A Holy Thursday Meditation

Frances writes on the readings for this Holy Thursday :- Exodus (12;1-8.11-14) recounts the story of the first Passover and for Jews the only Passover – anamnesis (being at that one original sacrifice which is eternally projected into the present). It demanded the perfect sheep or goat – ‘without blemish’. The animals are handed over as sacrifice for the people and their blood will mark their homes so that the destroying power of God will bypass the Israelite homes. This sacrifice then becomes their founding moment from which they are set free from slavery in Egypt to be the People of God.

The actions and imagery of this first sacrifice, the slaughter of the lambs will shape and model all Jewish practice and as the Passover sacrifice was celebrated by Jesus just before his passion it would shape his understanding of his actions as Saviour of the world. He will be the last and the definitive sacrifice.

1 Corinthians 11:23-26  is the earliest written account of the Eucharist.  ‘I received…and in turn passed on’. Paul became part of a community of anamnesis; of entering into the founding moment of Christian salvation just as he had been a member of the Jewish fellowship of anamnesis all his life. Whilst Paul was not there at Jesus’ Last Supper and ‘handing-over’ that he enacted it is clear that the earliest Christian communities in Palestine and Syria understood this and faithfully carried out Jesus’ instructions. These were to meet him and be one with him in the founding act of the Church, the re-enactment of Jesus’ passion and death; his and their ‘handing over’ and the one unique act of the making of the community, the Church, achieved precisely by repeating his words over the bread and wine.

‘This is my body, which is for you; do this as a memorial (anamnesis) of me….This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Whenever you drink it, do it as a memorial (anamnesis) of me’. Until the Lord comes, therefore, every time you eat this bread and drink this cup, you are proclaiming his death.

Christians were not therefore just remembering a passed event, nor simply informing others, they were there at the Passover with the Lord who literally handed-himself-over to the world, to his enemies for death and to his Church as the once, perfect and sufficient sacrifice, oblation and satisfaction for the sins of the whole world. We do not call to mind a dead event, we are Passover people, remade and reshaped by the handing over of our Lord and Master. We are ‘made’ by his self-sacrifice, his being handed over.

But if we are to be those of the handed-over community, totally one with the Lord, how do we understand it?  In John’s Gospel (13:1-15) we experience his washing of the feet of his disciples precisely as a prelude to his being handed over to death. It was the job of the lowliest slave, the most marginalized in any household. Slaves had no rights, no choices. They could be bought and sold at the whim of their owners, physically and sexually abused at their whim and even killed without recourse to any justice. Jesus takes this role upon himself, a prefiguring of the helplessness which will be his during the grinding agony of his passion.

How do his followers react – it’s not a suitable task for their Master and Teacher; or then not just feet but their entire bodies: Peter representing the 12 totally fails to understand what Jesus is doing or what this implies for his followers. Above all, we note that Jesus also washed the feet of Iscariot, his betrayer.

We need to reflect on the actions of every Catholic priest on this night, from the Pope down, who washes feet. It is an ungainly task, difficult for the old and wobbly, embarrassing for those whose feet are to be washed. It is traditional for the priests to kiss the washed feet. Let us meditate awhile on that experience of humility for the priests and the experience of those washed. Very few grown adults now will be ministered to in this way. These are moments of extreme vulnerability. Those washed are also ‘given-over’ into the hands of others, like tiny children or the totally incapacitated they become fragile, vulnerable. This time must be for us all, as it was for Jesus a time of great vulnerability, when all our barriers are down. Like the slave, we have no means of hiding or protecting ourselves. We too are among those ‘paradidomi’ handed-over ones; it is a humbling time, as we are close to Jesus and called to enter into his passion and death in a way that is personal and profound.

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