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.
This post was originally published on April 21, 2011. It continues to receive a surprising amount of traffic, so it is being reposted again this year.