Holy Thursday, Maundy Thursday! These are designations for this day which marks the beginning of the traditional Easter Triduum which implies a period of three days of committed prayers and preparation for the Easter. Significantly this day is called HOLY because of the hallowed nature of the three important activities that constitute the ceremony of this evening: the washing of feet, the institution of the Holy Eucharist and the institution of the Priesthood. Furthermore, this day is also known as 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 three prominent events occurring? Looking at all the events closely, we can actually surmise that the commandment has its roots in humility, love and service and these could be seen in all the three events.
- The Washing of Feet.
Before undertaking this lowly activity, the gospel of St. John began by saying that Jesus “LOVED HIS OWN TO THE END”. (John 13:1) 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).Now the foot is the lowliest part of the human body as it is in constant contact with the ground which is also the base of dust and dirt. In our traditional communities in Africa, 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 people water to wash the feet given the dusty and rock nature of the landscape (See Luke 7:44). Significantly this washing is done by a slave or servant because it is a humbling 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’s 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 through which we are washed from our sinful pasts. By washing the feet of the apostles 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 his words in Acts 2:38 indicated.
2. Institution of the Holy Eucharist
The institution of this sacrament was prefigured in the Old Testament Passover we read today. A deep reflection on that reading will help us to see clearly the potency and importance of the sacrament of the Holy Eucharist. God commanded the people to undertake the Passover using a spotless lamb. In the Eucharist we receive our Lord Jesus Christ; the Lamb of God without blemish. The only way to be shielded from the plague in Egypt at the time was to be a partaker in that Passover meal and to have the blood pasted on the doorpost. In the Eucharist we receive the life giving body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ; our Lord also added “unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood you will not have life in you (John 6:53).
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
(John 6: 56).
- 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
In the letter to the Hebrews (5:4) we read “No one takes this HONOUR upon himself, he must be called by God as Aaron was called. From this passage we learn that the Priesthood is an honourable vocation that is entirely dependent on God’s decision; hence it is a privilege which God alone can give to whomsoever he wishes. There are many people I know who WORKED HARD to get to the priesthood but they could not make it. This is an indication that becoming a priest does not depend on our human efforts alone without divine election and confirmation.
It was Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen who once wrote a book with the title: The Priest is not his own”. As the title showed the Priest is basically representational in his duty. He 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 “feets” and not to cut them by our words and actions. We are called to wash feet and not to wither them. What is important is not WHERE we are sent to work but HOW we tend the people we are sent to.
The priesthood exists at the service of the Holy Eucharist. In the gospels our Lord gave most of his teachings publicly; for instance the beatitudes. It is remarkably to note that the celebration of the Holy Eucharist was given as a command by our Lord Jesus Christ to the twelve apostle. Indicating therefore that it is a special duty to be handled by a specified group. 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? Do I help or hinder the Priests and the work God has assigned them to do?
- As a priest how do I conduct my priestly functions to the best of my ability? Are my inputs helping or disrupting the mission entrusted to me by Christ himself?
- As we celebrate this day let us be very conscious of the mandates (humility, love and service) in connection with the Feet, the Table and the Priest
I wish you a happy celebration! Happy feast day to all my brother priests.