These are written to be spoken, so I adapt my style to that purpose. Things which may be difficult to "get" in straight text can be clarified substantially through tone and pacing when spoken aloud. The best way to post these would really be to YouTube them, but thus far, nobody's filming these.
Anyhow, here it is:
Text: Exodus 12:1-8, 11-14; 1 Corinthians 11:23-26; John 13:1-15.
“This is my body that is for you.”1 We hear these words every week at Mass, and they’re all simple, small words, but there’s a lot to them. I won’t pretend to plumb their whole depth, but tonight, I’ll share some of what they mean to me. The other inspiration on which I’ll draw is another reflection. One Holy Thursday a few years ago, Raphaël Amato proposed that the washing of the feet is, to him, an eighth Sacrament. It was quite a memorable idea, and I’ve been turning it over in my head ever since. I’m going to propose something a little different in reply, and I pray that the Spirit will guide your interpretation of what I’ll say.
It’s not obvious even what precisely Jesus is referring to when he says, “This,” in “This is my body.” We often take him as referring to the bread in his hands, but it seems to me that, as is so often the case with Christ’s words, there are other meanings waiting here.
Jesus does three vitally important things tonight: he washes his disciples’ feet, he instructs them, and he breaks bread for them. We usually take the last of these by itself and call it the Eucharist, but it seems to me that all three things are parts of one action; all three are Christ’s gift of himself. The bread and wine are his body and blood, but we do not “live on bread alone, but … on every thing that comes from the mouth of God.”2 Thus, Jesus’ teaching is also sustenance for us, and we give equal place to the Word in the celebration of the Mass. Even words are not enough, though: Christ begins his teaching this night with a silent parable, taking on the customary dress and duty of a slave, one whose whole being is given over to others. Only afterwards does he speak, giving them the great new commandment—the mandate for which this is sometimes called Maundy Thursday—that we are to love one another as he loves us.3
Jesus’ flesh is not only his physical flesh, but also his words and deeds. To fully partake of the one, we must also embrace the other. To partake of the Eucharist, doing this in remembrance of him4 means calling to mind not only the sharing of the bread and wine, but also the self-effacing humility of serving, and the commandment that we are to do the same. We also call this Sacrament “Communion,” meaning that we come together and become one; to serve one another is, it seems to me, a central part of this. I can say from experience that it is deeply fulfilling to serve as a Eucharistic Minister, giving to others what has been given to us; tonight, when we wash each others’ feet, we are all ministers of this broader Eucharist. It is in this sense that I think the washing of the feet is sacramental: it is not a separate ritual, but a completion of our Communion.
We know that the breaking of the bread prefigures the breaking of Jesus’ physical body—the Apostles only learned this a little later. Christ’s physical body is, however, itself more than it seems. Jesus, the Word that was made flesh5, “was with God and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things came to be, not one thing had its being but through him.”6 Seen this way, the whole of Creation is in this one body, this one piece of bread, this one person whose feet I wash or who washes my feet, this one moment. This is the only possible sacrifice which satisfies. We are one household, and we eat of one Lamb. This Word is the only answer to the limitless Name of God: “I AM.”7
The commandment we are shown in word and deed tonight is the synthesis of “the greatest commandment[s] of the Law: You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind, [and y]ou must love your neighbor as yourself.”8 By telling us to love each other as he loves us, and showing the completeness of that love, he makes clear that if we do this, it is God that we love in each other, because Jesus is in the Father, and we are in him and he in us.9
All things begin and end in God, who is love.10 We who are created through the Word are no more or less than God returning to God in Christ and in each other; we do this through the same Word in whom we are created, when we act on, and so become, this love. “This is my body that is for you”: each of us can give and can receive this body by recognizing our fundamental unity—our communion—in Christ. When we wash and are washed, we give and receive the same humble care Jesus gives us. In this way, we join ourselves to Christ to be offered up with the bread and wine, praying that “the Lord accept this sacrifice… .”11 By this, we together make God present and manifest, and share in her universal, unifying love.
1: 1 Corinthians 11:24
2: Deuteronomy 8:3
3: John 13:34
4: 1 Corinthians 11:24
5: John 1:14
6: John 1:1-3
7: Exodus 3:14
8: Matthew 22:36-39
9: John 14:20
10: 1 John 4:16
11: Liturgy of the Mass