Thursday, April 5, 2012

Maundy Thursday (Mass of the Last Supper)

1 Corinthians 11:20-32 / John 13:1-15

There is a kind of anxiety in some parts of the Church every year over the washing of the feet, the Mandatum which gives this day its name "Maundy." The rite itself is ancient, and it has seen several adaptations — as a special rite for the catechumens about to be baptized, as a ritual of generosity to the poor at Medieval monasteries, and even in the modern age as an adaptation of this monastic rite by the emperors of Austria. Why the present trouble? It seems as though the faithful are not agreed as to what the rite means, and so fight over who it is that should do the washing (the priest alone, the whole parish staff, or even every member of the assembly) and who it is whose feet should be washed (twelve select men, or any twelve persons of any sex, the parish staff, the whole assembly, and so on). Whatever decision is made, someone seems bound to be not merely disappointed, but actually positively incensed and offended. Even the choice not to perform the rite at all cannot pass without sharp annoyance.

Without suggesting any special wisdom of how to cut through this Gordian knot, it may be helpful to recall the attitude of Jesus when he chose to wash the feet of the disciples. We are told in John's Gospel a series of things about Jesus' state of mind: that he knew his hour had come, that he knew he was going to pass out of this world to his Father, that he loved his own in the world and loved them to the end, that he knew the Father had given all things into his hands, and knowing both that he came from God and was going to God. More than that, we are told that he rose from the table and took a towel to do the washing at no other time than after the devil had put it into the heart of Judas Iscariot to betray him. In other words, the washing of the feet is marked by a full awareness by Jesus of his own identity as God, of his mission to save those whom he loved, and, just as importantly, of the darkness of that world and of its hostility towards him. It is in full awareness of the great gift he has to offer and just as much that the world, and even his own beloved, will, at his moment of greatest need, leave him to suffer, that Jesus washes the feet of the disciples.

The washing of the feet, then, has never been, and never ought to be, about anything other than directing us to the divinity of Christ, to his abiding love for us, and to an awareness of our own sinfulness. When any rite, however holy, becomes a tool by which Christians are divided uncharitably one against another, then the rite has been falsified. Even as Paul warns the Corinthians that, in their failure to meet the needs of the poor among them at their meals when they gather at Church, they make a lie of the Eucharist they claim to celebrate, so we, by bickering over the washing of the feet, make a mockery of the heartbreakingly beautiful mystery of the glorious Son of God, taking our nature upon himself and, out of love, suffering a shameful death at our hands, all so that we, who deserve nothing, might nonetheless be made to have a part in his very self.

This is the mystery we share in the Mandatum, that Jesus has gifted us with a share in his own Passion and betrayal, a share that marks us as dead to sin and alive to God. This is the example we are meant to share with one another, the example of Christ crucified for the love of the world.

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