On Maundy Thursday we commemorate two commandments given by Jesus: one through the Eucharist, and the other through the washing of the disciples’ feet. Whether with a basin of water and a towel, or in the elements of bread and wine, the power of the Gospel to transform the world is made manifest as we follow the Lord’s example of self-giving love.
Our understanding of the Eucharist relies heavily on Paul’s interpretation in 1st Corinthians. In the passage for today, Paul declared that he had nothing to do with the origins of the ritual. He had received it from the Lord and simply handed it on to his converts.
Paul relates that, on the night that the Lord was betrayed, he took bread, gave thanks, and broke it to share with the others--actions that he would do at any formal meal. The broken bread Jesus identified with his own body about to be broken on the cross. "This is my body that is for you" The cup of blessing, with which the meal ended, he identified with his blood that he would soon shed. "This cup is the new covenant in my blood".
Just as Moses sealed God’s covenant with blood, the blood of Christ signifies the new covenant. As Paul explains it, both the bread and the cup were to be consumed as a memorial to Jesus’ redeeming life and work. As often as we eat this bread and drink this cup, we are proclaiming the Lord’s saving death until he shall return again. Thus Jesus reminds his followers to do this "in remembrance of me".
In the Synoptic tradition the Last Supper was a Passover meal; thus the Old Testament reading for today records the origins of this preeminent Jewish holy day that commemorates the escape of the Hebrews from slavery in Egypt. The observance of Passover recreates the event for participants as if it were occurring for the first time.
This was the first act of the new existence of Israel as the people of God. Furthermore, this meal was to be observed each year throughout all generations as "a day of remembrance for you" a perpetual reminder of the Lord’s redeeming power on behalf of Israel.
As the story goes on, we are told that Jesus knows that his time has come to leave this world and the followers he loved so completely. The events leading to his death had already been set in motions with the betrayal by Judas Iscariot. However, Jesus anticipated his union with the Father, from whom he had come and to whom he was returning, and was assured that all things had been entrusted to him.
Thus Jesus removed his robe, tied a towel around his waist, took a basin, and began to wash the feet of his disciples. This is an act of humility and self-emptying comparable to identifying his redeeming life with the common elements of bread and wine. It was customary to offer guests water to wash their feet after a journey. But here the Lord acted as a slave and transformed an ordinary gesture of hospitality into a revolutionary act that epitomized the paradox of the Gospel. This event is found only in the Gospel of John and symbolizes Jesus’ extreme self-giving love, which would be fully manifested later on the cross.
Acting in character, Peter initially refused to allow Jesus to wash his feet. When Jesus told him that this was essential if he was to share in the life of Jesus, Peter asked for more than was offered. "Not my feet only but also my hands and my head!" Jesus replied that the symbolic washing of the feet is enough.
The cleansing Jesus offers is the forgiveness of sins through his self-giving death. Furthermore, this gift is offered to all, even to the one who was to betray him.
When the washing was complete, Jesus returned to the table and explained what he had just done. As both teacher and Lord, Jesus had set an example for them of humility and self-sacrifice. "For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. "Once again Jesus had turned expected hierarchical structures upside down, and leadership had been redefined as a form of service.
To follow the example of Jesus means to create a community of equals. Jesus’ self-giving is not merely an act of service; it stands as a final act of self-oblation and an example if the way of life that the disciples are to follow. Amen