Today we enter what are called the Triduum, Great Three Days, as we remember, re-enact, and participate in the events of the last days of Jesus’ life. Today is Maundy Thursday when we remember the last meal Jesus shared with his disciples. At our services end tonight, we will strip the altar and chancel area of all its decorations in a sort of symbolic gesture to Jesus’ agony in Gethsemane, his arrest and trial. Tomorrow of course is Good Friday when we will remember the crucifixion. The Great three days, the Triduum ends on Saturday night with the Great Vigil, the lighting of new fire, and the Easter proclamation.
Tonight, though our focus is on the Last Supper, and our lessons offer three perspectives on it. The reading from Exodus is the story of the first Passover, including instructions on what the Hebrews were to eat and how they were to prepare for their flight from Egypt. It’s likely that the last supper Jesus had with his disciples was a Passover meal—that’s what the chronology in Matthew, Mark, and Luke offer, although it wasn’t a Seder as is now practiced among our Jewish friends and neighbors—that ritual became fixed only in later centuries as the rabbinic tradition was codified.
In the reading from First Corinthians, we have the earliest New Testament account of what happened at the Last Supper, as Paul reminds his readers of what had been passed on to him and them—the words of institution, the bread and wine—words that are uttered at every celebration of the Eucharist.
And in the gospel reading, we heard John’s very different version of what happened at the Last Supper, the story of Jesus getting up from the table taking up a towel and basin, and washing the feet of his disciples. All of these readings offer ways of approaching the Eucharist and this last night that Jesus spent with his disciples, but by no means do these readings, or our liturgy, exhaust or define the significance of the Last Supper or our retelling of those events in our Eucharistic meal.
As you know, the Gospel of John is fascinating and complex. At times, it is puzzling and its language and imagery can be problematic, strange, even offensive. Its anti-Judaism, especially dominant in the story of Jesus’ arrest, trial, and execution has left a terrible legacy over the millennia. But at the same time, abiding in John’s gospel, to use one of those common words in the gospel, can illuminate our hearts and lives and lead us deeper into relationship with Jesus Christ.
Few passages have worked more powerfully on me than the verses we just read—not just the footwashing itself, which is a parable, a miracle of Christ’s love and service, a call to imitation, hospitality, service, and love. Equally profound to me are the first verses of this chapter:
“Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end. The devil had already put it into the heart of Judas son of Simon Iscariot to betray him. And during supper Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself.”
There is so much in these three verses for us to ponder, so much on which to meditate. First of all, that second sentence—it’s one of my favorites in the whole gospel, perhaps in all of the Bible, “Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end. First, there’s that little detail that Jesus loved his disciples; it’s the first time it’s mentioned in the gospel, but of course, we assume it from the very start. More than that, it’s worth pointing out that Jesus loved all of them—even Judas who would betray him, and Peter, who would deny him. Then there’s that last clause—“he loved them to the end.” What might that mean? To this point? To the end of the gospel? Or taking note of the greek word that’s translated here as end, “telos” which can also mean goal or purpose, that adds another range of possible meanings. And we might connect it to Jesus’ final words from the cross, when Jesus uses a verbal form of that same word telos to say, “It is finished.”
I’m also struck by the repetition of the verb “to know.” In the first verse, Jesus knew that his hour had come. Later, it says, knowing that Father had given all things to him and that he had come from God and was going to God. Jesus knew all this.
And how did he act on this knowledge?
He got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around his waist. Knowing all that he knew, that his hour had come, that the Father had given all things into his hand, knowing that he had come from God and was going to God, Jesus performed an act of humble service to his friends. It was a parable enacted, a symbol of love, a giving of himself to his friends and an offering of an example of himself to them and to us.
We don’t know what he was thinking as he performed this simple, humble act. We don’t know what he was thinking as he washed the feet of those who had walked with him those many months, those who he had brought here, to this place, to this city, to this moment. We don’t know what he thought as he washed the feet of the one who would betray him, the one who would deny him.
We know what they were thinking, or at least what Peter was thinking—how inappropriate it was for the master to wash the feet of his disciples, for the host at the meal to lower himself in this way. We can be sure they puzzled over it, wondered what it all meant, especially in the context of this meal.
For us, now there is another set of questions as we reflect on both the meal and the footwashing. “This is my body and my blood,” he said, as he shared the bread and wine with his friends. In John’s gospel the presence of the footwashing hints at how we should think about the Eucharist itself.
Our liturgy encourages us to interpret the Eucharist in light of the cross and resurrection. It uses language of sacrifice, of body broken for us, blood shed for us but when we bring into the equation the humble, tender, loving gestures of footwashing, we are invited to focus on Christ’s love and service, and our response to that love and service by loving and serving Christ and others.
The love of Christ, exemplified, symbolized, enacted in the cross is also exemplified, symbolized, and enacted in footwashing. We have experienced Christ’s love as he embraces us from the cross. Like the disciples, we experience Christ’s love as he kneels down and washes our feet. And so to, like the disciples, we are called to be examples of that love, to embody the love of Christ in our service to others. May this Eucharist, may this Holy Week be a time when through our renewed experience of Christ’s love, we can embody that love to our world.