Image by Félix Hernández, OP. Used with permission;
There is much to celebrate in the Christian Church on the Thursday before Easter, commonly called Holy Thursday. We remember the story of the last supper and the first eucharist. The Pauline reading (1Corinthians 11: 23-26) poignantly tells us that “on the night he was handed over, Jesus took bread …” and the first eucharistic meal story became an integral part of the Christian faith and prayer. This eucharistic meal is celebrated and retold in all 3 of the synoptic gospels. Therefore, traditionally, Holy Thursday commemorates both eucharist and priesthood.
However, in the Gospel of John, the message on Holy Thursday is not about the eucharistic meal. It is still about the last supper (John 13:1-15) but John recounts the story of the washing of the feet. He implies that this foot washing is as important as the meal. John’s message is clear that Jesus said that foot washing is also to be “done in remembrance of me.”
Scholars agree that the Gospel of John was written later than the other 3 gospels. It was likely written at a time when Christian persecutions were beginning to be experienced and being a Christian in some parts of the world meant risk. In this light, John describes being Christian as belonging to a close-knit community of trust, of service, of belonging to one another. John’s gospel message is powerful and prescriptive. John tells us that this act of washing the other’s feet, this vulnerable encounter with one another, is another real meaning of Eucharist.
The early Christian community held in memory the story of Jesus. They celebrated Jesus’ presence among them as their hearts burned within and they were vulnerable and committed to one another. The message of discipleship was one of closeness and love, not simply service and celebration. To be a faithful follower of Jesus was not a solitary experience. We were reminded of this when we have watched Pope Francis washing the feet of prisoners. What engages us is an example not of service but of encounter and connection. In Jesus we are one community.
It seems that the Good News message on Holy Thursday is to remember and to celebrate both the Eucharistic meal and the vulnerable community encounter as the true meaning of Eucharist. We do the first formally every Sunday and holy day but with the latter we struggle a bit. Encounter, belonging, relationship, and connection are all other ways to describe loving one another. Therefore, on this Holy Thursday, we pray for the grace to continue to be lovers after the formal celebration is done, the water is emptied, the candles are extinguished, and the towels are put away. And we do this “in remembrance of me”.