WHEN HE HAD WASHED HIS APOSTLES FEET JESUS SAID TO THEM: "DO YOU UNDERSTAND WHAT I HAVE DONE FOR YOU?"Earlier in his Gospel St. John had discussed at length the sacrament of the of the Eucharist in a setting quite distinct from that of the Last Supper. There he had brought out with great force the crisis of faith brought on by our Lord's insistence on the reality of his body and blood in this bread and wine. In his account of the last supper the author of the fourth Gospel, rather than narrate the institution of the Eucharist as the three other evangelists had already done, provides a series of commentaries that bring out the significance of that sacrament. The first point he makes under the form of a prophetic action performed by the Lord on that occasion which consisted of his washing their feet. Jesus himself, realizing that his intent was not properly grasped by the followers to whom he was about to entrust the greatest of all his sacraments, the Eucharist, explained this act which had thrown Peter, and the others as well, into confusion. Jesus was their superior and master; how could he stoop to such a humiliating service, fit for slaves? What had come upon him so to lower himself precisely at a time when danger threatened all around and they needed him to act as their leader and defender?
Jesus saw clearly that such were the sentiments that crowded upon them all and he responded with the explanatory remarks that we heard in this text. His action, he told them, was no aberration but a demonstration of the service they were called upon to render to the people he was going to assemble through his still deeper humiliation of the passion and cross. In fact, this foot washing demonstrates the inner dispositions with which he went to his death and its true meaning in the eyes of God his Father. He gave them a sign of his ready submission to their need for purification, even at the cost of his humiliation, and he did so out of love. They are to take on the same dispositions and make of their lives a service of love in view of preparing others to enter the kingdom. "I have give you an example so that as I have done you also should do. The servant is not better than his Lord, neither is the apostle greater than the one who sends him." They are to make of their ministry a service not a source of power or honors in the sight of others. The concern they are to have for others is that of cleansing them from those sins and attitudes that stand in the way of union with God and with one another.
We know from the rest of the lengthy discourses that St. John presents as taking place at the Last Supper that Jesus had two particular concerns he sought to inculcate in his chosen disciples. First, a firm adherence to his teaching as an expression of love for him and for his Father. "If you love me, keep my commandments." (John 14: 15) The Church has always felt it a duty to assure that the teaching of the Lord was preached and passed on to new generations intact and complete. People cannot keep the Lord's commandments unless they are taught the words of Jesus in their proper sense. St. Paul, writing a generation before St. John had already appreciated this fact. "Stand firm and hold on to the traditions that you were taught, whether by word or by our letter.", he wrote to the Thessalonians (2 Th 2:15) He goes on to add "I exhort you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ to withdraw from every brother who lives in a disorderly way and not according to the tradition you received from us." (3: 6) Toward the end of his life these concerns preoccupied him even more. His final warning to Timothy, whom he had appointed bishop is "Guard the deposit, avoid profane discussions, resist false knowledge." (1 Tim 6: 20)"" "the school of the Eucharist.
The Eucharist teaches us all by imparting the living knowledge of Christ that comes from an actual communion with him. In doing so he unites us with the Father and with all those who are one with him in the Holy Spirit. "If anyone eats this bread he and she will live forever", our Lord taught. As we partake of this holy bread this evening let us then express our gratitude to him for the incomparable gift of the priesthood and of the Eucharist, in which we are given a pledge of eternal life shared in unending communion with the Father through the Son in the Holy Spirit.
Abbot John Eudes Bamberger
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