by Father Thomas Rosica, CSB
Both the Jewish and Christian traditions view eating and feasting as more than simply an opportunity to refuel the body, enjoy certain delicacies, or celebrate a particular occasion. Eating and feasting became for both traditions, encounters with transcendent realities and even union with the divine. In the New Testament, so much of Jesus' own ministry took place during meals at table.
Jesus attends many meals throughout the four Gospels: with Levi and his business colleagues, with Simon the Pharisee, with Lazarus and his sisters in Bethany, with Zacchaeus and the crowd in Jericho, with outcasts and centurions, with crowds on Galilean hillsides, and with disciples in their homes.
It is ultimately during the final meal that Jesus leaves us with his most precious gift in the Eucharist. The Scripture readings for Holy Thursday root us deeply in our Jewish past: celebrating the Passover with the Jewish people, receiving from St. Paul that which was handed on to him, namely the Eucharistic banquet, and looking at Jesus squarely in the face as he kneels before us to wash our feet in humble service. Instead of presenting to us one of the synoptic Gospel stories (Matthew, Mark, Luke) of the "institution" of the Eucharist, the Church offers us the disturbing posture of the Master kneeling before his friends to wash their feet in a gesture of humility and service.
As Jesus wraps a towel around his waist, takes a pitcher of water, stoops down and begins washing the feet of his disciples, he teaches his friends that liberation and new life are won not in presiding over multitudes from royal thrones nor by the quantity of bloody sacrifices offered on temple altars but by walking with the lowly and poor and serving them as a foot washer along the journey.
On this holy night of "institution," as Jesus drank from the cup of his blood and stooped to wash feet, a new and dynamic, common bond was created with his disciples and with us. It is as though the whole history of salvation ends tonight just as it begins -- with bare feet and the voice of God speaking to us through his own flesh and blood: "As I have done for you, so you must also do." The washing of the feet is integral to the Last Supper. It is John's way of saying to Christ's followers throughout the ages: "You must remember his sacrifice in the Mass, but you must also remember his admonition to go out and serve the world."
At the Last Supper, Jesus teaches us that true authority in the Church comes from being a servant, from laying down our lives for our friends. His life is a feast for the poor and for sinners. It must be the same for those who receive the Lord's body and blood. We become what we receive in this meal and we imitate Jesus in his saving works, his healing words, and his gestures of humble service. From the Eucharist must flow a certain style of communitarian life, a genuine care for our neighbors, and for strangers.
Finally, the celebration of the Eucharist always projects us forward towards others, especially those who are poor, marginalized, abandoned or forgotten.
Last year on Holy Thursday evening, many questions and concerns were raised over Pope Francis washing the feet of 12 young people at the Roman Juvenile Detention Centre and especially that two were young women, and two were Muslims.
One can easily understand that in a great celebration, men would be chosen for the foot washing because Jesus, himself washed the feet of the twelve apostles who were male. However the ritual of the washing of the feet on Holy Thursday evening in the Juvenile Detention Centre in Rome took place in a particular, small community that included young women. When Jesus washed the feet of those who were with him on the first Holy Thursday, he desired to teach all a lesson about the meaning of service, using a gesture that included all members of the community. The washing of the feet is a gesture of ultimate humble service, not of power or privilege.
We now know of the many photos and stories that show Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, then-Archbishop of Buenos Aires, who in various pastoral settings washed the feet of young men and women. To have excluded the young women from the ritual washing of feet on Holy Thursday night in a Roman juvenile detention centre last year, would have detracted our attention from the essence of the Holy Thursday Gospel, and the very beautiful and simple gesture of a father who desired to embrace those who were on the fringes of society; those who were not refined experts of liturgical rules and rubrics that at times, when improperly understood and transmitted, do not mirror the profound messages of the Gospels and of the Lord of the Church.
That the Holy Father, Francis, washed the feet of young men and women on his first Holy Thursday as Pope, should call our minds and hearts to the simple and spontaneous gesture of love, affection, forgiveness and mercy that have been the hallmarks of the current Bishop of Rome, more than to legalistic, liturgical or canonical discussions among those who do not yet understand Pope Francis’ love for and outreach to those on the peripheries of society.
This year, as previously announced, Pope Francis will visit the Centro Santa Maria della Provvidenza Don Carlo Gnocchi home, celebrate the Mass of the Lord’s supper with residents, staff and their families, and wash the feet of the residents, many of whom are elderly and have disabilities. The foot-washing ritual is rooted in the story of the Last Supper, when Jesus humbles himself and washes the feet of his apostles on the eve of his death.
Photo: Pope Francis, as cardinal of Buenos Aires, Argentina, washes and kisses the feet of residents of a shelter for drug users during Holy Thursday Mass in 2008 at a church in a poor neighborhood of the city. (CNS photo/Enrique Garcia Medina, Reuters) (March 4, 2014)