Holy Thursday – Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception
At the wedding feast of Cana, Jesus said to His Mother: “My hour has not yet come.” On Holy Thursday evening, the hour of Jesus has come. It is the hour of the Paschal Mystery, the hour when Jesus will accomplish His mission from the Father. The events of Jesus’ hour began at the Last Supper. The new Passover is about to take place in which God’s love will defeat the power of sin and save His people from the power of death. It is the hour of Jesus’ passion, death, and resurrection: the new Passover, the new Exodus that leads to the ultimate freedom. It is the hour of our salvation, our liberation from slavery, our redemption from the sin that holds us in bondage. By His obedience unto death, Jesus communicated to His disciples the gift of freedom from the reign of sin. He inaugurates God’s Kingdom of grace, life, and peace.
And so tonight, the Paschal Triduum begins, when the Church remembers the “hour of Jesus”, the new Passover, the new Exodus, the culmination of Jesus’ life and mission. It is the hour, as St. John tells us, when Jesus loves us to the end. The mystery of God’s love is revealed in its totality when Jesus gives His life for us on the cross.
At the Last Supper, all that is about to take place in the Paschal Mystery is anticipated. First, in the washing of the disciples’ feet, and second, in the institution of the Holy Eucharist.
The whole of Jesus’ ministry is represented in the washing of the feet. Jesus performs for the disciples the service of a slave. This is what God does. This is how He saves us. Notice that Jesus first took off his outer garments. This is what Christ did at the Incarnation, when He, the Son of God, came down from His divinity into humanity. He took the form of a slave. He divested Himself of His divine splendor and became man. He emptied Himself, humbled Himself, even unto death, death on the cross. He kneels before the disciples at the Last Supper and washes their feet. This is what Jesus does for us. He kneels before us. He washes our dirty feet. He cleanses us in order to make us fit to sit at the table of God’s wedding feast. His love cleanses us, washes us. It’s His love on the cross, His love to the end, that purifies us, that sanctifies us. This explains why Jesus told Peter that if He didn’t wash his feet, Peter would have no inheritance with Him. Though we might feel like Peter, that Jesus is our Master and that, out of respect, we shouldn’t let Him wash our feet, we should realize that in reality Peter was being stubbornly disrespectful. We must trust our Master and comply with His wishes. And what does He desire or wish? He desires to wash our feet – which refers to something utterly profound: He desires to lay down His life for us, to die for us. He wants us to have an inheritance with Him, to receive eternal life from Him. Jesus is basically saying to Peter and to us: “Unless you accept that I will die for you, you will have no inheritance with me.” Of course, Peter then allowed Jesus to wash his feet. We must allow Jesus to love us and save us. How much God desires our salvation. He wants us to sit at His table in the banquet feast of heaven. He wants to enable us to do so by cleansing us as He does in Baptism and every time we go to confession.
As the Paschal Mystery is anticipated or symbolically represented in the washing of the feet, it is also anticipated and actually made present in the institution of the Holy Eucharist. The washing of the feet and the sacrament of the Eucharist are two expression of one and the same mystery of love: Jesus’ loving us to the end in His Passion and Death. Jesus instituted the Eucharist as a pledge of His love. He gave us His Body and His Blood. His sacrifice on the Cross becomes present in the celebration of the Eucharist. It is the memorial of His Passover. Jesus said, “Do this in remembrance of me.” In the Eucharist, Christ gives us the very body which He gave up for us on the cross and the very blood which He poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. Our Lord’s washing the disciples’ feet was an act of great humility. Our Lord’s becoming present under the forms of bread and wine is likewise an act of incredible humility. Jesus gives Himself to us as food, as nourishment for our journey to heaven.
Finally, it is important to see the connection between the command of Jesus to celebrate the Eucharist in memory of Him and His command after washing the disciples’ feet to do the same. Jesus says: “If I, the master and teacher, have washed your feet, you ought to wash one another’s feet.” Jesus is commanding us to practice the self-emptying humility and love that He shows us on the cross. This is the new commandment given by Jesus later in John’s Gospel when He says: “Love one another as I have loved you.” Well, this is what the Eucharist equips us to do. That’s why Pope Benedict taught so strongly that “a Eucharist which does not pass over into the concrete practice of love is intrinsically fragmented.” The Eucharist should compel us to wash the feet of our brothers and sisters. The Eucharist is the sacrament of love. When we serve one another, when we are merciful and forgiving, when we give of ourselves in love, we are living the Eucharist. Pope Saint John Paul II wrote that our ability to go and do likewise in imitation of Jesus’ washing of the disciples’ feet is the “criterion by which the authenticity of our Eucharist celebrations is judged” (Mane Nobiscum Domine #28).
Let us celebrate this Paschal Triduum with faith and devotion. May we enter deeply into the mystery of Jesus’ Passover, the hour in which Jesus loved us to the end!