Exodus 12:1-8, 11-14
1 Corinthians 11:23-26
Tonight we begin the commemoration of the central events of our faith. The very heart of everything we believe as Catholics, as followers of Jesus Christ is commemorated between now and Sunday morning. We are reminded in the opening passage from Exodus, which is actually one of the most important passages in the entire Old Testament, that the Passover, which signaled the Deliverance of the children of Israel from slavery in Egypt, was a type and a prefigurement of the sacrifice of Christ. For just as God asked the children of Israel to sacrifice the best of their lambs, and eat with unleavened bread and bitter herbs, and just as he passed over their houses marked with blood, so Christ gave us his own body as the most perfect Passover Lamb, so that humanity could be delivered from slavery to sin, and have the ability to live in Union with God forever.
Just as the children of Israel ate unleavened bread (cf. Exodus 12:17-20), so Christ gave us His Body under the appearance of bread, and His Blood under the appearance of wine, and just as the children of Israel were to each year remember their deliverance from Egypt by commemorating the Passover, as St. Paul tells us, as often as we celebrate the Eucharist, we remember and proclaim the death of the Lord until he comes again in Glory. (cf. 1 Corinthians 11:26) What a wonderful Savior we have, that not only would he freely give his life in order to give us salvation and unity with God, he left us His very self, his Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity so that when we receive the Eucharist we can literally receive him and be as close to Him as the apostles were. He died, the Acts of the Apostles tells us, to purchase the Church with his own blood (cf. Acts 20:28), a reality we both remember and have a face-to-face encounter with at every Mass.
But since God is all-powerful, he could have chosen any means and way to save humanity. Why choose to sacrifice his own Son, the Second Person of the Trinity? The truth is that Jesus Christ made a free-will offering of his very self (cf. Hebrews 7:27) for the salvation of the human race.
We might find at least part of the answer to why God would choose this way, why Christ would empty himself in the way that he did, in the Gospel tonight. We see that he washed the disciples’ feet, and not only did he wash their feet, he explained to them that he gave them an example to follow, that they should do it for one another. In a few minutes we will have a liturgical commemoration of that event. The reason we do this is because the importance of this moment and its significance for the meaning of our faith in daily life cannot be understated.
To understand more fully the significance of Jesus’ act of washing the disciples’ feet, we have to understand the significance of foot washing itself in the ancient world. Although horses were available in the ancient Roman world, a horse was expensive, so the use of a horse as the means of transportation for many people, as became the case in the western world in the 18th and 19th centuries, was beyond the means of most people except for the very well off. Even those who were moderately wealthy had no other means of transportation but their own two feet. That reality was something that the overwhelming majority of society shared in common. To be frank, this meant that most people had feet that were filthy everyday, and since people walked everywhere they went (and usually wore sandals in the ancient Mediterranean world), if you invited someone to visit your home it meant that their feet would get dirty in the process of visiting you. So most people had a basin of water in their home in which guests could wash their feet. It was seen as a sign of hospitality, and if you didn’t offer someone the opportunity to wash their dirty feet, it was considered one of the rudest gestures toward a guest, and usually meant that you didn’t think much of them. Indeed, Jesus excoriated the Pharisee who hosted him for dinner in the story of the penitent woman who anointed Jesus’ feet, because that Pharisee had not even extended him the normal hospitality of a basin to wash his feet. (cf. Luke 7:44-46)
For someone to voluntarily wash the feet of another person was seen as an act of servitude, and in the homes of the wealthy it would be a chore for the household servants or slaves. What Jesus did was the action of a servant, a total emptying of self to wash the filthy feet of the men who were the closest to him, and then he told the Apostles to do likewise to one another. In setting this example, not only is Jesus showing us that he came to empty himself and take the form of a slave for our sake, but he is inviting us to imitate him in living lives of selfless service, service given to others out of love, rather than mere obligation. (cf. Philippians 2:6-11)
A few years ago, while I was still in formation for the diaconate, I was doing some relevant research on the internet and I happened across a blog entry by a minister from a mainline Protestant denomination about the washing of feet during Holy Week. That blog entry has remained in my memory not because of any profound wisdom shared by its writer, but because of the shocking disdain which she seemed to have for this practice. This particular Protestant minister made it quite clear in terms that I would describe as less than humble that she didn’t particularly like having to wash the “smelly feet” of her parishioners. I couldn’t help but think that Jesus did this very thing, and did so not only without complaint, but as an example of how to serve and to minister to others. Then I could not help but think to myself “I hope she does not do any work among the homeless or the truly deprived, whose feet are often the most neglected part of their bodies, which those who serve them often seek to look after.”
Jesus’ example to us through his ultimate sacrifice for our own salvation is one of radical self-emptying. He emptied himself on the cross and he gave us himself in the Eucharist. In order to empty himself to us in the Eucharist he also gave us the holy priesthood, and tonight priests everywhere commemorate the institution of their office. Without the priesthood, the diaconate also could not exist, since deacons came into existence in order to assist priests in their work.
In washing the feet of the Apostles at the Last Supper, Jesus sets the example for us of what ministry is supposed to look like. It is about service to the people of God, and about dying to self for the sake of others, and for the sake of the Kingdom of God. That isn’t just a message for priests or deacons, but for every one of us who seek to take up our Cross and follow Christ. As Christians, we are called to imitate Christ, and that means emptying ourselves for others, just as Jesus showed us on that very first Holy Thursday, and that very first Paschal Triduum.