Very often the Mass of the Lord’s Supper, which marks the beginning of our Christian high holy days, is reduced to the institution of the ministerial priesthood. But linked as this evening’s celebration is with Baptism, we celebrate Christ’s institution of the priesthood of all the baptized and of the Eucharist. On this holy night, Jesus once again calls you to be his disciple. Being a disciple of Jesus means not only doing the things he tells you to do, but doing what he does.
Being Jesus’s disciple means not only doing the things he commands, but doing what he does. This is exactly what Jesus instructs those whose feet he washes to do: “If I, therefore, the master and teacher, have washed your feet,” the Lord tells them, “you ought to wash one another's feet.”1 “I have given you a model to follow,” he says, “so that as I have done for you, you should also do.”2
In St. John’s Gospel there are no apostles. The fourth Gospel features only disciples. Recognizing him as Lord, Peter at first steadfastly refuses to let Jesus wash his feet. After the Lord tells him that if he does not permit him to wash his feet, he does belong to him, Lord, Peter, in a clear reference to Baptism, demands that Jesus wash “not only my feet, but my hands and head as well.”3
In Baptism, the Lord not only washed you, but immersed you into the very life of God, who is Father, Son, and Spirit. Jesus washing the feet of his closest followers is St. John’s version of Jesus’s institution of the Eucharist. In the Synoptic Gospels (i.e., Matthew, Mark, and Luke) we find accounts of the Last Supper in which Jesus blessed the bread, broke it, and gave to his disciples, saying “this is my body.” And then blessed the wine and gave it to them to drink , saying “this is my blood.” Rather than that, John’s Gospel gives us the account of Jesus washing his disciples’ feet.
In his book The Kingdom, French writer Emmanuel Carrère writes about a retreat he went on at a L’Arch community in France. What he describes is a foot-washing ritual. For the ritual, retreatants broke up into small groups. After a short Liturgy of the Word, featuring the same reading as our Gospel for tonight and a short reflection, the groups of retreatants began washing each other’s feet. Thinking about this ritual, Carrère notes: “things could have happened differently: that the central sacrament of Christianity could be foot washing and not Communion.”4 Continuing his musing, he points out that ritual foot-washing “could be what Christians do every day at Mass, and it wouldn’t be any more absurd – less, so in fact.”5
What Carrère and many others seem to miss about John’s institution narrative is that it highlights the relationship between Baptism and Eucharist. As Catholics we affirm that there are seven sacraments. But the sacramental life of grace arises from Baptism and finds its full realization in the Eucharist.
Our second reading, taken from Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians, clearly shows that celebrating the Eucharist constitutes the Church’s most fundamental tradition. It is by receiving communion that you proclaim the Lord’s salvific death until he returns.6 In his Letter to the Romans, in a passage that is part of the epistle reading for the upcoming Easter Vigil, St. Paul asks the Christians in ancient Rome if they are “unaware that we who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?”7
As our first reading from the Book of Exodus indicates, the Eucharist is our Passover. Since the Eucharist is Jesus Christ, he is our Passover. Just as the angel of death passed over the houses of the Israelites who had marked their doorposts with the blood of the Lamb, we who have been washed by the blood of the Lamb of God pass over from death to life. If the Passover meal is a foreshadowing of the Eucharist, then passing through the sea on dry ground is an image of Baptism. Christ rescues us from sin and death through Baptism and the Eucharist.
As Catholics we affirm that you are saved by grace through faith in Jesus Christ. This confession brings up two important questions. What is faith? How do we receive God’s grace?
Answering the first question, the fruit of faith is loving your neighbor. Loving your neighbor is not primarily how you feel about him or her. You love someone by concrete acts of care and concern. Faith without works is dead.8 “Above all,” the Scriptures teach, “let your love for one another be intense, because love covers a multitude of sins.”9
We receive the grace that saves us, the grace that impels us to acts of charity, in the sacraments. The sacraments are the means by which God communicates grace, which is the divine life of the Blessed Trinity, to our souls. In communion we receive Christ. Receiving Christ together is what makes us Christ’s body. The Eucharist makes the Church and the Church makes the Eucharist. The Eucharist and nothing else makes St. Olaf Parish.
At the end of the Mass of the Lord’s Supper, as we process with the Blessed Sacrament to the chapel of repose, we sing the exquisitely beautiful hymn Ubi Caritas. The first verse of this hymn sums up very well what this evening’s Mass is all about:
Where charity and love are, God is there.
Christ's love has gathered us into one.
Let us rejoice and be pleased in Him.
Let us fear, and let us love the living God.
And may we love each other with a sincere heart