And so we enter the Easter Triduum, the greatest feast of the Church. We begin, as is traditional, with a meal.
Many huge things today: the institution of the Eucharist, Jesus washes his disciples’ feet, Judas betrays Jesus into the hands of his enemies, the Sanhedrin meets at night time (something it is not allowed to do), Jesus’ friends run away.
But before all that…
The year is 1446BC (or 1250BC, nobody really can be sure), and the people of God are suffering in Egypt under the cruel hand of Pharaoh. A leader has arisen among the people, chosen and blessed by God, who challenges Pharaoh to let God’s people go. The events that followed are recounted in today’s first reading, from Exodus. Moses and Aaron are passing on God’s instructions about what to do to prepare their households for their long march to freedom. They are to eat a hearty meal and be ready to leave at a moment’s notice. The bread will not have time to rise, so make unleavened bread. Get ready, for the Lord will walk amongst the people tonight.
St Paul shows us that he clearly understood what Jesus was doing on this night, in history. Whenever we do as Christ did, we proclaim his death. Sounds a bit silly, but we do not proclaim it in isolation, the Messiah’s death is his moment of victory.
It is interesting that, on this day when we commemorate the night when Jesus instituted the Eucharist, that the Gospel reading doesn’t mention the Eucharist at all. This moment is not recorded in John’s Gospel. No, the details of the meal appear in the other three Gospels, which we can read at our leisure. That said, anyone who doubts the voracity of John’s belief in the body and blood of Christ should head over to chapter 6 of his Gospel, in which he mentions eating Jesus’ flesh and drinking his blood seven times before stating that many of Jesus’ disciples couldn’t accept that and left him then.
On the night before Jesus died, St John tells the story not of the meal, but of what happened after the meal. First-century Jerusalem at Passover would have been a hot and dusty place, and feet would get dirty quickly. A gracious host would have bowls of water available for guests to wash their feet in. There would also be a servant or two to help with this. It seems that the Lord’s friends hadn’t washed their feet before the meal, and there were no servants to do this job for them. Jesus steps up and shows them exactly how to be a great leader. He stripped off his Passover best and wrapped a towel around his waist, knelt down and did the job of a servant, finishing up by giving his friends a firm command to do the same to each other.
In another place, Jesus tells his disciples that, in order to be the greatest, they had to put everyone else before themselves, they had to become the least, they had to become the slave of all.
After centuries of opulence, Pope Francis is giving us a hint of what this teaching means in practice.