Holy Spirit

ACTA  LECTIONARY COMMENTARY

Holy Thursday  Year C

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READINGS

A reading from the book of Exodus                  12:1-8. 11-14

Responsorial Psalm  

            Psalm 116:12-13.15-18. R/. cf. 1 Corinthians 10:16

A reading from the first letter of St Paul to the Corinthians

                                                                              11:23-26

A reading from the holy Gospel according to John    13:1-15

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Amazing grace!  Terrific! Grace is amazing!  

But what is grace?  What’s amazing about grace?  What do we mean when we use the word in the street and when we use it in the Church?  What does the word mean when we say,

The couple danced across the floor with great grace.

He hadn’t the grace to apologise!

The bishop graced our meeting with his presence.

Grace before meals is always said in Granny’s house.

But for the grace of God, I might have been knocked down!

A grace and favour property of the Queen.

He behaved with such good grace.

Hail, Mary! Full of grace!

In the seven letters we can be reasonably sure St Paul wrote, he uses the word “grace” 75 times.  What did St Luke mean when he tells his readers that the child Jesus,

     … grew in wisdom and in age, and in grace before God     and before people.                   Luke 2:52 (my translation)

What do we mean when we use, if we ever do, the phrase “the grace of the sacrament?

  We need to go back to the Greek language, because all the 27 books that make up our New Testament were written in Greek.  What did people in the street mean when they used the word χάρις, charis, grace?  According to the dictionaries they could have meant “beauty”, “attractive”, “kindness”, or “favour”.  But we have a definition of grace from the writings of Aristotle (384 - 322 B.C.), a famous Greek philosopher and the personal tutor of Alexander the great.  In one of his writings, he offers a definition of χάρις,  (charis, grace) close to what we find in the Bible.  In the Greek Old Testament, used by every writer named in the New Testament, the word occurs 166 times. St Paul and the other New Testament authors it occurs 158 times.   Aristotle gave this helpful definition:

…helpfulness toward someone in need, not in return for anything, nor that the helper may obtain anything, but for the sake of the person who is helped.

The beauty of Aristotle’s definition is that, broadly speaking, it fits Christian understanding to a tee.  Grace is,

God’s helpfulness toward creation, toward humanity, not looking for anything in return, nor that God may obtain anything from us, but for the sake of helping the helpless.

Or, to put it another way, grace is God’s love poured into human hearts, not because humans deserve God’s love, not because God is looking for payment, nor seeking anything in return, but simply because humanity needs God’s love.  So in St Paul, and throughout every part of the New Testament, grace means that total love, that steadfast love, that invigorating love that is in God’s heart. That love is poured into our hearts and the Bible calls it “grace”. The Bible is adamant:  we are all born full of grace.

  God, indeed, must be “defined” as the One who is steadfast love, the one whose love is offered to all, a love expressed in understanding, in mercy, in forgiveness and pardon.  In the ancient myth of creation we are told that God’s project was this:

Let us make humanity in our own image, after our likeness.               Genesis 1:26

God’s intention was immediately carried out:

So God created humankind

in his own image,

in the image of God he created them,

male and female he created them.

Genesis 1:27

Men and women, therefore, were created to mirror God in creation, to be people of love, mercy, forgiveness, and forbearance.  

   But, so the myth tells us, it all went wrong and we are where we are.  What we must know is that the rest of the Bible presents God’s utter determination to put things to right.  Grace is the love of God’s putting things to right. God decided that, since Plan A failed, then Plan B must immediately take effect.  Humanity, and indeed, as Pope Francis tells us, the whole of creation, must be graced back to where it ought to be. What harm was done must be undone and human beings must be loved, for that is what will save them from the consequences of their departures from God.

  What Christians do when they meet to listen to the Word and to break the Bread is to celebrate that we are a graced people.  We meet around the altar to reflect on what has been done in the outpouring of God’s love into our hearts. We meet to rejoice in what has been given us.  Christians repent at love’s squandering and rejoice at its healing return. Christians praise the Lord who will not let us go or tolerate the rejection of love.  

   For love, as we know from experience, always makes claims upon us, if we are to remain in love.  Embraced as we are by the love of God, together before the altar we accept that we are called together to be the heart of God’s love in our world.  This is called the grace of vocation, that is, God loves us into action. Baptism is always an ordination to service. Baptism in the name of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, is a call to proclaim the gospel of God.  Grace is not a thing, a substance. It is energising love that empowers the whole community to teach all nations. Love always means responsibilities.

    Easter is when we learn why, and how, and where this love comes from.  Easter is the time when we go back to the roots of love poured into our hearts and when we are strengthened to be a new Pentecost to all humanity. When we make the Sign of the Cross we acknowledge that we are bound to the Father, to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit and engaged by the Blessed Trinity to be a light to the world.  When we bless ourselves we are naming ourselves as people who carry God’s love into the world.

   

   Everyday is a graced day.  That is to say, there is never a moment when God is not concerned with our needs, never a day when God is not loving humanity so that we may become what we were meant to be.  God’s answer to St Paul when he prayed for strength was this:

    My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made     perfect in weakness.                                      

                                 2 Corinthians 12:9

That is what God says to your parish, to the Church, every minute of every day.  Or, to put it into words more familiar to Christians who do not read their Bibles, the song God sings is,

Love is all you need.

Triduum: The Three Days

There are three days of meditation and prayer that bring us from the prayer and meditation of Lent to the empty tomb of Easter morning.  It took a while to get to know how best to pray these days. In fact it took from the day of the Last Supper Jesus had with his disciples and friends, to 1970 when the General Norms for the Liturgical Year was published.  Notice, for now, that much time in Lent has (please God!) been given over to the preparation of people for baptism and to receive the Eucharist at the Easter Vigil.  For all of us, the fifty days that will bring us to Pentecost and the coming of the Holy Spirit are given over to vocational training. Meeting with the Risen Lord means being sent.  But we are not sent alone. St Paul warns the community of Thessalonians Christians,

Do not quench the Spirit.

1 Thessalonians 5:19

He means that we must not neglect the Holy Spirit, the empowering love of God that impels us to spread that love in our world.

   The three days begin with Holy Thursday when we Christians come to wash feet, and hopefully learn what that means.  Of course, we will not understand what the washing means if we do not know what the Lord’s Supper means for every Christian parish.  Hence the three readings gifted to us on this blessed day.

A reading from the book of Exodus                 12:1-8. 11-14

    The Lord said to Moses and Aaron in the land of Egypt,     “This month shall be for you the beginning of months. It     shall be the first month of the year for you. Tell all the     congregation of Israel that on the tenth day of this month     a lamb for a household. And if the household is too small     for a lamb, then he and his nearest neighbour shall take     according to the number of persons; according to what     each can eat you shall make your count for the lamb. Your     lamb shall be without blemish, a male a year old. You may     take it from the sheep or from the goats, and you shall     keep it until the fourteenth day of this month, when the     whole assembly of the congregation of Israel shall kill     their lambs at twilight.”

       “Then they shall take some of the blood and put it on the     two doorposts and the lintel of the houses in which they     eat it. They shall eat the flesh that night, roasted on the     fire; with unleavened bread and bitter herbs they shall eat     it. Do not eat any of it raw or boiled in water, but roasted,     its head with its legs and its inner parts. And you shall let     none of it remain until the morning; anything that remains     until the morning you shall burn. In this manner you shall     eat it: with your belt fastened, your sandals on your feet,     and your staff in your hand. And you shall eat it in haste. It     is the Lord's Passover. For I will pass through the land of     Egypt that night, and I will strike all the firstborn in the     land of Egypt, both man and beast; and on all the gods of     Egypt I will execute judgments: I am the Lord. The blood     shall be a sign for you, on the houses where you are. And     when I see the blood, I will pass over you, and no plague     will befall you to destroy you, when I strike the land of     Egypt”.

        “This day shall be for you a memorial day, and you shall     keep it as a feast to the Lord; throughout your     generations, as a statute forever, you shall keep it as a     feast.”

                                                         The word of the Lord.

We go back to sit at the feet of Moses and prepare for freedom.  In the land of Egypt, God speaks to Moses and Aaron and outlines what must be done to make ready to be delivered from slavery in Egypt.  A sacrifice to God is to be prepared. A lamb is to be offered to God and the people are to eat the flesh of the lamb with bitter herbs. Thus the sacrifice offered to God becomes the communion offered back to the people.  The herbs are bitter for they are desert herbs and a reminder that God was with the people in the barren wastes as they crossed from slavery to a land flowing with milk and honey.

   Every year the feast called Pesach (Passover) is celebrated by Jewish families and communities to relive what God had done. The Exodus story is recited and then solemnly explained.  Unleavened bread is eaten (not much leaven to be found in deserts) and wine is drunk. Pesach is a time to remember, to give thanks, and to rejoice in the God that delivers people from slavery. Reciting the story is an opportunity again to acknowledge the grace of election.

   The grace of Election

The stragglers coming out of Egypt have been transformed.  No longer a wandering people, they are being transformed into a pilgrim people.  The phrase that scholars use to describe what is happening in our reading from the Book of the Exodus is “the grace of election”.  This is the first grace, the beginning of God’s love, reaching out to save and transform. God has chosen the Jewish people to become a light to the nations.  In God’s good time that calling came to fulfilment when the Light of the World was born into the cradle of humanity, brought to earth, and wrapped in swaddling clothes.  St Paul constantly witnesses to the fact that God’s saving call in Jesus is, indeed, a grace. In Jesus the whole of humanity is graced with God’s election. That is, the hand of God in Jesus has embraced the whole of humanity with steadfast love.  Humanity is graced with the gracefulness of Jesus. We are graced by the Spirit into oneness, into the very being of Jesus:

    But we ought always to give thanks to God for you,     brothers and sisters, beloved by the Lord, because God     chose you as the first-fruits to be saved, through     sanctification by the Spirit and belief in the truth.

Second Thessalonians 2:13  

    For we know, brothers and sisters, loved by God, that he     has chosen you, because our gospel came to you not only     in word, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with     full conviction.                                      First Thessalonians 1:4

    So too at the present time there is a remnant, chosen by     grace. But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of     works; otherwise grace would no longer be grace.

Romans 11:5-6

It is not that everyone was holy and deserved divine approval.  The Letter to Ephesian Christians debunks any notions of grandeur.  First remember that you are a work of God:

    For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this     is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of     works, so that no one may boast. For we are his     workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works,     which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in     them.                               Ephesians 2:11

Remember where you came from:

    Therefore remember that at one time you Gentiles in the     flesh, called “the uncircumcision” by what is called the     circumcision, which is made in the flesh by hands—     remember that you were at that time separated from     Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and     strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope                and without God in the world.                                                                                              Ephesians 5:2

And know what you have become and how God has chosen you:

    But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have     been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he himself is     our peace ...                                                        Ephesians 2:13

   The Triduum begins by reminding us that we have been chosen; we have received “the grace of election” by what has happened in these holy days.  Through these days we will learn who we are and to what we are called. We will be graced with God’s love and carried on God’s mercy and directed on the way to a new Pentecost.  The liberation of the slaves from slavery in Egypt is a metaphor for our liberation. It is a metaphor, too, for our responsibility to love and that we are graced by love to become proclaimers of love so that all peoples may come to the land flowing with milk and honey.  

 

Responsorial Psalm  

            Psalm 116:12-13.15-18. R/. cf. 1 Corinthians 10:16

R/.  The blessing cup that we bless is a communion

with the blood of Christ.

What shall I render to the Lord

for all his benefits to me?

I will lift up the cup of salvation

            and call on the name of the Lord.          R/.

Precious in the sight of the Lord

is the death of his saints.

O Lord, I am your servant;

I am your servant,

the son of your maidservant.

                 You have loosed my bonds.             R/.

I will offer to you the sacrifice of thanksgiving

and call on the name of the Lord.

I will pay my vows to the Lord

in the presence of all his people.

R/.  The blessing cup that we bless is a communion

with the blood of Christ.

Psalm 116 is a psalm that filches from other psalms, all in the good cause of giving thanks to God (see Psalm 18 and Psalm 56, for examples).  The song begins with troubles into which God came with a saving hand. The poet recalls past experiences of troubled waters, even the threat of death, when an appeal to God for help received immediate redress. Therefore a glass of wine is offered as a thanksgiving token to the Lord who saves in the presence of all the people publicly to announce the saving love of God.  The God who saves in the past is the God who saves now and forever.

   The psalmist had no understanding of the cup of salvation received by those who partake of Communion at Mass.  But the phrase resonates with the words we hear in the reading from St Paul.

   

A reading from the first letter of St Paul to the Corinthians 11:23-26

    For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you,     that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed     took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it,     and said, “This is my body which is for you. Do this in     remembrance of me.” In the same way also he took the     cup, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in     my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in     remembrance of me.” For as often as you eat this bread     and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord's death until he     comes.

                                                                         The word of the LORD.

This is the first account in all the world of what St Paul called the Lord’s Supper (1 Corinthians 11:20).  Those who are “called to be saints” (1 Corinthians 1:2) must eat at the Lord’s table. It is not an option. For who can go on a journey without food?  The Eucharist, the Mass, the Lord’s Supper, is the bread of life that is given us in anticipation of the heavenly banquet. This may seem to be a fanciful idea, for who can imagine an eternity of eating together?  But we should not be put off by the language in which amazing grace is offered. The reality behind the poetic images is the love of God that lasts forever and the joy of fellowship around the table is a prelude to the eternal joy that awaits.  To imagine eternity to be sitting down with God at God’s table, eating God’s food in fellowship with all the saints is not a dreadful prospect!

  The first and last intention of the Lord’s Supper is to impress on those who follow Jesus, the importance of coming together in the Lord’s house.  The very word that is everywhere used in our holy books and in English translated as “church” emphasises that coming together is not an option. No one goes to heaven alone, as John Wesley reminded us.

  The word “church” can look back on a great deal of twists and turnings to get into our English dictionaries.  The idea starts in Hebrew with qahal YHWH, the people of Yahweh, the people of God, a people distinct from other peoples who did not know God. The phrase made its way into Greek, the language of our New Testament, but not without much head scratching.  We have to go back even further than the writings of the New Testament to understand why we are called church, first a local church, and then a universal Church.

    Alexandria in Egypt was a Greek city founded by Alexander the Great in 331 B.C. The language of its inhabitants and its rulers was Greek.  Cleopatra, a “lass unparalleled” as Shakespeare calls her, was a Greek, not an Egyptian. Many Jews fled from Jerusalem when it was destroyed by the Babylonians (587 B.C.).  Their descendants became residents of the new city. By this time they had lost their Hebrew tongue and needed a translation of their Bible into Greek to facilitate their prayer meetings.  What emerged was a translation known as the Septuagint (= 70) because it came to be believed that it was the work of 70 scholars.

   What is the undying truth is that the Septuagint was the Bible used by every single writer whose work is to be found in the 27 “books” that make up our New Testament.  Both the scholars who produced the Septuagint translation and the writers whose work is our New Testament were confronted with similar problems. How do you translate God from the Hebrew language into a world that was Greek speaking? For example, if you were translating from the Hebrew the sacred, unutterable word for God (YHWH) what Greek word says in Greek what the Hebrew says with the weight of meaning it has?  There is no Greek word that would serve. The nearest the translators got was Kurios, the word used to address the emperor, the word used by a slave to address the master of the house, and the word used by a woman to address her husband.  That practice continued into other translations and we end up with “Lord”:


O God come to our aid!

O LORD make haste to help us!

The word used in Latin is Dominus:

Dominus meus et Deus meus.

My Lord and my God.

In Gaelic we would pray,

Gabh buíochas leis an Tiarna, a anam liom.

My soul, give thanks to the Lord.

We keep in touch with our fathers and mothers in faith when we pray in Greek,

Kyrie, eleison.

Lord, have mercy.

In other words, the Jews of Alexandria tried as best they could to find a Greek word to say what they meant by the sacred word YHWH.  Subsequent language groups had to search to find words in their language to try to say in their tongue what ancient Hebrews said in their’s.  It proved to be a very difficult task.

   What is important to realise that it was the Greek Septuagint that became the Bible of all the writers of the New Testament.  They did not write in Hebrew, or Aramaic (the language spoken by Jesus); they wrote in Greek. What transpired was that YHWH became Kurios.  In English it became Lord.  

   It is these ideas that are brought into one word by saying “church” for it comes from Kurios.  You know this when you sing Kyrie, eleison, Lord, have mercy.  “Church” means “those people who belong to the Lord”.

   Of course, because Jesus is God’s Son, he is called Lord and so Paul calls the meal that brought Christians together the Lord’s Supper.  He complains that the antics of some wealthy Christians turn the celebration of the Lord’s Supper into a drunken party.  He speaks the blunt truth:

    When you come together, it is not the Lord's Supper that     you eat.                                                       1 Corinthians 11:20

   The Greek here is κυριακὸν δεῖπνον (kuriakón deîpnon, the Lord’s supper).  That Greek κυριακὸς (kuriakos) finds its way into Old High German, eventually becoming kirche and from there into English as “church”.  It means that we are “the people of the Lord”, in Christian terms referring to “the people of God” and “the people of Jesus”.

  The point of this meandering is to emphasise that we who are “church” are identified as “those who come together to participate in the Lord’s Supper”.  We are those who belong to the Lord God.  That is our name and that coming to the Lord’s Supper is what we do to become and to remain what we are called to be.  Or to express it in the catechism’s important terms, we come together to experience together “the grace of the Sacrament”.  On Holy Thursday it is this grace that is the focus of our liturgy. For the Eucharist is the foundational sacrament of all others.  Breaking the Word and sharing the Cup is our identity marker. It is what declares to the world who we are. The Lord’s Supper is God’s foundational gift to the people who belong to God and God’s Son.  It is a gift of mercy, a gift of forgiveness, a gift of peace, a formative gift that makes us what we are. Jesus is our Bread of life.

   Yet that is not the name Paul used everywhere to describe the community of Christians in Corinth.  Take a minute to look at the very first sentence of the letter from which our second reading of today comes:

    Paul, called (klētòs) by the will of God to be an apostle of     Christ Jesus, and our brother Sosthenes: To the church     (ekklēsíą, the called) of God that is in Corinth, to those     sanctified in Christ Jesus, called (klētois) to be saints     together with all those who in every place call upon the     name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours.

1 Corinthians 1:1-12

   Paul and almost all the other writers in the New Testament use ekklesia and it is generally translated in English as “church”, which is confusing.  It means “a group of people who are called” to serve a particular purpose. It was used to refer to the council that ruled the city of Athens and to many groups “called upon” to administer or to promote a particular purpose.  Of course, in our holy books it means, as Paul says in the quotation above, “called by God”. This is what we know of as the grace of election. As the people who were brought out of Egypt became the people of God, a chosen people, so Christians are God’s chosen people.  In the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, God calls the world to himself. Christians are elected, called, to be the vanguard that leads all the world’s peoples to our eternal promised land.

   Paul identifies himself as an apostle of Christ Jesus called by God.  There we have another aspect of grace, the grace given to men and women who are “called” to particular functions in the community of the local and universal Church.  So Paul can write,

    Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle, set             apart for the gospel of God …                                                                                          Romans 1:1

Elsewhere he reminds his brothers and sisters of his work among pagan people striving to win them to God, a very contentious activity according to some of his critics:

     But on some points I have written to you very boldly by     way of reminder, because of the grace given me by God to     be a minister of Christ Jesus to the Gentiles in the priestly     service of the gospel of God, so that the offering of the     Gentiles may be acceptable, sanctified by the Holy Spirit.      In Christ Jesus, then, I have reason to be proud of my     work.

                                                                         Romans 15:15-17

In the very next chapter he asks that a woman named Phoebe be welcomed when she visits Rome:

    I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deacon of the     church at Cenchreae, that you may welcome her in the     Lord.                                                                   Romans 16:1

Further in chapter 16:7 he greets a husband and wife who were both called to be apostles even before Paul received his call on the road to Damascus:

Greetings to Andronicus and Junia, my kinsfolk and fellow-prisoners, who are outstanding among the apostles and were in Christ before me.

Imagine!  A husband and wife! Called by God to be apostles with the same vocation as Paul and even before Paul!  And in Rome!

   The Lord’s Supper

The word ekklēsia, (“the called ones”) occurs in the Gospels only three times (in Matthew 26:18 and twice in 18:17).  Altogether in the New Testament ekklesia occurs about 110 times.  The basic meaning, as we have seen, is that we are a people “called by God”.  But to what purpose are people called? Paul answers: “called to be saints”, to be sanctified by God.  Here is yet another grace, another instance of God outpouring of love, sanctifying grace, the love of God transforming us to be a holy people.  Paul rebukes some of the wealthy among his Corinthian flock. He has a complaint:

  

    For, in the first place, when you come together as a church     [a called people], I hear that there are divisions among     you.          

                                                                    1 Corinthians 11:18

   Note this very carefully.  Their coming together is what moves them from being individuals to being “church”.  It is in their togetherness that they become “church”. And when does that happen? It is when they come together to celebrate the Lord’s Supper.  Coming to the table of the Lord constitutes them as “church”. Those who are ”called”, the ekklēsia of God, the called by God, become what they are called to be when they “eat this bread and drink the cup” (1 Corinthians 11:26).

  The reading from Paul’s letter today is foundational. By that I mean his account of the Lord’s Supper contains all that it means to be “church”.  That is why he emphasises that when we come together to “eat this bread and drink the cup” we “proclaim the Lord's death until he comes”. The Eucharist gives us the strength to proclaim that in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus the world is saved and is assured of life to come.  The future belongs to God and, in this very letter, Paul mocks any alternative:

O death, where is your sting?

1 Corinthians 15:55

A reading from the holy Gospel according to John    13:1-15

    Now before the Feast of the Passover, when Jesus knew     that his hour had come to depart out of this world to the     Father, having loved his own who were in the world, he     loved them to the end. During supper, when the devil had     already put it into the heart of Judas Iscariot, Simon's son,     to betray him, Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all     things into his hands, and that he had come from God and     was going back to God, rose from supper. He laid aside his     outer garments, and taking a towel, tied it around his     waist. Then he poured water into a basin and began to     wash the disciples 'feet and to wipe them with the towel     that was wrapped around him. He came to Simon Peter,     who said to him, “Lord, do you wash my feet?” Jesus     answered him, “What I am doing you do not understand     now, but afterward you will understand.” Peter said to     him, “You shall never wash my feet.” Jesus answered him,     “If I do not wash you, you have no share with me.” Simon     Peter said to him, “Lord, not my feet only but also my     hands and my head!” Jesus said to him, “The one who has     bathed does not need to wash, except for his feet, but is     completely clean. And you are clean, but not every one of     you.” For he knew who was to betray him; that was why     he said, “Not all of you are clean.”

        When he had washed their feet and put on his outer     garments and resumed his place, he said to them, “Do you     understand what I have done to you? You call me Teacher     and Lord, and you are right, for so I am. If I then, your Lord     and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to     wash one another's feet. For I have given you an example,     that you also should do just as I have done to you.

The Gospel of the Lord.

     Washing Feet

St John’s Gospel does not provide an account of a final meal Jesus shared with his disciples.  Instead we are offered an account of Jesus washing the feet off his disciples, followed by a long instruction concerning the future.  

   Why wash their feet?  Jesus himself provides the answer:

    When he had washed their feet and put on his outer     garments and resumed his place, he said to them, “Do you     understand what I have done to you? You call me Teacher     and Lord, and you are right, for so I am. If I then, your Lord     and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to     wash one another's feet. For I have given you an example,     that you also should do just as I have done to you.

John 13:12-15

   The Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke are peppered with Jesus offering teaching to a distinct group of disciples.  John has placed most his instruction to his disciples in the context of a supper. During and after an unspecified meal he engages in very extended teaching.  It could be that the author(s) of John’s Gospel, produced at the end of the first century or the beginning of the second, knew well that Christians met at this time to celebrate the Lord’s Supper.  It was, therefore, an appropriate time for lengthy catechesis. St Paul, as this evening’s reading from 1 Corinthians informs us, insists that his Corinthian Christians must be aware of the meaning of what they are doing when they meet to eat the Bread and drink the Cup:

    For as often as you eat and drink the cup, proclaim the     death of the Lord until he comes.           1 Corinthians 11:26

The insistence of St Paul, the emphasis placed on the details of the Last Supper in Matthew, Mark, and Luke, and the lengthy teaching in John’s Gospel after the washing of the feet make quite clear that all that Jesus came to do on this earth is grounded in that Last Supper.  The offering of the Bread and Cup and the Washing of the Feet sum up what Jesus means to the world. A saying of Jesus in John’s Gospel sums up why God sent his Son into our world:

    “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son,     that whoever believes in him should not perish but have     eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to     condemn the world, but in order that the world might be     saved through him.                                               John 3:16-17

Or even in fewer words,

I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.

John 10:10

The Washing of the Feet incident is a dramatic illustration of what God offers the people of the world.  The key sentence is teased out of the refusal of Peter to have to submit Jesus to the status of a slave and wash his feet:

    Peter said to him, “You shall never wash my feet.” Jesus     answered him, “If I do not wash you, you have no share     with me.” Simon Peter said to him, “Lord, not my feet only     but also my hands and my head!” Jesus said to him, “The     one who has bathed does not need to wash, except for his     feet, but is completely clean. And you are clean, but not     every one of you.”  

 Ponder these words.   Think of what “clean” means in the context of Jewish religious thinking.  The leper who comes to Jesus in Mark’s Gospel does not ask to cured. He asks to be made clean (Mark 1:40-50).  What is at stake is holiness, not health. To be unclean is to be unacceptable to God. To be unclean was to be temporarily unfit to approach God in prayer or in offering sacrifice. Uncleanness banned one from participating in the prayers of the people, in synagogue worship, and in every aspect of worship in the holy Temple in Jerusalem. To be ritually unclean rendered one temporarily unfit to encounter the sacred.  Why do you think Muslims leave their shoes outside the mosque? Why does the Book of Leviticus devote so many words to the whole business of uncleanness?

  When Jesus washes the feet of this friends he is declaring that their relationship to him is a sharing with his relation to the Father.  He is embracing them with his holiness and in his action he is offering his embrace to the whole world. We have to read all the words that follow, all the five chapters from chapter 13 to chapter 17 to understand the extent of his embrace of those whose feet he washed, and all who are embraced by him as he makes his way to the Cross and the glory of God.  If you wish to understand what all these words mean for our grasp of what Jesus is about and to follow his path, you might appreciate a summary that explains everything in 8 words. Try these,

Love one another, as I have loved you.

John 15:1

   Life and Loving

There is, however, something special in the account in John’s Gospel. First our reading today begins with a very profound introduction:

    Now before the Feast of the Passover, when Jesus knew     that his hour had come to depart out of this world to the     Father, having loved his own who were in the world, he     loved them to the end.

We are taken into the very mind of Jesus.  He knows that is “hour” had come. It is not his suffering and death that preoccupies him.  It is his return to his Father. His departure out of this world is the culmination of his life but it is not a leaving of his disciples.  Rather he is bringing them to the fullness of life that is everywhere promised by Jesus in this Gospel. From this point in John’s Gospel to its end the central concern is the voice of Jesus revealing the future that awaits the followers of Jesus.

   What the hearers and readers of this Gospel must realise is that the voice coming to them from John is not simply that of the One who washes the feet of disciples during the Supper.  It is the Risen Lord who speaks to readers and to all who come to hear and abide by his words. It is the churches and the Church who hear what the “hour” means, what the return to the Father means.

   If we flash forward to Mary Magdalene and her meeting with the Risen Lord beside the empty tomb, as Mary’s clings to him, and he tells that he must go for …

    … I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my     God and your God.                                                   John 20:17

The Father of Jesus, “my Father”, on every page of this Gospel is to be “my Father and your Father”.  Just think what this means:

    In my Father's house are many rooms. If it were not so,     would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?     And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again     and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be     also.                                                                           John 14:2-3

    Amen, Amen, I say to you, whoever believes in me will also     do the works that I do; and greater works than these will     he do, because I am going to the Father.            John 14:12

    If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I     will ask the Father, and he will give you another Helper, to     be with you forever, even the Spirit of truth, whom the     world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor     knows him. You know him, for he dwells with you and will     be in you.

                                                                                 John 14:15-17

    These things I have spoken to you while I am still with you.     But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send     in my name, he will teach you all things and bring to your     remembrance all that I have said to you.       John 14:25-26

    Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the     world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be     troubled, neither let them be afraid. You heard me say to     you, ‘I am going away, and I will come to you.

                                                                                  John 14:27-28

These, and all that is promised by Jesus as he sits at table, will be given by the Father (“I will ask the Father …”) to all who are willing to witness to him in the world:

    But when the Helper comes, whom I will send to you from

    the Father, the Spirit of truth, who proceeds from the     Father, he will bear witness about me. And you also will     bear     witness, because you have been with me from the     beginning.                                                           John 15:26-27

   All these thoughts must fill our minds and hearts as Jesus

bends down to wash our feet.  To be sure, there is no mention of the words over the bread and the Cup.  The vocation to wash feet comes from the gift of the Lord’s Supper. Those who come to the altar must go out again to wash the poor, to feed the hungry, to give God’s justice and mercy to all to stand in most need of God’s love and mercy.  The Church invites us to read all that Jesus says to us in his final words to his disciples when he had washed their feet. In John’s words we will learn why we are in church this evening and every other night, noon, and morning. And we learn what we must do when we walk out of our churches into the world.

  In case we missed the meaning of the washing of their feet and our feet, Jesus spells it out:

    Do you understand what I have done to you? You call me     Teacher and Lord, and you are right, for so I am. If I then,     your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also     ought to wash one another's feet. For I have given you an     example, that you also should do just as I have done to     you.        

                                                                                    John 13:12-15

And, if you are still confused, Jesus offers clarification:

    A new commandment I give to you, that you love one     another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one     another. By this all people will know that you are my     disciples, if you have love for one another.    

                                        John 13:34-35

All you need is love.                                 

                                    Joseph O’Hanlon

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