Embracing the Repulsive?
Maundy Thursday | Fr Richard Ounsworth connects the dots between the Eucharist and the washing of feet.
Today is the day on which we celebrate the institution of the Eucharist; so it seems rather strange that we should read from the one Gospel that has no account of that moment, especially as the preacher is instructed by the Church to preach precisely on the Eucharist – and yet every homily is an exposition of the Gospel. Clearly, then, what is required today of all days is an exercise in joining the dots. To put it another way: what is the theological link between the Body of Christ given to us under the forms of bread and wine, and feet?
The beginning of the answer is clear enough: we have used the word ‘body’ to describe the Eucharist. Of course we have – because Jesus did! Well, perhaps. But we may imagine that at the Last Supper Jesus was not speaking English, nor Latin, and probably not Greek either, but Aramaic, in which there is no word that precisely aligns to the Greek ‘soma’ which is more or less the equivalent of our English ‘body’ or the Latin ‘corpus’. It was very possibly St Paul who first had to decide what Greek word to use to translate Jesus’s words into Greek, and it is significant that he chose ‘soma’ rather than ‘sarx’, ‘flesh’, which is the word that St John uses when he tells us of Jesus’s teaching on the Eucharist in chapter six of his Gospel. So why did St Paul use ‘body’? I think because he discusses the Eucharist in 1 Corinthians in the context of a broader discussion of two related things: the relationship between the Christian and the Church, and the relationship between the Christian and Jesus. The Church, he says, is like a body, made up of many parts that all have a crucial but distinct role to play; but it is no ordinary body: it is the Body of Christ, the holy presence of the risen Jesus in this world.
We Christians, as members of that unique Body, are members of Christ and members of one another. These are not separate things, either. Our unity with one another is a bond of love, and not just any love but divine love, charity, which is the very life of God. We can say that the Spirit of Christ is, as it were, the soul of the Church, making it a living and a life-giving Body. For the Church to reject love, then, would be to reject the very thing that makes her what she is; and for the Christian to turn away from love of neighbour is to turn away from Christ, to cut ourselves off from the body of which we are members and make ourselves dead limbs. In the same way, to cut ourselves off from the Church is to cut ourselves off from the lifeblood of the divine love.
There is, then, an intimate connection between love and the Eucharist. This is what St Paul means when he says that until Jesus comes, when we celebrate the Eucharist, when we eat the Body and drink the Blood of Christ we are proclaiming his death: Jesus’s death is the perfect, ultimate act of divine love, the love that never gives up, holds nothing back, demands nothing in return. If we want to know what our new life in Christ looks like, we look at the Cross.
How can we possibly respond to that extraordinary love? There are three answers, and they bring us back to feet (at last!). First, we allow Christ to love us, without demur, without false modesty. If Christ would wash your feet, let him. If the parish priest asks you to have your feet washed at tonight’s Mass, accept joyfully. Of course you’re not worthy. Neither was Peter, neither is anyone.
Secondly, as Jesus tells us, ‘I have given you an example’: let us wash the feet of others. Do I mean this literally? Yes – at least literally. If there is anyone whose feet we would flinch from washing, can we claim that we love them? Can we claim that the love of God is our real life, that (as St Paul says) ‘it is not I who live, but Christ in me’? Tomorrow, we will kiss an image of the feet of Christ as he dies for our sins. Those feet were calloused, bloody, broken, pierced – physically repulsive. Today, tomorrow, and for the rest of our lives, whose repulsiveness will we wash and kiss and embrace?
Finally, ‘how lovely on the mountains are the feet of him who brings good news!’ Today, Jesus offers to give us lovely feet. The Eucharist is our food for the journey, and our journey is a missionary one, because we are the Body of Christ. If we allow ourselves to be loved by Christ, and if we allow that love to transform our loves until we long to embrace the repulsive and serve whomever is given us to serve, then we will all be preachers of the Good News.
Tonight, Jesus invites us to watch with him one hour. Let us do so – and then keep watch, for the whole of our lives, for opportunities to preach and to love even as Jesus loved us and gave his life for us.
Photograph by Fr Lawrence Lew OP of a mosaic in the apse of the Basilica of St Paul-outside-the-Walls in Rome. It shows Pope Honorius III embracing the feet of Christ.