There are indeed many things happening on this day. Apart from the traditional Chrism Mass (which in some places had been shifted to an earlier date because of the numerous events of this Thursday) there is also the evening celebration which houses the institution of two sacraments: the Holy Orders and the Holy Eucharist; yet there is also the deeply significant ceremony of the washing of feet.
Today is also known as (a.k.a) Maundy Thursday. The word ‘Maundy’ is derived from the Latin “Mandatum” which means commandment. Now the question would be where does this command fall since we seem to have a lot of events occurring? We can actually understand this commandment by indicating that our Lord commanded the apostles to love with humility by serving one another and to keep it up as a practice in his memory. We shall be looking at the high points of our celebration in what follows:
- 1. The Washing of Feet.
Before undertaking this lowly activity the gospel of St. John indicated among other things that Jesus “LOVED HIS OWN TO THE END”. This is a clear indication to us that God’s love never fails and it is not conditional. It actually endures all things and never ends (Psalm 100:5; 136:1; I Cor.13:7).
The foot is the lowliest part of the human body that is in constant contact with the ground which is also the base of dirt. In our traditional communities when people come visiting us from very long distances we show concern for their long journey by offering them water to drink. The Jew at the time of Jesus would in addition to this, provide water for the person water to wash the feet (See Luke 7:44). Significantly this washing is done by a slave or servant because it is a lowly job.
In the context we are talking about when Jesus and the apostles arrived at the upper room after a long trek, he offered to wash their feet, as an expression of his undying love which moved him to die for the sake of his friends (Jn. 15:13). Jesus washed the feet of the apostles not because he wanted to make a show of humility, (as some of us would do and have it posted for the public to see), he was however practically exhibiting humility and encouraging the apostles to learn and do the same. That was why he said: “If I your Lord and Teacher washed your feet then you should wash one another feet, what I have done to you do to one another”. (Jn.13:14-15).
The above words of our Lord have an urgent mandate or command. We see this clearly in the account of St. John (13:34-35) where our Lord said: “I give you a new commandment love one another as I have loved you”. This he repeated again in John (15:12) where he says: “my commandment is this, love one another as I have loved you”.
We understand from the foregoing and within the context of the washing of feet that loving one another is a commandment not an option. It is something we have to do irrespective of our positions or ranks. In the ceremony of the washing of feet we are told that our Lord “rose, took off his outer garment, and tied a towel around his waist”. Rising is a practical show on an inner decision. It is different from saying I will arise; it is an activated decision. By taking off his outer garment our Lord shows us the importance of self-abasement, self-abnegation, and selflessness in service. At times there is need for us to put aside our exalted positions, at times we are called upon to keep our ranks aside in order to love deeply and more efficiently as Jesus did (Phil.2:7).
The tying the towel around his waist like a priest would tie a cord around his waist for the celebration of the mass, our Lord disclosed readiness to begin serving his people instantly. In some contexts in West Africa when a woman ties a piece of cloth around her waist there is a clear indication of urgent readiness to do something; it could be a fight, work etc.
The washing of feet itself points also to the sacrament of penance in which we are washed from our sinful pasts. By washing the feet of the apostle our Lord was symbolically stating his mission on earth which is the washing away of the sins of the world that ended up creating a gap between divinity and humanity. When Peter wanted a total body wash our Lord told him that he may not understand what the washing of feet meant but that he would understand later. We believe that he understood later as Acts 2:38 indicated.
- 2. Institution of the Holy Eucharist
The Eucharist is the centre and summit of the Church’s life and ministry. It is the sacrament of the body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ in the appearances of bread and wine.
Our Lord Jesus Christ instituted this sacrament for a variety of reasons.
- It is a way of abiding with us as he said: “I will be with you till the end of time”. (Matt.28:20).
- It is an institution of communion between him and us and among us.
- It is a source of eternal life. John (6:54) says that “whoever eats my body and drinks my blood will have eternal life and I will raise him up on the last day”.
- It is a source of spiritual strength and antidote to sin. It guides and leads us on our pilgrim journey to God.
- 3. Institution of the Holy Orders
Last week a younger colleague after reading my blog on the Palm and Passion Sunday told me a short story of what happened afterwards to the donkey that Jesus rode into Jerusalem. According to him on its way back the donkey did not receive those accolades that characterized the triumphant entry of Jesus Christ into Jerusalem. Nobody seemed to notice it as it was coming back home. Dejected and confused it asked the mother why nobody seems to notice him anymore the mother smiled and said “you were noticed then and praised because of the one who was riding on you. Without him you nobody will notice you without him you are nothing”.
The above can be said of those who have been called, chosen and confirmed to function as ministers of the Word and Sacraments. The priest is at most “another Christ” traditionally called “alter Christus”.Hence without Christ the priest is nothing. What is important in our priesthood is not the quantity we take home but the quality we bring in. We are called and chosen to care for “feet” and not to cut them. We are called to wash feet and not to wither them. What is important is not WHERE we are sent to work but the SOULS we are meant to save.
It is worth noting that we are what we are based on the honour given to us by our Lord Jesus Christ (Heb.5:4). On that same Thursday evening our Lord instituted the Holy Orders while instituting the Sacrament of the Holy Eucharist. This is actually logical because the Holy Eucharist has to be handled by a specified group of people just as the command to celebrate it as a memorial was not given by our Lord to a large crowd like when he gave the eight beatitude on the mount. This was rather a privileged mandate given directly to the apostles and by extension their successors. We can rightly say then that the Holy Eucharist cannot exist without the priesthood and the Priesthood cannot exist without the Holy Eucharist.
To conclude it may be worth doing to take note of the following points.
- We need to learn from Jesus Christ the life of humility. It is all about setting aside our ranks and positions in view of showing love deeply and more effectively. Love is what we need to activate. In our day and age love seem to be far-fetched and unattainable because we make little effort at it. Selfless service to one another is a priority for all Christian; clergy and laity alike.
- We should appreciate and esteem highly the Holy Eucharist and the Holy Orders as two indispensable and complementing Sacraments. How often do I receive our Lord fully conscious of right preparation? Do I attend to the Sacrament of penance as often as I should?
- As a priest how do I conduct my priestly functions to the best of my ability? Are my inputs helping or hindering the mission entrusted to me by Christ himself?
By the way this Thursday is Holy because of the Holy institutions made therein by our Lord Jesus Christ.
I wish you a happy celebration!