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Maundy Thursday - Do this in remembrance of me

Thursday, April 09, 2009
Readings: Exodus 12:1-8, 11-14; Psalm 116:12-13, 15-16bc, 17-18; 1 Corinthians 11:23-26; John 13:1-15

It may surprise us that the Church has chosen as the gospel for the liturgy of this Holy Thursday not one of the accounts of the Last Supper according to Matthew, Mark or Luke. They describe, in a direct way, the meal Jesus held with his disciples. But the gospel of John does not give such an account. There are no “words of institution” and nothing is said about bread and wine which are given as the body and blood of Christ. So, why do we hear instead about the washing of the feet on this feast day on which we remember the institution of the Eucharist in the cenacle?

The Gospel of John is often called the “spiritual gospel”. It describes the same reality – the life and death of the God-man Jesus Christ – from a different perspective and in a different language compared with the other three Evangelists. And so we can discover in the report of the foot-washing a spiritual reflection on the meaning of the Eucharist. Indeed, all four accounts of the Last Supper are about the forgiveness of sins, friendship, love and unity.

Where the synoptic gospels report the Last Supper, John shows us the foot-washing; where they show the Eucharist, he shows a washing with water; where they reveal a drink that brings forgiveness, he presents a washing which brings about unity, communion with Christ. It is such a remarkable dialogue between Jesus and Peter: “He came to Simon Peter; and Peter said to him, ‘Lord, do you wash my feet?’ Jesus answered him, ‘What I am doing you do not know now, but afterward you will understand.’ Peter said to him, ‘You shall never wash my feet.’ Jesus answered him, ‘If I do not wash you, you have no part in me.’ Simon Peter said to him, ‘Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!’ Jesus said to him, ‘He who has bathed does not need to wash, except for his feet, but he is clean all over; and you are clean, but not every one of you’” (John 13:6-10).

Jesus refers to another bath which has already taken place which is why he has only to wash the feet of the disciples. When we recognize therein the sacrament of Baptism, and interpret Jesus’ foot-washing as the Eucharist, we find exactly this idea. The bath of Baptism has made us clean from original sin and all sins. But nevertheless the washing of the feet, the Eucharist, is necessary to wash away the “everyday sin”. Jesus says: “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.” We cannot reject this washing saying that we have not sinned and do not need it. Day by day we get dirty; Christ wants to wash our feet from the dust of the street. We should not refuse his humble service.

John reflects on the deep meaning of the Last Supp
er. It is an act of humility out of love. The washing of the feet is an act of humility out of love. And both the Eucharist and the symbolic foot-washing bring about unity – unity with Christ and with our neighbours. Christ washes the feet of his disciples in order that they may have part in him. And he asks them to wash each other’s feet: “I have given you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you” (John 13:15). This is his new commandment: “Love one another; even as I have loved you, you also must love one another” (John 13:34). This is his “do this in remembrance of me”.

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