Sharing the Life of God
Holy Thursday. fr Thomas Skeats shows us how through celebrating the Lord’s Supper we come to share in the life of God.
The first Passover meal described in the book of Exodus was very much a domestic celebration. In that night of darkness and chaos, when the angel of death passed over the land of Egypt, it is the home and the family that provide for God’s people a place of security and refuge. The Gospels tell us that on the night before he suffered, Jesus celebrated the Passover with his disciples, his newly constituted family. On Holy Thursday, when we commemorate that event in the Upper Room in Jerusalem, we are reminded that we, as Christ’s family, find refuge in the Church – a place of peace and a shield against the dark powers which rise up within the world and within our own hearts and threaten to destroy us.
The Church is a place of refuge. But it is not a closed fortress. Jesus does not remain in the Upper Room with his disciples but goes out into the night to confront the forces of darkness and destruction. We, like the first disciples, are called to follow him to that place of darkness. We reenact this at the end of Mass on Holy Thursday. In the Upper Room, Jesus teaches his disciples what weapon they should carry when they go out to confront the dark places of the world. Not swords or spears, but love. Love is the counterforce to darkness and chaos.
Jesus knew he would be betrayed by one of his disciples and that the rest of them would abandon him through disloyalty. Jesus met the injury of betrayal and disloyalty (the chaos and darkness around him) with humility and love. And it is with this example that we must emerge from the walls of the Church and go out to build places of love in the midst of a chaotic and often dark world. Love is the power which originally created the world and it is love which will establish it afresh in its original goodness.
It is in the gesture of washing his disciple’s feet that Jesus gives us a poignant demonstration of what love for one another means. In this simple action we see who Jesus is, what he has come to do for us, and what he wants us to do. Though he was in the form of God, Jesus did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself taking the form of a servant, as St Paul tells us. And as a servant he washes us to make us fit to come to God’s table and to live in fellowship with Him. Jesus must wash us if we are to belong to him. It is the love of God which makes us clean.
For us to see who Jesus is and what he requires of us we must allow ourselves to be loved by him so that, just as in any relationship of love, we can begin to see things as the other person sees them. The problem is we always want to see things our own way. But we should not want, at the end of our life, our parting song to be ‘I did it my way’ (as we unfortunately hear at too many funerals), but ‘I did it His way’. Allowing our feet to be washed means identifying with that action of Jesus and allowing it to influence us so that we can then extend that action out into the world.
There is another action which Jesus performs in that same Upper Room which he tells his disciples to repeat – the breaking of bread, the Eucharist. ‘Do this in remembrance of me’, he says. Both acts – the feet washing and the breaking of bread – are connected. It is that same love for the world, shown in the act of washing his disciples’ feet, which receives its ultimate expression on the Cross, and is celebrated in the Eucharist, the sacrament of Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross.
In the Upper Room, Jesus does not just give us a commandment to love one another. He gives us the means to carry out that commandment. Our participation in the Eucharist makes us become like Jesus so that we can begin to love as Jesus loved. If Jesus were just an ethical teacher, we would have the guidance of his teaching and the inspiration of his example. But he is also our Saviour and Redeemer, and so we have been given much more.
Through the sacrament of the Eucharist, the institution of which we commemorate on Holy Thursday, God shares his very life with us so that we can live like him in service to one another. This is the love by which we can begin to confront and overcome those dark forces which want to stifle all that is good, beautiful and true.
Readings: Exodus 12:1-8,11-14|1 Corinthians 11:23-26|John 13:1-15
The image above is taken from an altar in the Dominican convent at Stone in Staffordshire.