Whilst having a discussion with some people, someone in the group mentioned that a certain event would commence on “Holy Monday” and end on “Holy Wednesday”. The other people in the group looked surprised and actually laughed out loud and wondering why the person could use such unconventional denotations to represent such days in the Holy week that are not familiar. The person stood his ground and argued that since it is Holy Week, all the days should be “Holy” not just Thursday and Saturday. There appears to be sense in that actually.
Today is one of those days in the year that we call “HOLY”. It is known as Holy Thursday as well as Maundy Thursday. The holiness of this Thursday comes from the sacred nature of the events that form the framework of today’s celebration and which will launch us into the passion of our Lord, his death and finally, his resurrection. Today is also called Maundy Thursday. The word “Maundy” comes from the Latin “mandatum” which means commandment. This we can see from the words of our Lord in the Gospel of John (13:4) where he said: “Mandatum novum do vobis ut diligatis invicem sicut dilexi vos” (a new commandment I give to you that you love one another as I loved you).
From the elucidation above, we understand that today can as well be called LOVE DAY. This is because love forms the fundamental reason for the events of today and this season generally. It is on account of love that God decided to send his son to save us (Jn.3:16). It is on account of Love that our saviour suffered and died for us (Jn. 15:13). Today we are told that he loved those who are his own and loved them to the end (John 13:1). This love can be seen in the tripartite events that make up this day: the washing of feet, which tells us about humility in service, the table of the Eucharist, where we receive the body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ and the sacred priesthood, which brings about a representation of Christ amongst us.
- The Holy Feet
The foot is the lowliest part of the human body that is in constantly in touch with the ground and the habitation of dirt and dust. It is at the same time very essential for our movement. Life without the feet could be very challenging and our brothers and sisters who have challenges with their feet can attest to this. It is proper to ask here why our Lord chose to wash the feet of the apostles and not any other part of their body. If we look deeper into this, we shall find out more dependable facts surrounding the washing of feet in lieu of any other part of the human body.
Washing of feet is actually traditional to the Jews as a form purification. Furthermore, when someone comes visiting from a distance, the first indication of hospitality is to provide water for the individual to wash the feet before other things. The dusty and rock nature of the Palestinian landscape of the time may have made this very needful. (See Luke 7:44). However, the washing of feet is not the duty of the owner of the house but that of a slave or servant of the house because it is a humbling job. It takes so much humility for a host to wash the feet of his guest.
When our Lord Jesus Christ and his apostles arrived at the upper room after a long trek, he offered to wash their feet as an expression of his undying love. Jesus Christ washed the feet of the apostles not because he wanted to make a show of humility, as some people in our day and age would quickly do for public notice. On the contrary, he set out to demonstrate what it means to serve others with effortless humility and at the same time encouraged 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). From these words of our Lord, we discover the mandate or command we saw earlier in this reflection. Hence, it is not an option for us, but a grave command with every indication of urgency that we should wash the feet of one another.
From the ceremony of the washing of feet we are invited to pay attention to these high points:
- Jesus rose, took off his outer garment, and tied a towel around his waist”. Rising is a practical expression of an inner decision. It is not a wish like: “I will arise” It is rather an activated decision. By taking off his outer garment, our Lord shows us the importance of self-abasement, self-abnegation, and selflessness in service. There is an urgent need for us to drop some of 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). Tying the towel around his waist (like a priest would tie a cincture or cord around his waist for the celebration of the mass) shows our Lord’s readiness to serve. Often we promise or pledge to serve but we end up not being ready to start.
- The washing of feet itself points also to the sacrament of penance through which our sins are washed away. By washing the feet of the apostles, our Lord was symbolically emphasizing one of his important missions on earth which is the washing away of the sins of the world (1 Jn.2:2) that created 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. In later time, Peter understood this in the context of the water of baptism which washes away sins (Acts 2:38; 1Pet.3:21).
- The washing of feet sanctified the feet of those who bring the good news. By washing the feet of the apostles our Lord was at the same time sanctifying and strengthened their feet for the mission (Matt. 28:19-20). It is upon this that the oracle of Isaiah (52:7) is founded: How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him who brings good tidings,
who publishes peace, who brings good tidings of good, who publishes salvation, who says to Zion, “Your God reigns.”
- The Holy Table
After the ceremony of the washing of feet, our Lord Jesus Christ settled to have a meal with the apostles; the traditional last supper. After the meal, as St. Paul recalled in the Second Reading today (1 Cor.11:23-24), our Lord took some bread and after giving thanks gave it to the apostles to eat saying: this is my body. He did the same with a cup filled with wine which after giving thanks he gave to his apostles to drink saying: this is my blood. All these he bequeathed to them also as a memorial.
Here we have the institution of the sacrament of the Holy Eucharist; the sacrament of the body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ. The preview of this sacrament could be found in the Old Testament Passover we read today in the First Reading (Ex.12:1-8, 11-14). A more profound reflection on that reading will help us to see more aptly 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 that historic moment 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; and 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).
The Holy Table; that is the Holy 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 obvious reasons:
- The Holy Table sustains the presence of our Lord Jesus Christ amongst us as he promised: “I will be with you till the end of time”. (Matt.28:20).
- The Holy Table establishes a communion between us and Jesus Christ our Lord. In the Gospel of John (6:56) he said: “He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me and I in him”.
- The Holy Table gives and sustains life. Our Lord Jesus Christ said: Unless you eat the flesh of the son of God and drink his blood you will not have life in you (John 6:53).
- The Holy Table is a dependable source of eternal life. In the Gospel of John (6:54), our Lord said: “whoever eats my body and drinks my blood will have eternal life and I will raise him up on the last day”.
- The Holy Priesthood
The priest is a man taken from among the people represent the people before God and to represent God among His people. From this description, the priest can be said to be a mediator after the manner of Jesus Christ who is the mediator per excellence; in fact a priest is adequately described as “Another Christ” (Alter Christus). To be a priest, one needs to be called, chosen and confirmed for that work. Following this line of thought the letter to the Hebrews (5:4) said: “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. Getting to the sacred priesthood is not just by working hard, it is more by working with God’s grace; it is not by human efficiency but by divine sufficiency. It is not by human efforts but by 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 this sacred role. 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 no matter the location.
The Holy Priesthood exists at the service of the Holy Eucharist. In the Gospels, our Lord gave most of his teachings publicly to the multitude. It is remarkable to note that the celebration of the Holy Eucharist was given as a command by our Lord Jesus Christ to a special group, namely, the twelve apostles. This is an indication that the Holy Priesthood is a special duty to be handled by a special 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.
It is fitting to establish that every priest should be humbled by the special privilege of being an instrument in the hands of God. It is a special privilege indeed which is not even given to angels. Priests are encouraged to appreciate this privilege and also work with one mind and heart. The beauty of the priesthood can be seen in their collegiality, the fluidity of flocking together and serving the people with grateful hearts.
It is also important to establish here that the priest is about the most misunderstood person in the world. His celibacy is a concern and worry for many. When he is happy and out-reaching he is seen as being too free and loud. If he is fat then the church money is all gone and if he appears thin he is giving a wrong impression about the parish. If he is restrictive and calm he is seen as being old-fashioned and laid back. If he drives a good car he is termed mundane and materialistic and if his car is not so good he is seen as begging for pity. If he associates with women he is seen as ladies’ man, if he avoids them then his sexuality is questionable. We can go on and on. However, the most practical and ponderable thing we can do is to pray for our priests and help them to become good and better priests.
We conclude by re-emphasizing the following point:
- It pays to serve but it is more blessed to serve with humility. Let us continue to wash one another’s feet as the Lord commanded us by our selfless love.
- Let us give more committed attention to the Holy Table where we partake of the body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ that gives life eternal.
- The Holy Priesthood is a privilege that should be appreciated and exercised with humility and love.
May our celebration bring about more dedication in our lives and may our lives remain holy and blessed.
I wish you a happy celebration and happy feast day to all my brothers in the priestly ministry.