Love to the End
Holy Thursday. Fr Gregory Murphy offers a sermon for the Mass of the Lord’s Supper.
I am writing from Scotland, where churches have just been permitted to open to a limited congregation for Holy week, and where, following advice from the bishops’ conference and the Holy See, the usual rites have been pared down: so no foot-washing and no Eucharistic procession today. Consequently I find myself focusing in these reflections on the meal, as today’s gospel does not. Or does it?
Jesus takes on himself the role of a slave and washes the disciples’ feet, provoking a protest from Peter. Normally when someone came in from outside in the time of Jesus their feet would have been washed of the dust and grime of travel by slaves, but there was one exception to this rule: a wife could wash her husband’s feet, not because she was his slave, but because they were one body.
When Jesus washes the feet of his disciples he acts out a kind of prophetic sign or sacrament of his whole life and mission. He is the sacrificial Lamb of God. St John emphasises this by saying that he ‘lays down’ his outer garment before he begins; and afterwards ‘takes it up again’ – the same language that he has used of Jesus as the Good Shepherd, laying down his life for his sheep, and taking it up again. On the night he was betrayed he invites his disciples to follow him in that way of sacrifice. John’s teaching on Jesus’ instituting the Eucharist is given earlier in his gospel on the teaching of Jesus that he is the bread of life, the bread from heaven that gives life; here, he shows us what it means. The washing of the feet is the eucharist: the acting out of eucharistic living, of loving service to each other in the Lord and following his example.
But the story goes on. The central statement of Jesus’ teaching in this section (John 13:1-38, in verses 18-20) we read earlier on Tuesday of Holy week, where Jesus stresses for both the footwashing and the gift of the morsel: Jesus has chosen fragile disciples, one of whom will betray him; he does this that they may believe ‘I am he’; these disciples are then sent out that both Jesus and the one who has sent him may be received. The unconditional self-gift of Jesus on the Cross for his fragile disciples and for all has not yet taken place, but is anticipated in the loving gestures of the footwashing and the gift of the morsel (Jesus takes the piece of bread, and gives it to his betrayer – the language is eucharistic). This is what it means to love ‘to the end’ – to show the incomprehensible love of God, and the disciples of Jesus are identified as those who follow Jesus’ example and love to the end, despite their (and our) failures, fragilities, betrayals and denials.
We have heard St Paul’s account of receiving and handing on this tradition in the excerpt from his first letter to his church in Corinth. Paul here is delivering a stark reproof – raging that the Corinthians, in importing the trivial divisions of wealth and status into the communion of the Lord’s supper, are subverting its very nature. To celebrate blessing/thanking the Father or Eucharist is to commit oneself to a discipleship that remembers Jesus not only in breaking the ritual bread and sharing the ritual cup, but in imitating his whole sacrificial attitude of self-giving love to the end in obedience to the Father. Accordingly, Paul adds ‘You proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes’. The disciples are to live the Eucharist they celebrate, even to the breaking of their bodies and spilling of their blood, embodying the saving mission of Christ until he comes again. This is only possible because of the depth of communion in a shocking level of intimacy to which we are called by Jesus and empowered by his Spirit: in the self-giving to the other in footwashing and in sharing the one cup.
While breaking bread and dipping the morsel into a central dish would have been common behaviour at table in Jesus’ time, sharing drinking vessels -especially in a ritual context – would not have been. This was his big innovation in the rituals of dining. Again, cups can be shared, but usually for us rarely, except for lover and beloved or between parent and child.
Just now the washing of feet and sharing the one cup is taking place outside the church buildings in the life-giving charity we are showing each other – this very widespread example of love in action reminds us of what this liturgical drama is pointing us toward.