Holy Thursday, the Mass of the Lord’s Supper:
Nourished and Nourishing
This beautiful liturgy presents us with three readings that emphasize the essential elements of our living celebrations of the Last Supper, the Mass. The readings begin with the presentation of the first Passover meal. The significance for us is deeper than the fact that the Last Supper took place during a Passover celebration. The significance is that God protects his people from death while they are sharing the meal of the sacrificed lamb. God protects us from death, eternal death, while we are nourished by the Sacrificed Lamb, Jesus Christ.
In the second reading, from 1 Corinthians 11, St. Paul presents some of the customs of the early Church. He begins with a few minor issues, such as how people are to dress, but then Paul raises a major problem. The Corinthians were allowing divisions to be evidenced among them. The early celebrations of the Supper of the Lord used to begin with a meal. But instead of some sort of ancient parish pot luck, the Corinthians were divided at the table. They only shared their food with those with whom they associated. The rich brought sumptuous food, but only for their rich friends. The poor often went hungry. These people were not celebrating the Eucharist as Christ intended it to be celebrated when He gave His Body and Blood at the Last Supper. Instead they were using the Eucharist as an opportunity to demonstrate their arrogance. Perhaps that is why Paul reminds them of what is taking place when they meet for the Breaking of the Bread. Paul recites the formulas similar to those found in the Synoptic Gospels and prayed in our Masses: This is my body which is given up for you. This is the new covenant of my blood. Paul wants the Corinthians to remember What is taking place and Whom they are celebrating. He tells them that this action proclaims the death of the Lord until He comes. This is a time for unity in the Christian community. Division in the community is antithesis to the Eucharist. That’s the reason why our modern celebration of the Eucharist, the Mass, places a sign of peace before the reception of the communion. In the person we offer peace to we see anyone with whom we need to be reconciled. The Eucharist must express unity in Christ, the Body of Christ united to its Head.
This leads us to the main reading for today, the Gospel Proclamation. The Eucharist cannot be understood apart from the action depicted in the Gospel, the washing of feet. This is not just a side incident, an introduction to the main point of the dinner. This is one way of stating what the gift of bread and wine, Body and Blood proclaim: Jesus Christ offers Himself up completely for us, and then calls us to offer ourselves up completely for others. The washing of feet is a prophetic action, an action demanding our humble acceptance of the Lord and an action mandating that we do to others what is done for us–serve them without limits, with sacrificial love. The reception of the Body and Blood of the Lord is also a prophetic action, an action that demands our humble acceptance of the Lord, and an action that mandates our doing for others what has been done for us.
When Jesus washed the feet of his disciples he performed a prophetic action. Even a slave could not be made to wash the feet of his or her master. It was degrading, disgusting. But not to the Lord. He would empty Himself in service to His people. He would give Himself completely to them. He would give them His Body and Blood. He would die on the cross for them. He would demonstrate to them that the Love of God had no limits. Nothing was too demanding. Love was all that matters. The meal of love, the Last Supper, began with a prophetic act demonstrating the love they and we all experience pouring down on us from the cross.
But this action of the Lord demands our humbly accepting Him in our lives. We need our Savior. We cannot conquer the evils of the world alone. We have to let Him save us. At first, Peter tried to prevent the Lord from humbling Himself. “Would you wash my feet, Lord?” “I don’t think so?” we would add in our jargon. Jesus tells Him and us that if we do not allow Him to give Himself to us, if we are so proud to think that we do not need Him, then He will have no part of us. This prideful way of life is witnessed in the times that many Catholics and perhaps in the past even some here, have withdrawn from the Eucharist. The statement that some will say, “I don’t go to Mass but I pray in my own way,” might sound pietistic and nice, but is itself saying, “I don’t need the Eucharist.” Why? Why would anyone who has been admitted to communion ever think that he or she does not need communion? Could it be that we can become so proud that we might think that we do not need to come before God and accept His humbling himself for us. This evening we are reminded that the Meal of Love begins with our humble recognition that we need Christ to empty Himself for us.
But this is far from sufficient. Jesus would not allow His disciples to turn their focus into themselves. He would not allow them or us to be satisfied with what He does for us. Instead we hear, “You call me 'teacher' and 'master,' and rightly so, for indeed I am. If I, therefore, the master and teacher, have washed your feet, you ought to wash one another's feet. I have given you a model to follow, so that as I have done for you, you should also do." The washing of the feet is a prophetic sign of the gift of the Body and Blood of the Lord at the Last Supper and on the Cross. We are called to prophesy in the same way. We are called to do what Jesus did. We are called to offer our Bodies and our Blood for others. We are not just called to be nourished. We are called to nourish others. An essential element of the Eucharist is found in the mandate: Do unto others, what I have done for you.
Nourished and nourishing. Both must take place. If we are not nourished by Christ, then our actions for others would be mere acts of humanitarianism. If we do receive communion but do not empty ourselves for others, then our reception of the Eucharist is devoid of the very reason why Christ emptied Himself: Jesus Christ emptied Himself for us so that we can also empty ourselves for others. Being a Christian is not for the faint of heart, it is for those who have hearts full of love.
In a few moments we will perform the symbolic action of washing the feet of others. We celebrate the action of Christ in His Gift of Body and Blood. We process with the Blessed Sacrament throughout the Church and into the Hall where we wait and watch with Him in our recreation of the Garden of Olives. And the entire time, in all the actions tonight and throughout our lives, we pray for the humility to be nourished by Him and the determination to nourish others.
May we be a Eucharistic People.