Maundy Thursday marks the instituting of three realities. The gift of the Eucharist, the gift of the Priesthood and the giving of the new command – the mandatum – “Love one another as I have loved you”. These might seem like disparate events joined together only by them happening at the same time. In reality though, they all form one coherent unity and this unity goes to the heart of what the Church and Christian life is about.
Christ Washing the Feet of the Apostles by Meister des Hausbuches, 1475, Public Domain.
John’s gospel focuses on an incident not mentioned in the synoptics, which explains the Mystery of this day. It says, while they were at supper, Jesus knowing “that he had come from God and was returning to God…removed his outer garment and taking a towel, wrapped it round his waist; he then poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel he was wearing.”
Benedict XVI throws some wonderful light on this whole event in the second volume of his Jesus of Nazareth. For Augustine, this summarises the whole of the incarnation and saving ministry of Christ. Jesus lays aside his divine equality within the Godhead in removing his outer garment; he comes down as man and further, takes the form of a slave, in wrapping the towel around himself for it was slaves who washed their master’s feet. In doing so, he makes the disciples fit to share in fellowship at table with their Master, with their God. Any Jew would have been aware of the holiness of his God and the need to be ‘pure’ in order to approach his Presence, primarily in the Temple. There were several purity laws and regulations which all Jews followed. But already, in the course of his ministry, Jesus would reveal something deeper, about what makes one pure or impure: it is what comes from the heart, which makes man unclean (Mk 7:14-23). In other places, this impurity is seen as being divided – if your eye be single, your whole body will be filled with light(Matt 6:22). No amount of ritual purification can compensate for one’s sinful state, which shatters one’s heart in a million pieces, torn as we are in all kinds of directions.
In washing the disciples’ feet, Christ replaces the purifications of the Old Covenant by his act of self-gift. And so, to Peter’s objection, Jesus responds that only through his work, the work of the God-man, can he be made fit to partake of fellowship with his God. In that, the gospel once again reveals something that is fundamental in Christianity. Christianity is not a system of ethics or morals – many would think that the Old Testament rituals of purity have been simply replaced by a system of moral perfection. It becomes worse when people attempt to transform even the Sermon on the Mount into goals which man needs to achieve in order to be Christian, only to find that he is unable and this gospel, which should be good news, becomes terrible news for everyone. But holiness does not consist in ethical perfection, rigorous penance or even doing great works of mercy, although all of it might find due expression in our lives. Holiness consists in loving God with all our hearts. Which is why in the Beatitudes, it is the one who is pure of heart, who can finally see God (Matt 5:8). Having fallen away, only God could come after us, find us and raise us up, making us able to love God again. Purity then, comes as a gift, a gift of God’s condescension to us. And to Peter, he says, ‘No one who has taken a bath needs washing, he is clean all over. You too are clean…’.
For three years, the disciples and especially Peter, had been immersed in the world of Jesus. They had learnt to see through the eyes of their Master, they had been drawn into the prayer of Jesus, being invited to call his Father, Abba, making Jesus’ prayer their own. Their hearts had been opened to love. Now, of course, even at the last supper, they were living out liturgically what, in a few hours they would be immersed into, in reality – the horrid suffering, death and then, the glorious rising of Christ. In going down into the depths of the netherworld, Jesus would take onto himself all our impurity, our sin, our wounds – our mess – onto himself out of love. He would destroy its power in the communion of love he had with the Father, the Holy Spirit. This immersion into this death and resurrection is what is baptism. It is this love that they had experienced all along which had now reached its perfection, it’s ‘end’: it is into this bath they would all be immersed into, which would make them wholly clean. Baptism is this immersion into this ‘perfect’ love of Christ with which he loves us ‘to the end’ which makes us clean, makes us whole. Purity is a gift.
Even humanly speaking, it is in the love of another that we find ourselves healed of our wounds. In Jesus’ descent, he makes present on earth the love that exists only between the Father and the Son. Just as the persons within the Godhead freely give themselves away to each other, Jesus comes down into our mess to give away himself. It is this act which makes love possible. Before this act of self-gift, this self-giving love, one can only receive and be overwhelmed with gratitude.
This gift of divine love remains present and continues to be communicated on earth, through the sacrament of divine Love, which is the Eucharist for which baptism prepares. And in being baptised and being made sharers in this divine life, it impels us to make this love present on earth – to love others like he has loved us. This is finally, what is new about the ‘new command’. Through the sacraments, Christ has given us his own life and ability to love. This is not some ideal. It has to be made concretely present. It is most commonly made present in Christian marriage lived out (one practical Maundy Thursday idea I came across here) which is why it is a sacrament. The objective presence of this grace is what is mediated by the sacramental office in the Church which is the priesthood. The priest, through the particular gift of his union with Christ in ordination, is called to mediate Christ’s love for his bride, the people of God. He does that through his ministries, but it comes to fullness the more he is conformed to Christ.
This, then, is what unites these three realities. On this night, divine Love is most concretely revealed on earth. This love for you and me will be fulfilled on the Cross. When you look to the Cross, believe that you are truly loved by the Son of God. In this love, your heart can be healed, set free, made whole. And filled with thanksgiving.