Christ Washing the Disciples’ Feet, Boccaccino (?), 1500, Gallerie dell’ Accademia, Venice, Italy.
[Jesus] took a towel and tied it around his waist. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and dry them with the towel around his waist. John 13:5.
Have you ever volunteered for this exercise? I did (though not as a volunteer) as a Jesuit novice, and the Novice Master was Christus. It was utterly embarrassing, difficult, agonizing. I fully empathize with Peter’s reaction in today’s gospel. I did not like it, and was glad when it was over. But it meant that Christ had made a very powerful point, one which has lasted down to today. Matthew and Mark both have Jesus stating that he came to serve, not to be served, and this is clearly the epitome of that belief, reducing his disciples to anguished silence. This was the man who, but a few days earlier, had raised Lazarus from the dead; he clearly was divine in his power, able to do anything, God-like, and here he was acting the part of a lowly slave. One of the Pope’s titles to this day is Servus Servorum Dei, Servant of the Servants of God. Jesus made this point loud and clear to his followers, and they – we – must follow it. Servant leadership is a recognized branch of management studies; it apparently works in the “real world” as well as being a cardinal teaching in the Christian world. When I was a school principal I tried to implement a philosophy where I served the teachers, who served the students who were learning to become Christian servants.
Holy, or Maundy, Thursday is the last day in which Jesus was a free man. He knew that his days were numbered because he was not the stereotype Messiah the people were waiting for – and they had believed it to be him. No, and that bitter disappointment would mean his end. So it was the last day in which he could freely teach his followers. One point was that they were to serve each other and everyone else. Then came the Last Supper.
This was a Passover supper, commemorating the hurried departure of the Hebrew slaves from Egypt, hence the unleavened bread, with no waiting for dough to rise, which Jesus took and blest and then told his disciples it was his body, to be given up for them. The original Passover was also the night an unblemished lamb was to be sacrificed, and the blood to be smeared over the doorposts and lintels of the Hebrew homes as a sign for the Angel of Death. Seeing the lamb’s blood, the first born sons of that household would not die, they would live. Hence the blood was a symbol of life. This echoes the symbol of blood when the Hebrews arrived at Mount Sinai and received the 10 Commandments. Animals were to be sacrificed, and half their blood sprinkled over an altar, the sign of God in the midst of the people, and the other half over the people themselves. This signified the eternal link, or covenant, between God and the people, becoming at that moment the People of God. Here the blood symbolized the life of God and of the people sealed together, hence another symbol of life. But then remember Jesus’s words at the Last Supper, taking a cup of wine and telling his disciples to drink “my blood of the (new) covenant” (found in all three synoptic gospels). This surpassed the Sinai covenant not with the blood of sacrificed animals, but now with a new covenant in the blood of the Son of God! Finally Jesus told them, ordered them, to do all that in his memory, a commandment, or mandate if you like, taken to be the foundation of the priesthood, because priests substitute for the Lord at every Mass, a re-enactment of the Last Supper. The word Maundy, used for this day, is a corruption of the word mandate (mandatum in Latin), which was given at this sacred event.
The New Covenant, New International Version.
Also, on this day, all the priests of the diocese concelebrate the Chrism Mass in the cathedral with the bishop, usually in the morning. This is to celebrate the institution of the priesthood at the Last Supper, and also, traditionally, the three sacred oils are blest by the bishop and are taken back to all the parishes to be used sacramentally for the next year. These are the Oil of Chrism, used for anointing at ordinations, baptisms and at confirmation; the Oil of Catechumens, also used at baptism, and the Oil of the Sick or Infirm, used at the Sacrament of the Sick. The basis is usually olive oil, mentioned frequently in the Old and New Testaments. It was used at coronation ceremonies through the centuries, as Christian kings and queens were anointed in the same way priests are, taken presumably from the anointing of David as king by the prophet Samuel. Queen Elizabeth was anointed at her coronation in 1953, considered to be the most sacred part of the ceremony, and not filmed or shown in any way. The English monarchs are the only European monarchs still to be anointed. One final thought. For centuries, monarchs would also wash the feet of some of their subjects as a Christian sign of humility. Francis Joseph, Emperor of Austria-Hungary, performed this ceremony every year:
That died out in England, but was replaced by the distribution of the “Royal Maundy”, with the Queen distributing specially minted coins to the same number of people as her age (the 2020 celebration has been cancelled because of the coronavirus pandemic). Hence Maundy Thursday is laden with symbolism and tradition. And it is the first day of the Sacred Triduum, Latin for the three days of the Lord’s passion and death and resurrection.
Pope Francis Washes Feet of Refugees, 2016, Centre for Asylum Seekers at Castelnuovo di Porto, Italy.
Reflections on Good Friday’s Readings will be posted on Friday.
Please forward this webpage on to those you think would appreciate it. Thank you.