A much younger me washing the feet on Maundy Thursday 1982
in my first incumbency, Christ Church, Skipton,
in the Diocese of Ballarat, Australia.
Maundy Thursday's foot-washing Mass ("The Mass of the Lord's Supper") draws us deeply into the loving humility of Jesus. It is the one Mass of the whole year when the Church is quite explicit in saying what the preacher should talk about: (1) Jesus’ gift to us of the Holy Eucharist; (2) Jesus’ gift to us of the priesthood; and (3) Jesus’ command that we love one another. That’s pretty clear. So, tonight we will hear the Word of God, experience the washing of feet and celebrate the Last Supper with Jesus and his disciples, before going with him to the altar of repose, sumptuously decked out with candles and flowers, representing the Garden of Gethsemane. With Jesus truly present in his Holy Sacrament we then keep a watch of prayer until midnight.
I share with you are a couple of meditations for today.
FR JOHN KLASSEN OSB, ABBOT OF St JOHN'S ABBEY, COLLEGEVILLE MN, USA,
PREACHING ON MAUNDY THURSDAY, 2004:
In her long poem “Feet” Denise Levertov wrote:
“I watched a man whose feet were neatly wrapped in green plastic.
He entered a restaurant that advertised a $2.00 special — Sloppy Joes.
And I saw him come out immediately again.
“It was cold and wet,
and I was taking shelter under the awning,
waiting for a bus.
The man was angry.
He looked at me —
‘No shoes,’ he said.
We all know the rubric —
No shoes, no shirt, no service.”
You can drag dirt into an eatery with shoes
but not with feet covered in plastic.
On this holy night,
we remember the Passover of the Lord.
The readings are a treasury of meaning
and hold together in powerful ways.
The foot-washing scene in John’s Gospel
has no parallel in ritual meals of the Judaism of Jesus’ time.
It is innovation, par excellence.
In the time of Jesus
the streets would have been filled
with human and animal waste.
The washing of feet was usually done by a slave.
That is why the disciples are stunned
when Jesus takes off his outer garment
and puts a towel over his shoulders
and begins to wash their feet.
Peter, of course, speaks what everyone is thinking and feeling.
The first level of meaning is that of humble service.
But there is another level of meaning as well.
In biblical times the hands and feet symbolize human activity.
It is with hands and feet that we sin.
With the echo of Psalm 51 in our minds,
to wash them, to cleanse them,
is to wash away sin,
it is to forgive.
When Jesus urges his disciples to repeat this action
he is not merely talking about washing of feet.
He is insisting that we forgive one another
as he has forgiven us,
that we love one another
as he has loved us.
What about hands?
We remember Jesus
as taking, breaking, giving bread and wine.
The handing over of food and drink
became an embodied symbol
of that other “handing over,”
the “handing over” when Christ,
betrayed into the hands of sinners,
surrendered his body to death on the cross.
Human hands connect Eucharist and cross,
Holy Thursday and Good Friday;
hands outstretched to take, break and give;
hands cupped to hold, receive, eat and drink;
hands nailed east and west on a cross.
On this holy night,
we pledge once again to use our hands and feet
for the work of forgiveness,
for the work of loving each other.
We pledge to wash each other’s feet,
to hand over our lives for each other,
for the sake of the world.
We pledge ourselves to do Eucharist,
to do this in memory of the One who gave His life for us.
We do so because Jesus is our Passover Lamb,
who takes away the sins of the world.
HENRI NOUWEN ON THE GIFT OF THE EUCHARIST
“The Eucharist is the most ordinary and the most divine gesture imaginable. That is the truth of Jesus. So human, yet so divine; so familiar, yet so mysterious; so close, yet so revealing . . . It is the story of God who wants to come close to us, so close that we can see him with our own eyes, hear him with our own ears, touch him with our own hands; so close that there is nothing between us and him, nothing that separates, nothing that divides, nothing that creates distance.
“In the Eucharist, Jesus gives all . . . The bread, indeed, is his body given for us; the wine his blood poured out for us. As God becomes fully present for us in Jesus, so Jesus becomes fully present to us in the bread and the wine of the Eucharist. God not only became flesh for us years ago in a country far away. God also becomes food and drink for us now at this moment of the Eucharistic celebration, right where we are together around the table. God does not hold back; God gives all.”
Henri Nouwen, in With Burning Hearts : Meditation on the Eucharistic Life, 1994 (p. 67)