Christianity is not built on fable and myths. Biblical faith does not recount stories as symbols of meta-historical truths; rather, the Christian faith establishes itself upon history. Divine history which unfolds upon earth, in time. On Palm Sunday, we participated (through the recollection of liturgy) in the historical event of our Lord’s triumphal entrance into the Holy City of Jerusalem, the day marking the beginning of the passion of our Lord, each day moving closer and closer to the suffering, death, and ultimately, the triumph of the Lord on Easter Sunday. And here, on Maundy Thursday, the Gospel reading draws us into the company of Messiah, in the upper room, where he sits with his disciples at table for one last meal. But this is no ordinary meal, neither is it merely occasioned by the coming Passover.
On this night, the Lord will pronounce the inauguration of a new covenant by institution of the Holy Communion; a covenant of restoration and redemption; a covenant ratified in his willful death. Through the words of institution, Jesus gives the sign of his covenantal promise; forever connecting the holy mysteries of bread and wine with his sacrificial death, recalling the immensity of his great love towards us and providing the church its primary means of proclaiming his death until he comes again. The death of Christ is the proclamation of the redeemed and the hope of the world, “And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men unto me.” For it is solely by participation in his death (by faith) that we obtain the blessed promise of eternal life.
I am the living bread which came down from heaven: if any man eat of this bread, he shall live forever: and the bread that I will give is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world.
Maundy Thursday centers on the Last Supper and the institution of the Holy Eucharist. But here, in the fourth Gospel, John records the washing of the feet as an example given to the disciples, and its connection to the mandatum novum, the new commandment given by Christ, “to love one another as I have loved you” hence, ‘Maundy Thursday’. But before considering the foot washing, we must first see it as a dramatic commentary on Jesus’ death. For John’s gospel account is not simply a narrative recounting Jesus’ humility and service (it is certainly that!) but foreshadows the death of Jesus and the ultimate act of love. For in contemplating His servanthood, we can begin to understand the extent of humility and Divine love.
Jesus knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he was come from God, and went to God; He riseth from supper, and laid aside his garments; and took a towel, and girded himself…
With the Last Supper, Jesus’ hour had arrived, his telos, the goal to which his earthly ministry had been directed from the very beginning: to reconcile the world to the Father through suffering and death, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life. For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved.” To accomplish this, God the Son embraced humility, even from the foundations of the world, leaving the riches of heaven to be born of a virgin, taking upon himself the frailty, susceptibility, and weakness of human flesh.
In the words of St. Augustine, “he laid not down what he had, but put on what he had not before.” You see, nothing was lost in the incarnation, rather, in leaving heaven, by willingly becoming low, the eternal Son set aside his pre-existent glory and gladly condescended himself; for
he did not consider equality with God something to be grasped (to hold tightly); rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death— even death on a cross!
The Bread of Heaven had first to take on the form of a servant and then be broken for the life of the world; for eternal life is not obtained merely by death, but through humility as well. With no regard to himself he loved to the uttermost, undeserving and rebellious sinners. In humility, he set his face to restore the injustice of sin, “to restore that which he did not steal.”
He [rose] from supper, and laid aside his garments; and took a towel, and girded himself…
In preparing to wash the feet of his disciples, to make them clean, he laid aside his garments, the mark of a servant's position, embracing the work of a servant. You see, “the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” The laying aside of his garments is a vivid picture of Christ’s humility, the deep humility suffered at the hands of executioners, who violently stripped our Lord at the pillar, hanging him naked upon the cross. Jesus willfully embraced shame and humility at the hands of the very sinners he had come to save.
He was wounded for our transgressions; he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed.
For love, Jesus suffered the humility of the Cross, and if we desire to emulate the Divine pattern, we too must humble ourselves before God and men, for it is impossible to love as our Lord commands apart from humility.
After that he poureth water into a bason, and began to wash the disciples' feet, and to wipe them with the towel wherewith he was girded.
Jesus loves willingly and humbly, the greater serving the lesser and without regard to self. He loves impartiality for he not only washed the feet of Peter, a denier, but those of Judas, knowing full well the heart of his betrayer. Divine love is impartial, “the wisdom that is from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, and easy to be intreated, full of mercy and good fruits, without partiality, and without hypocrisy.” Listen to the Apostle Paul and rejoice, “God commendeth his love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” The Divine pattern is to love the unlovable. Yes, it is the difficult path, but it is the way of Christ to which we have been called for “if ye love them which love you, what thank have ye? For sinners also love those that love them. But love your enemies, do good to them to hate you.” Like Jesus, we are to wash the feet of the unlovable with the same self-denying and self-sacrificing love.
Having loved his own which were in the world, he loved them unto the end.
Jesus knows it is the time of his departure (His exit) and he knows to whom he is returning, he is going to the Father. “Having loved his own which were in the world, he loved the unto the end.” Jesus loved them unto the end… or to put it another way, he loved to the uttermost: without fail, completely; perfectly; to the end. To the end of what, His earthly life? Certainly not, for if death could have ended Christ’s love, then he would have come into the world in vain with a love that could have been thwarted by death.
“To the end” means that Jesus loved until the point of death. He loved them with the total fullness of love. He loved them to the uttermost. This is the innate nature of Divine love, which Jesus showed over and over again. In love, he called his disciples to himself, taught, and nurtured them. Even in his rebukes he loved them perfectly. From the cross, in the last moments of life, he perfectly loved an undeserving thief and also ensured the care of his mother. He looked upon his executioners and condemners, asking his Father to forgive them “for they know not what they do.”
It is in Christ’s death, in servants work, where the fullness of Divine love is exemplified, for “Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends.” Beloved, Christ loves utterly, absolutely, totally, completely, selflessly, and to the fullest extent. This is the pattern of Divine love. And, having loved to the uttermost he uttered with his last dying breath, telestai: “It is finished.” Paid in full. In the words of institution given by Christ, we remember the death of our Lord Jesus Christ, who gave his disciples bread and wine as his body and blood. The full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice, satisfaction for the sins of the world. Our Eucharistic celebration is not empty, being built upon stories and myths, but is full and weighty, built upon a broken body, upon spilt blood, upon the actual death of Christ. It is no mere fiction, but the culmination of salvation history, the very reality at the center of our communion with God and with each other.
After he had washed their feet, and had taken his garments, and was set down again, he said unto them, Know ye what I have done to you?
Of course, in that moment, the disciples were incapable of understanding the full significance of their feet being washed by the Lord. But we do; we understand. For us he made himself low. He came to serve, not to be served. By his all sufficient death he has washed us and made us clean. For neither the blood of bulls nor goats can make us pure. It is no longer by purification rites and cultic action that man is made clean; not only the body but the inner man. Cleanness of heart comes solely by faith in the cleansing blood of the Paschal Lamb: faith cleanses the heart. Purification is the result of Divine action, of Love which came down from heaven; Love which took the form of a servant and clothed itself in humility- the towel of submission and obedience. And what is that God requires? Has the Lord himself not shown us what is good?: “to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God.” Faith believes and love responds.
And here, at his most holy table a banquet is set, a feast for those who believe. Tonight, as he did so many years ago in an upper room, he feeds us with the Bread of heaven, his very own body and blood: his love never ending, never partial, and without limitation. He loves you to the uttermost, and if you have ears to hear, the Lord is calling his church to the same: “A new commandment I have given you, “Love one another as I have loved you.” Amen.