Twenty-first in a series of reflections on Mass readings during the Extraordinary Jubilee Year of Mercy
Holy Thursday of the Lord’s Supper (Maundy Thursday)
Readings: Exodus 12:1-8, 11-14; 1 Corinthians 11:23-26; John 13:1-15
“[H]e had come from God and was returning to God.” These words of John’s Gospel sum up the journey of his Hero Christ as He approaches the climax of His battle with the powers of the world. These words sum up our own journey too, if we follow His example. We don’t have to look very far to find God; He has already met us halfway. For this night that begins the Sacred Triduum (Latin, “three-day period”) leading into the Easter feast is all about the institution of a way, an example, a pattern, a model that is to be followed so that we can enter more closely into the life of the One Who handed over His life so that ours might be preserved.
In the ancient covenant with the Jewish people, this model finds its prime expression in the Passover feast, the annual commemoration of the night that the lambs’ blood sprinkled on the Israelites’ doorpost kept them safe from the death-blow delivered to the firstborn in Egypt. The institution of the memorial feast was a reminder that they were saved by God and that by this and the other demands of the Law they could make a return to Him. Like so many other aspects of the Hebrew Law and religion, this feast and the event it commemorates is an earthly pattern of something heavenly, a comprehensible token of something that naturally transcends our ability to grasp. Even in moments as severe as the passing-over of the angel of death, and as specific and intricate as the ritual commemoration of that event, we can sense the depths of God’s mercy. Because we come from God, He comes to us; We return to God because He came to us first.
The patterns of history and the Law, religion and the prophets, find their ultimate expression in Jesus Christ, Who embodies the entirety of it as the Incarnate God, the God Who meets us where we are in the most intimate ways possible. In this new covenant offered to the whole world, Jesus does offer Himself as the ultimate Lamb Whose Blood preserves from eternal death, but that is not the focus of John’s Gospel. The salvation provided by his Hero Christ through the offering of His Body and Blood is veritable redundancy by the time he recalls the Last Supper. Instead, John focuses on a curious event at that same Supper: Jesus rising from the meal and washing the feet of His disciples. The teacher and master stripped Himself, literally and figuratively, to perform a task reserved for the most menial of servants. And why does He do this? In what state of mind does He do this? The Evangelist tells us that Jesus was “fully aware that the Father had put everything into his power, and that he had come from God and was returning to God.” This full awareness of His origin and destiny is itself a fulfillment. All the earthly models instituted until now had served this goal of awareness; now, the fully aware One would use His power to institute a new model based on that full awareness, a model of born of mercy and not judgment. As He labored to keep His own chosen ones clean, we too are meant to keep each other clean. For each of us has come from God and is returning to God.
But what of the other direction? In what way is this relationship reciprocated, as it was in ancient times? How does God come to us in this new covenant? Saint Paul tells us in his letter to the Corinthians, as he instructs them about the proper way in which to approach what he calls “the Lord’s table.” In what is perhaps the first written account of the institution of the Eucharist, Paul recalls that one of the most important things he taught was that Jesus instituted bread and wine as His Body and Blood and asked that it be eaten and drunk as a memorial of His Passion. For this reason Paul instructs the Corinthians that “as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the death of the Lord until he comes.” Because of the Incarnation and the Redemption, earth and heaven are forever joined. Just as we have come from God, God has now gone from us; just as we are returning to God, He will return to us. Until that time, the Incarnation continues on earth in the form of bread and wine – and in the form of those who worthily consume it. The model presented by the Eucharistic meal is meant to keep the memory of the risen Lord’s Passion always vivid and fresh and immediate in the minds and hearts of the faithful, until the day He returns and we see not the pattern of the God-Man but the God-Man Himself face-to-face.
The Venerable Fulton Sheen once wrote that Jesus didn’t ask that His teachings be written down, or that His kindness to the poor be remembered, “[b]ut He did ask that we remember His Death. And in order that its memory might not be any haphazard narrative on the part of men, He Himself instituted the precise way it should be recalled.” That precise way is shown both in the Eucharistic meal and in the washing of the feet, both of which we commemorate this holy evening. When we keep His memorial sacrifice, we remember that He has gone to God and is returning to us. And when we serve our neighbors, we remember that we have come from God and are returning to Him.
God will meet us halfway. Let’s help each other walk the rest of the way with clean hearts…and clean feet!