The Meaning of Holy Thursday: Perhaps a Surprise

“So when he had washed their feet and put his garments back on and reclined at table again, he said to them, “Do you realize what I have done for you? You call me ‘teacher’ and ‘master,’ and rightly so, for indeed I am. If I, therefore, the master and teacher, have washed your feet, you ought to wash one another’s feet. I have given you a model to follow, so that as I have done for you, you should also do.” (John 13:14-15)

Oftentimes some folks get distracted by the celebration of what is commonly viewed as the institution of the celebration of the Eucharist on Holy Thursday to the point where its meaning is lost. Yes, the celebration of the Lord’s Supper is indeed what is commemorated as we gather around the table tonight to break open the Word and break the bread, but what is the significance of this celebration? It seems to me that some people, religious and priests included, get so fixated on the establishment of the Last Supper — as if Jesus on the night before he died sat down and wrote the first Sacramentary — that they forget the powerful and important challenge Jesus puts to all who follow him.

I can assure you that Holy Thursday, or any Celebration of the Eucharist, is not about the individualism that gets emphasized when people focus solely on the Eucharist as their personal means to ‘obtain’ Christ. The Eucharist is certainly the true Sacramental presence of Christ made present within the ecclesia, but we are not called to be a collection of individuals who happen to gather together to have our own wants met. At the heart of the Eucharist (from Eucharistia which literally means “thanksgiving”) is the Body of Christ, the Church. It is always interpersonal.

The Community of Believers gathers together to give thanks to God and to “Call to Mind” (as the Eucharistic Prayer says) the life, death and resurrection of the Lord. We share Communion with one another as the community of the baptized and, in doing so, we are all challenged. Did you not notice the challenge before? Well, tonight is the time to pay close attention to the prayers and readings.

The last paragraph of tonight’s Gospel from John sums this all up well.  Jesus asks, demands: Do you realize what I have done for you?” My guess is that most of us, like the disciples that first night, can only answer “No.”

But Jesus goes on to explain what it is he has done and what it means for us. “I have given you a model to follow,
so that as I have done for you, you should also do.”  To be a Christian, to bear the name “Christ,” to approach the Table of the Lord and share in Communion with Christ and his entire Body means that we are follow his example.

No easy task.

How willing are we to follow Christ’s example? To the point of what? Death? Death on a Cross? How about to the point of embarrassment or apparent foolishness because of the decisions we make out of charity and solidarity? How about to the point of washing the feet of the other sinners, enemies or others in our lives that we cannot stand to face? How about in the embrace of nonviolence, like Jesus, in order to announce the in-breaking of God’s Kingdom?

To follow the model of Jesus is not as easy as one thinks. As we hear the words of Christ proclaimed tonight according to John’s account, let our hearts be moved to embrace the call we have been given — to live up to the name Christian.

Photo: GODSPACE
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12 Responses to “The Meaning of Holy Thursday: Perhaps a Surprise”

  1. If the Holy Thursday celebration of the Eucharist is a gathering of the whole church why is the whole church not represented in the washing of the feet? A number of bishops issued orders that the feet of men are the only ones that can be washed. Why are women not represented in the washing of the feet in these places? It is only a day later at the Good Friday service that we are reminded that the men denied Him and ran away but the women stayed with Him and were the ones who went to the grave.
    Bill

  2. Hi Bill,

    Thanks for your note, I had not heard of that instruction from certain bishops. I would say, from what you’ve written here, that such a request is indeed misrepresentative of the Body of Christ — which includes all the baptized. Being male or female should not be the issue and it saddens me when some ministers in the church exclude members of the Body of Christ (women, other populations, etc).

    Peace and good!

  3. For me the whole point of Jesus washing the disciples feet is to emphasise that we are like him. We are human beings and he became a human being like us (in all thngs but sin) in order to show us how to be really human. He is both Divine and human and like him we are human but also divine. Our essence is the same as his – that is our core essence is divine. We are part of God. God lives within us. This is the teaching of mystics regardless of theri tradition, including the Christian mystics.

    Yes we have focussed almost exclusively on the sacramental aspect of this Feast which is important but as the writer says Jesus was not setting up the sacramental life of our Catholic Church (which did not exist then; Jesus was a Jew). Rather he was teaching his disciples right up to that last few minutes before he was arrested in the Garden. His messsage was to love and respect and serve everyone because God does this and even dwells in each and every person. He wants us to realise who we are – that we are created and loved by God so infinitely and are all precious beings. His aloneness in understanding this was a huge part of his Agony in Gethsemani. By his acceptance of rejection and torture and crucifixion he shows us also how to befriend suffering and by his Resurrection he shows us that Life is eternal – that Death is not the end

    In my parish men, women and children have thir feet washed during the Ceremony.

    • Hi Dan,

      Their seems to me that their are two paramount messages in the Holy Thursday celebration: The institution of the Eucharist and Jesus’ final commandment. They are so intertwined that one must be careful not to isolate one of them and present it as “The True Meaning of Holy Thursday”.
      Claire writes, “Yes we have focussed (sic) almost exclusively on the sacramental aspect of this Feast which is important but as the writer says Jesus was not setting up the sacramental life of our Catholic Church”. You have misled her. Check out the catechism.

  4. Interesting points, but something in these reflections over the past two days just falls really flat (for me). If we take the mystery out of the Sacred, we turn Jesus into a Jewish Socrates. If the true message of Holy Thursday is be nice to people, you have to look to the Eucharist as “summit and source”—the way we move beyond ourselves.
    Don’t take my word, look at the Catechism:
    1323 “At the Last Supper, on the night he was betrayed, our Savior instituted the Eucharistic sacrifice of his Body and Blood. This he did in order to perpetuate the sacrifice of the cross throughout the ages until he should come again, and so to entrust to his beloved Spouse, the Church, a memorial of his death and resurrection: a sacrament of love, a sign of unity, a bond of charity, a Paschal banquet ‘in which Christ is consumed, the mind is filled with grace, and a pledge of future glory is given to us.'”135

    1324 The Eucharist is “the source and summit of the Christian life.”136 “The other sacraments, and indeed all ecclesiastical ministries and works of the apostolate, are bound up with the Eucharist and are oriented toward it. For in the blessed Eucharist is contained the whole spiritual good of the Church, namely Christ himself, our Pasch.”137

    1325 “The Eucharist is the efficacious sign and sublime cause of that communion in the divine life and that unity of the People of God by which the Church is kept in being. It is the culmination both of God’s action sanctifying the world in Christ and of the worship men offer to Christ and through him to the Father in the Holy Spirit.”138

    • “If we take the mystery out of the Sacred, we turn Jesus into a Jewish Socrates.” — Not sure what you’re talking about, Jared.

      “Source and summit” is a paraphrase of an excellent theme the Vatican II document “sacrosanctum concillium” (On the Liturgy), the first text to be promulgated by the Council. What you are paraphrasing supports everything I’ve said above in the post, a great message for this week indeed — thanks!

      Have a Blessed Easter!

  5. Jared, don’t be discouraged because words used in a discussion fall flat. No words can adequately express the truths we are talking about. It is the experience, in our hearts, of Truth – of the Risen Christ – that will fill in the blanks for all of us.
    May you experience the Blessings & Joys of Easter.

    • Claire–Thank you for your kid words! The experience in my heart–of the Risen Christ–gives me hope and fills my life with meaning.

  6. am very greatful

  7. [...] The ritual washing of the feet can take place in many ways. Some churches choose to have 12 people, who represent the apostles, have their feet washed by the priest presiding over the celebration. Other churches invite the entire gathered community to have its feet washed (this particular tradition is very powerful because everyone is invited to come and have their feet washed by someone else in their community). However the ritual takes shape (whether 24 or 600 feet are washed), foot washing should always be a reminder that Christ has called us to be servants to the entire world. [...]

  8. [...] The ritual washing of the feet can take place in many ways. Some churches choose to have 12 people, who represent the apostles, have their feet washed by the priest presiding over the celebration. Other churches invite the entire gathered community to have its feet washed (this particular tradition is very powerful because everyone is invited to come and have their feet washed by someone else in their community). However the ritual takes shape (whether 24 or 600 feet are washed), foot washing should always be a reminder that Christ has called us to be servants to the entire world. [...]

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