To serve others is not merely virtuous. To serve others is a core feature of Christian life. Our redemption before God comes about because Jesus, through his pure love, served us. Jesus suffered and died so that we might have eternal life.
Tonight, we enter the Paschal Triduum. During these three holy days, we remember Jesus’s suffering and death, and his rising from the dead. We begin the Triduum with the Mass of the Lord’s Supper, calling to mind Jesus’s last evening with his disciples.
Two narratives of the night Christ was betrayed
The Liturgy of the Word gives us two narratives from the upper room. First, we listen to the earliest written account of the institution of the Eucharist. Then, we hear of Jesus washing the feet of his disciples. Both separately and together, these narratives compel us to serve others.
Institution of the Eucharist
“I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you,” Saint Paul writes to the church at Corinth, “That the Lord Jesus, on the night he was handed over, took bread, and, after he had given thanks, broke it and said, ‘This is my body that is for you.
Do this in remembrance of me.’ In the same way also the cup, after supper, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.'” 1 Corinthians 11: 23-25 (NABRE).
Paul describes the institution of the Eucharist as a two-fold gift. Just as Paul received the gift from the Lord, in like manner he hands it on to the Corinthians. Jesus is the ultimate source of the gift, but the apostles, and their successors, hand it on to generations of Christians. Thus, the Eucharist is no mere private devotion, something to be cherished only in one’s heart. It is that, to be sure, but much more. It is also for the hands – it is to be handed on. In other words, the Eucharist should inspire us to action. The nature of that action, to serve our brothers and sisters, is epitomized by Jesus in the Washing of the Feet.
Washing of the feet
The evangelist John tells us that during supper, Jesus tied a towel around his waist. “Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and dry them with the towel around his waist.”
This act of service and humility by their teacher must have shocked and confused the disciples. But Jesus explains to them that this is the model they are to follow: “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: 4-5, 12-15 (NABRE).
The two narratives empower and compel us to serve others
Of the four Gospel accounts of the Last Supper, only John’s describes Jesus washing the disciples’ feet. The other three present institution narratives, similar to Paul’s letter to the Corinthians. John does not even mention the institution. All of this has profound significance. Jesus likely took the bread, gave thanks, and broke it at the beginning of the meal. Then, according to John, “during supper” he washed the disciples’ feet. And, as described by Paul, “after supper” he took the cup.
The image of the two elements of the Eucharist, bread and wine, enveloping Jesus’s modeling of humble service is poetic. Jesus does not allow pride or authority to burden his love. It is a love in which we gladly serve our brothers and sisters. Whenever we receive the gift of the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ, we receive from Jesus “a model to follow, so that as I have done for you, you should also do.” As Saint John Paul II says, “By bending down to wash the feet of his disciples, Jesus explains the meaning of the Eucharist unequivocally.” Mane nobiscum domine ¶ 28.
Connections between the liturgy and service to others are intimate and inextricable
The Holy Thursday liturgy teaches that it is impossible to live fully as Christians without worshipping God in the liturgy. It is futile to participate in the liturgy without serving our brothers and sisters, who are the image of God. This is what Jesus Christ himself taught us.
Fr. Ron Holheiser, OMI describes the Eucharist as “a call to move from worship to service, to take the nourishment, the embrace, the kiss, we have just received from God and the community and translate it immediately and directly into loving service of others.” He continues, “To take the Eucharist seriously is to begin to wash the feet of others, especially the feet of the poor. … The Eucharist invites us to step down from pride, away from self-interest, to turn the mantel of privilege into the apron of service, so as to help reverse the world’s order of things wherein pride, status, and self-interest are forever the straws that stir the drink. ” The Eucharist as Washing Each Other’s Feet.