Holy Thursday begins what has been traditionally called the Sacred Triduum in Holy Week. It is the time in the Church’s calendar in which we liturgically commemorate the Passion, Death and Resurrection of Jesus. The significance of Holy Thursday is found at the Passover celebration of the Last Supper during which Jesus instituted the Sacraments of the Eucharist and Holy Orders. Though the conventional thinking is that the Chrism Mass—generally held earlier in Holy Week—celebrates the gift of Holy Orders and the liturgy for Holy Thursday focuses on the gift of the Eucharist, there is another form of priesthood that is commemorated on Holy Thursday that is often overlooked.
It would make perfect sense, of course, that the gospel reading for a liturgy devoted to the institution of the Eucharist would be one of the synoptic Gospels in which Jesus blesses the bread and wine (“Take this and eat it. This is my body”). It is significant—and surprising to many Catholics when they are made aware of it—that the Church chooses instead to proclaim the Gospel of John on Holy Thursday which replaces the Eucharistic scene found in the other gospels with Jesus’ washing of the apostles’ feet. Because of this nuance, I have often wondered if we are not only celebrating the gift of the Eucharist on Holy Thursday, but also our participation in our Baptismal call as Christians to participate in the priesthood of Christ.
All baptized Christians are called to be priest, prophet and king. Our common priesthood differs from the ministerial priesthood because it is rooted in the Sacrament of Baptism but it is nevertheless just as real.
Scripture scholars have noted that foot washing when entering the house of a guest was common at Jesus’ time. However, washing the foot of another person was not. Furthermore, no one could command a Jewish slave to wash another’s feet, because it was considered such a demeaning a task. In addition, this customary action was performed when one entered a house, before sitting down for a meal—it never took place during a meal. All of these details serve to highlight the fact that Jesus carefully and consciously chose this action. It also explains Peter’s shock. “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?….You shall never wash my feet.” (John 13:6, 7)
This act of washing His disciples’ feet is also amplified by John’s placement of a similar scene earlier in his gospel. In John (12:1-7), Mary, the sister of Lazarus who has just been raised from the dead, anoints his feet with very expensive ointment in Bethany, six days before the Passover. Not only does she stoop to a position lower than a Jewish slave, but she dries his feet with her hair. Women never let their hair down in public at that time. Such an action contained connotations of sexual immorality.
Could John be saying more than what first meets the eye by placing these two foot washing accounts so closely together? Could he be implying that Jesus had been so inspired by the experience of having his feet bathed and anointed that He chose that action to convey to his apostles the way that he wanted them to memorialize him?
He commanded the Twelve to “copy” his example by washing each others’ feet—”what I have done, so you must do.” The example we copy is that of humble, loving service to one another. By copying Jesus in this way we make Him present once again in the world and we experience a Eucharistic moment of a different sort.
I was never so aware of this than when I was in Rome a few years ago. In prayer I had been posing a question to the Lord at that time asking where He was in my relationship with Him. As I headed toward the bus stop, a young man beckoned to me. He was handicapped and mute and was using sign language to tell me he needed help getting a bus. I agreed and he took my arm. All of his body weight pressed against me. At the bus stop were a number of habited religious and priests, all of whom had to have just rounded the same corner I had. They were staring at the two of us as we came closer. “How did he know he could ask me?” I asked myself. When the bus arrived, I helped the young man onto the bus and asked if he was okay. He shot back the most beautiful smile with his thumb and forefinger making the “okay” sign.
Then the doors of the bus closed and the floodgates opened. Jesus had answered my prayer. I had been interacting with a severely handicapped man; but I had also been interacting with Jesus, and he with me. In fact, we had made Christ present to each other.
I realized then that this is how the common priesthood of the faithful is exercised and what it can hold for us if we are open enough to allow the people around us to mediate God’s presence. We hear at the end of Mass, “Go in peace to love and serve the Lord and one another.” It is in the everyday, immediate, sometimes monotonous seconds and minutes of our lives that we are so often blind to, that we are called to mediate the presence of the Lord by serving each other and fulfilling our calling to be priest, prophet and king.
In these moments we are capable of allowing the Lord to make Himself immediately present through us. It is also in these same moments that Jesus’ command “what I have done, so you must do” in John’s Gospel harmonizes with His Eucharistic command in the synoptic gospels to “Do this in memory of me.”