Begin your Triduum preparations with these reflections on the Holy Thursday readings.
The historical origin of the Passover and the meal associated with it is uncertain. Most probably it emerged from a nomadic setting. However, its meaning in the Book of Exodus is clear. It commemorates the protection of the Israelites from the midnight plague of death to the firstborn of the Egyptians. It was to be commemorated at the first month of the year according to the Babylonian calendar (Nisan, March/April).
The first part of this reading gives instruction for the preparation of the Passover meal. Details are given about the size of the family, the condition of the sheep or goat, and the ritual for slaughtering the animal.
Blood from this animal is to be applied to the two doorposts and the lintel of every house. The menu for the meal is to consist of the roasted lamb or goat, unleavened bread, and bitter herbs.
The second half of the reading designates how this meal is to be eaten. There is a great sense of urgency present throughout the entire meal. Loins are girt, and sandals and staff are ready. The text indicates that the people are to eat “like those who are in flight.” At this same time, God will be moving through Egypt, striking down the firstborn man and beast. The Israelites will be spared if they have smeared the blood of the sheep or goat on the doorposts and the lintel of the house.
God will see this and pass over their house. This is what Passover commemorates.
Washing the disciples’ feet symbolizes the ultimate service Jesus is about to give to them by giving up his life on the cross. It serves also as a model for how the disciples are to love one another.
The action itself is startling, since Jesus is the Messiah and Son of God. It should be the disciples who wash Jesus’ feet as a sign of humility, faithfulness, and love. He reverses that process, and Peter immediately objects. His objection makes sense, and he probably was speaking for the whole group.
After Jesus has finished washing his disciples’ feet, he asks them directly if they realize what he has done for them. In fact, Jesus has given them a model for what it means to be one of his followers. It means to serve one another in radical forms of love. It means to wash one another’s feet. This symbolizes the disciples’ willingness to lay down their lives for one another just as Jesus did for them.
Later on, Jesus will refer to this kind of love as a “new commandment.” It is new in that it demands radical equality among the disciples and the ones they serve. This was symbolized by Jesus when he came down from his chair, took off his robe, and tied a towel around his waist. He became one with the people he was about to serve. And what he did for them, they are to do for one another.
One of the greatest gifts Jesus gave to us is dramatically evident in today’s Gospel. In the washing of feet, Jesus teaches us how to serve.
Noted author and speaker Rachel Naomi Remen, also a medical doctor, tells us there are three kinds of assistance we can offer in order to demonstrate our love of neighbor. We can help them, we can fix their problem, or we can serve them.
Only in serving them do we show people that we are connected. Helping people or simply fixing their problems is indeed a good thing, but sometimes these can be patronizing or make people feel indebted to the one who assists. Serving, in the meantime, truly connects and heals both the giver and the receiver. In the New Testament, Jesus uses the words “serve” and “servant” dozens of times.
After Jesus has washed the feet of his disciples, he asks them if they realize what he has done. Some of the disciples might have said, “Well, you helped me get my feet clean.” Others might have said, “Well, you certainly have fixed my stinky-feet problem.” But the correct answer is, “You have taught us how to serve.”
Indeed, Jesus has demonstrated the radical form of love we are to enact if we are to be his followers. We are to become one with our sisters and brothers in need; we are to serve them. This is the kind of action that comes forth naturally when we believe—as Jesus did—in the radical equality of all human beings.