I then turned to the flowers, which I arranged in her beautiful black hair. I ordered her to close her eyes and not to move while I started singing the songs I liked best, such as Volare, oh oh! My mother let me carry on and took part in the game, although twenty-four hours later she was carried off by the high fever of violent meningitis.
No mother can prepare a child rationally for such a loss; but a consciousness saturated with love can be created to enable the transition. As the years passed, the daughter saw what tenderness had gone into the game. Something similar is happening to us tonight. Jesus gives us tangible signs of his closeness, his care. He gives us what we need to endure Calvary without letting despair acquire a foothold. He lets his grace touch us and penetrate under our skin. Let us receive it with an undivided heart. Let us live by it. Amen.
Duccio di Buoninsegna, ca. 1235 – ca. 1318. Wikimedia Commons.