Tonight we celebrate the Mass of the Lord’s Supper, in a particular way commemorating that night in the Upper Room, at the Last Supper, when Christ gave the Church the greatest gift She could have ever received: the gift of Himself in the Eucharist.
In his last encyclical letter, Ecclesia de Eucharistia, what would be one of his final gifts to the Church, Pope John Paul II says, “The Church draws her life from the Eucharist” (EE, #1). Christ, in the Eucharist, is the source of our strength, literally our life-blood as we live the gospel here on earth.
In order to perpetuate that heavenly gift throughout the centuries, Christ also institutes, on the same night, the sacred priesthood. Without the priesthood, there would be no Eucharist. Without the Eucharist, there would be no priesthood. These two great gifts are bestowed upon us by our Lord as He gathers with His disciples on the night before He died.
Therefore, it is curious that the passage from St. John’s Gospel, which we read from every Holy Thursday, does not mention either the Eucharist or the priesthood! In fact, the Gospel of St. John is the only gospel that does not include an “institution narrative,” the words of Christ instituting the sacrament of the Eucharist:
This is my body, which will be given up for you…
This is the cup of my blood…it will be shed for you and for all so that sins may be forgiven…
Nor is there mention of the words instituting the sacrament of Holy Orders: Do this in memory of me.
St. John, the last gospel to be written, assumes that the reader is already familiar with both the Eucharist and the priesthood. In the sixth chapter of St. John’s Gospel, we find the longest discourse on the Eucharist in the entire Scripture. Over and over again, he relates the words of Jesus, who refers to Himself as “The Bread of life” (John 6: 22-59) and says, “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him on the last day” (John 6:54).
St. John is quite familiar with the gift of the Eucharist, and with the priesthood, which continues that gift. What he chooses to relate to his readers about the Last Supper, instead, is the washing of the feet; he chooses to speak to us about service.
It is a very moving scene. Jesus gets up from the supper, takes off his outer garments, and begins to wash the dirty feet of His disciples. It is difficult for us to appreciate the reaction His disciples would have had at that moment. Washing feet was the job of the lowest servant, not the Master of the house. St. Peter literally has to be talked into it.
What is so important for us to see is that St. John does not relate this scene as something separate from the Eucharist which has just taken place before it. John is not saying that Jesus gives the Church the Eucharist, and then says, “OK, that’s done. Now, here’s how you wash feet.” No, it all fits together as a piece.
It is Christ who pours Himself out completely in the Eucharist, giving Himself completely, body and blood, soul and divinity, holding nothing back.
But it is the same Christ who now gets down on His hands and knees and pours Himself out completely as He washes the feet of His disciples, showing them that this is what leadership and power is all about in the Church.
And it will be the same Christ who, one day later, will pour Himself out completely, offering Himself on the altar of the cross.
There is no separation, for St. John, between these events. They are all the revelation of Jesus Christ, who holds back nothing but gives Himself entirely for us in love. Pope Benedict XVI, in his most recent Apostolic Exhortation, Sacramentum Caritatis (The Sacrament of Charity) begins with the account of the Last Supper, which we just heard from St. John’s Gospel. He recalls how that account began, when St. John says that Christ:
Loved his own in the world and he loved them to the end.
Our Holy Father mentions how this is an obvious reference to the washing of the feet, but that it also refers to the Eucharist. Christ loved us to the end, to the fullest; He gave us everything He had when He gave us Himself in the Eucharist.
The entire life of Christ was a total gift of Himself, poured out for every one of us. He shows us tonight that there is no separation between the Eucharist, our worship, our time here in this Church, and our daily service of God and neighbor.
It is said that Blessed Mother Theresa of Calcutta required her nuns to spend one-hour minimum in adoration of the Blessed Sacrament before they ever hit the streets of Calcutta. She was asked why this was so important; why not spend that time, instead, serving the needs of the poor and those who were suffering? Her response was:
“If we cannot recognize Jesus here in the Blessed Sacrament, then we will never recognize Him out there in the street.”
There is a connection between our lives of faith and devotion, our worship of God and sharing in His sacramental life, and the work we are called to do in the world. We can never separate the mystery of the Eucharist from the washing of the feet. Those two aspects of the suffering and risen Christ are all of a piece.
When I was ordained in the summer of 2004, I had a prayer card made depicting The Lamb of God being sacrificed on the altar. It is a scene from the famous Ghent Altarpiece, and is an obvious reference to the sacrament of the Eucharist.
But on the back of that prayer card, I chose a Scripture verse from St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans which is very different from that scene…but also very much the same. It reads:
I urge you, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God, your spiritual worship.
I knew that, as a priest, I would daily be offering the sacrament of the Eucharist on the altar for the sanctification of God’s people, and for my own sanctification. But at the same time, I knew I would be called to offer myself to God, not only at Mass, but all throughout the day, in all things. There can be no separation between our life of worship and our offering at the Mass, and our daily sacrifice of praise and service to God and neighbor. Those two mysteries—in the life of Christ and in our own lives—stand or fall together.
Our challenge this Holy Thursday evening is to pour out our own lives in the same way Christ does; to give ourselves as a gift to God and to those around us. We are called to recognize Christ right here in this Church, and then to leave this place and simply recognize Him everywhere.