One Flesh in Love
One Flesh in Love

One Flesh in Love

Maundy Thursday. Fr Malcolm McMahon recalls his first experience of the Mass of the Lord’s Supper.

I remember when ‘foot-washing’ became part of the church’s liturgy. The brother sacristan at St Dominic’s in London told the altar boys that this ceremony was being moved from the chapter room, where it took place for the Dominican community, to the new Evening Mass of the Lord’s Supper in the priory church. Some of us altar boys were chosen to have our feet washed along with some members of the Dominican community, but I don’t think I was one of them. This took place in the late 1950’s. It should probably have taken place a few years earlier, but the reforms of Pope Pius XII took a little time to settle down. Another memory I have is leading the procession, as incense boat bearer, to the Altar of Repose into a chapel brightly lit with photoflood light bulbs, and I wondered in my eight-year-old mind whether heaven would be like this.

Until the 1950s this liturgy was held either behind closed doors, or in the early morning with few people attending. Seventy years later we are astounded that this should ever be so. The Mass of the Lord’s Supper reminds us of Jesus’ greatest gift to us that of the Eucharist, Jesus’ body and blood. It reminds us of when at the celebration of the Passover he gave new meaning to this ancient rite of the Jews, God’s chosen people, and left it to us as a memorial of him.

In St John’s Gospel, the gift that was left to us was a commandment to love one another and to wash each other’s feet. We might say that these are two sides of the same coin. Receiving the Eucharist in bread which has been broken for us and wine that has been poured out for us reveals the body of Jesus which suffered, died, was buried, yet rose from the dead. Through this action we are led from the slavery of sin to new life where we find ourselves able to lower ourselves without shame to the wash each other’s feet with love.

The Eucharist is given to us not only for our own good, but to become that which we have eaten and drunk. It is in becoming like Jesus as part of his body that our natural response to each other should be one of love, and that means serving each other even at risk to ourselves. In fact, it means a bit more than this: it goes further to the point where we should die with Christ so that we may share in his resurrection.

Foot washing seems quite tame and easy compared with dying for Christ, but they are both born out of the same love. Usually, a servant washes the feet of his master, but an added level of meaning is given to Christ’s action when we consider that a woman could wash her husband’s feet in Jewish Law, not because she was his servant but because she was united with him as one flesh through marriage. We are all one with the Lord through Baptism and Eucharist, albeit imperfectly so the onus is on us to behave in a Christ-like manner. The Liturgy helps us with a rubric at the Offertory of the Mass this evening: it says at the beginning of the Liturgy of Eucharist, ‘there may be a procession in which gifts for the poor may be presented with the bread and wine.’ That rubric should be part of our everyday lives, and not an optional extra.

I was quite disappointed to discover in later life that the procession to the Altar of Repose was not representing a direct way to heaven even though there was so much light. Instead, the procession with Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament signified Jesus’ journey to the Garden of Gethsemane, on the Mount of Olives – a far cry from heaven this was a place of loneliness, mental and spiritual agony, betrayal, and arrest.

The garden was outside of Jerusalem across the Kidron Valley, beyond the walls of the city and away from the presence of God in the Holy of Holies. It was a place of darkness and desolation, and Jesus was on the point of despair, sweating blood as he faced God’s will for him. When we make that procession with the Lord, we too are taking part in Gethsemane and all that meant for Jesus. We move slowly carrying with us the burdens of our lives: the things that we wished we had done better, the sorrows which have afflicted us, the disappointments, and united with Jesus we learn to accept God’s will. The joy and light of heaven do await us, but before then, we must climb Calvary with Jesus so that from the vantage point of the Cross we can see a place named Resurrection.

Readings: Exodus 12:1-8,11-14 | 1 Corinthians 11:23-26 | John 13:1-15

Image: Christ Washing the Feet of the Disciples, by Giotto, c. 1305, Scrovegni chapel, Padua

fr. Malcolm McMahon O.P. is the Archbishop of Liverpool. From 1992 to 2000 he was Prior Provincial of the English Dominicans, and from 2000 to 2014 he was the Bishop of Nottingham.

Comments (3)

  • Fr Francis chilufya ofmcap

    Thank you, lovely reflection

  • Catherine

    Thank you for sucha beautiful and helpful words. Accepting all the pain and sorrow we might have to face without trying to numb ourselves from it, as a way to join Jesus in his acceptance and love for the Father is not easy, but if I try to do it with as much love as I can then it is a productive and fruitful gift. I used to find the crucifixtion and suffering of Our Lord too difficult to think about properly but with a better understanding of God’s wonderful love and mercy has made such a difference. There is so much love and mercy from Jesus for others in his suffering, that I didn’t appreciate properly. The more I learn about it the less I’m not afraid of it for myself either. Thank you.

  • Mr William Rhind

    My first memory of the Maundy Thursday service was when the Abbot of Downside asked my parents if I wanted my feet washed at the service. (as a family we never usually went to Maundy Thursday services as it was normal working day in the NHS were they both worked) However that year we were at Downside on a family Easter retreat


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