By Josh Nunziato
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight, my Strength and my Redeemer.
Consider this remarkable thought: Jesus discerns his own Body in washing his disciples’ feet. Jesus saw in those whom he bathed the ones for whom he was about to die. “Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.” This evening, I invite you to enter a bit deeper into such a mystery.
Today is Maundy Thursday. That curious word Maundy comes from the same Latin source as our English cognates command and mandatory. On this night, we remember the mandate Jesus gave us prior to his passion. However, an appropriate question to ask might be, “Which mandate?” Our readings actually suggest several: first, the Apostle Paul relays the tradition that Jesus “on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, ‘This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’” Here, then, we have our first mandate: ‘Do this in remembrance of me.’ And we do! These words, repeated in our Eucharistic prayer, draw us each week into the sacramental presence of our Lord.
During Holy Week, we remember afresh Jesus’ presence in the Eucharist. Tonight is an invitation to consider, with intensified gaze, Christ’s Body in the bread broken to give us life. Behold! He came, comes, and shall come! Through the Eucharist, Christ has given us membership in his body. Let us humbly remember that Body.
A second mandate also appears in Paul’s text: “In the same way he [Jesus] took the cup also, after supper, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.’” Together with the first, fulfilling this command constitutes the heart of the Eucharist. Indeed, these two mandates actually go together as one unified act of remembrance.
But how do they go together? Well, for Israel the vitality and energy of bodies is blood. In our Old Testament lesson, the blood of the Passover lamb is life—a living, scarlet prayer to Yahweh: ‘Pass us over!’ A petition on the night when death roved through the land of Egypt. Only God gives life and only God takes it away. Therefore, Jesus gives a new command—a new mandate: “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this… drink it.” In the Eucharist, the life of the blood is the life of His blood given for us. Jesus is our life. Jesus is our Passover prayer to the Father: ‘Lead us not into temptation.’ ‘Deliver us from evil.’ ‘Pass us over!’ Because he is our life, Jesus is also the answer to our prayer. His is the living blood. We remember Him because He first remembers us. In the blood of his new covenant, we have the mandate of salvation.
Together, the Body and Blood of our Lord are the gifts of Mandy Thursday. However, there is another mandate from Christ in our readings: “I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet[;] you also ought to wash one another’s feet.” At first glance, this command seems to have little direct relationship to the Eucharist. But let’s look a bit closer.
Matthew, Mark, and Luke all narrate Christ’s Last Supper as a figure of the Eucharistic feast. However, John’s Gospel does something a bit different: it tells the story of an unusual display of loving service: Jesus washing his disciples’ feet, followed by his command to do likewise. To go serve in humble love. To offer their lives for each other. But why does John make this odd substitution in the story of Jesus’ last meal?
Surprisingly, Paul has already suggested the answer to this question in his exhortation: “Examine yourselves!” When Paul explained the Lord’s Supper to the Corinthians, he charged them to discern the body. However, Christ had already shown how. Christ himself had discerned his own Body. This is the heart of the matter: Jesus discerns his own Body in washing his disciples’ feet. Jesus himself teaches us how to discern his Body. He did it first and shows us how. The “how” is footwashing. Just as Christ displays himself in the Eucharist; so, too, he displays himself in this act of loving service to the disciples. In washing their feet, Jesus discerns his own displaced Body.
Now let’s be clear: Jesus and his disciples are not identical without distinction. Likewise, the sacrament of Eucharist and the service of footwashing are not identical. Nevertheless, both practices point back to one Source, the living Body of our Lord Jesus Christ. Both footwashing and the Eucharist, each in a unique manner, indicate the same reality: Jesus, given for us and to us. That’s why it makes sense for John to tell the story of the Last Supper as a story of intimate service. In giving himself, Jesus reaches out to the disciples, displaying them to himself as his living Body.
All the way to the end—Jesus Christ remains the loving Lord of his disciples. And in condescending to love, the Lord recognizes his own living Body in his community. Jesus sees himself in his disciples. And just as he saw himself in them, then, so he sees himself in us, now. We are his community. We are the ones that Jesus calls his own. We are the ones whose feet he has washed. He recognizes himself in us. In washing each other’s feet, we follow our Lord in discerning his Body. By his grace, we are that Body.