The Eucharistic institution narrative from Saint Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians and the washing of feet narrative from Saint John’s Gospel that we read on Holy Thursday both help us understand what Jesus is about to do on Good Friday. Instituting the Eucharist at the Last Supper, Jesus says, “This is my body that is for you” and, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood” (1 Corinthians 11:24-25). Jesus’ body will be nailed to the cross for us. His blood will be shed to bring us into new and everlasting covenant relationship with God. After washing the feet of his disciples, Jesus asks, “Do you realize what I have done for you” (John 13:12)? What Jesus did in this act of self-effacing service anticipates his self-emptying upon the cross for our salvation.
These actions of Jesus on Holy Thursday show us that his Passion on Good Friday was not merely passive. The Passion of Jesus Christ is not, in the first place, something that happened to him. Rather, it is something he did. Jesus has said this plainly. “I will lay down my life for my sheep . . . no one take [my life] from me, but I lay it down on my own. I have power to lay it down and power to to take it up again” (John 10:15-18). Saint Paul formulates it this way: “[Jesus] humbled himself, becoming obedient unto death, even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:8). Jesus’ voluntary gift of his life upon the cross is an expression of the greatest love. “No one has greater love than this,” Jesus says, “to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:13).
Jesus’ actions on Holy Thursday show us what that love means. In our English language, “love” is a word that is frequently applied and misapplied in all sorts of ways. Jesus doesn’t just tell us that his laying down of his life is an act of the greatest love. He shows us. At the Last Supper, Jesus gives his disciples his body and blood in form of bread and wine to show us how his suffering and dying on the cross is his gift of himself for us that we are to receive him as nourishment for our souls until he comes again. In washing his disciples’ feet, Jesus shows that when his is lifted high on the cross he is stooping down to serve us.
Jesus’ actions on Holy Thursday help us to understand the gift that he gives of himself upon the cross. They also help us to receive that gift. He gives his body for us to eat and his blood for us to drink. In the Eucharist, Jesus gives us a way to receive his Passion as the gift of himself to us. We are not just bystanders or audience members observing the drama of the Passion of Christ. His Passion is his active gift to us and Eucharistic Communion is our reception of that. In the washing of the feet, Jesus also gives us a way of receiving him. In the Gospel of John, the washing of the feet takes place at the Last Supper, which explains its prominent place in today’s Mass. It also explains the Eucharist itself. Since the washing of the feet has the same place in the Gospel of John that the institution of the Eucharist has in the other Gospels, the washing of the feet in often understood as a kind of commentary on the Eucharist. In the Eucharist, as on the cross, Jesus lowers himself to be our servant.
In washing his disciples’ feet, Jesus also does what he says he does: “I have given you a model to follow, so that as I have done for you, you should also do” (John 13:15). Likewise, in instituting the Eucharist, Jesus says after giving his body, “Do this in remembrance of me” (1 Corinthians 11:24) and after giving his blood, “Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me” (1 Corinthians 11:25). In his actions on Holy Thursday, Jesus helps us understand the gift of his Passion, enables us to receive that gifts, and, furthermore, empowers us to give that gift to others. He has given himself to us in the greatest conceivable act of love. He commands us, but also empowers us, to give his gift. We are to wash each other’s feet. We are to give of ourselves in humble service. We are to spend our flesh and blood for the sake of our neighbors. And we can do that because of what he has done for us.
We are also commanded to celebrate the Eucharist, the perpetual memorial of the Paschal Mystery of the Lord. Holy Thursday is the birthday of the Eucharist. It is simultaneously the birthday of the priesthood. That make today a special day for me as I celebrate Holy Thursday for the tenth time as and ordained priest of the Church. But we shouldn’t forget that we are all called to be “a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people of his own” (1 Peter 2:9). When we celebrate the Eucharist, we are all priests offering ourselves in union with Jesus as “spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God” (1 Peter 2:5). In the Eucharist, the whole priestly church is united with Christ the high priest in presenting the sacrifice of marvelous love.
It seems that one of the frustrations of our times is that we feel unable to do anything meaningful. Many of us are suck at home trying to maintain work or study as well as we can. But we feel limited in what we are able to to do, separated from the life of our Church, and prevented from being of help in the midst of our pandemic. Holy Thursday tells us that we can always love and shows us how to do that. And as we celebrate this day is the bizarre circumstances in which we find ourselves, our love can be the greater for being directed to the same people in the same places day in and day out.
God has loved us to an unimaginable extent in the gift of Jesus’ life for us. Receiving that love, we are empowered to share it. Jesus gives us the grace to swallow our pride, tie the towels around our waists, take the basin in our hands and was the feet of all the people with whom we are sharing the crazy time. Holy Thursday tell us that that simple humble love is what the Eucharist and the cross are all about.