“While they were eating, Jesus took bread, said the blessing, broke it, and giving it to his disciples said, ‘Take and eat; this is my body.’Then he took a cup, gave thanks,* and gave it to them, saying, ‘Drink from it, all of you, for this is my blood of the covenant, which will be shed on behalf of many for the forgiveness of sins’” (Matthew 26: 26 – 28).
“So, during supper, fully aware that the Father had put everything into his power and that he had come from God and was returning to God, he rose from supper and took off his outer garments. He took a towel and tied it around his waist. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and dry them with the towel around his waist” (John 13: 2 – 5).
The institution of the Eucharist at the Last Supper is found in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke. John wrote long after these events and does not record the institution of the Eucharist as such, cognizant of its circulation among the Christian communities. Rather, he writes about the meaning of the Eucharist: compassion and humility. The example Jesus gave them was an example of compassion and humility and that is precisely what the Eucharist embodies.
The basin and the towel are the instruments Jesus uses but it is the action and example of Jesus that speaks to us today. We live in a time of many varied opinions which is fine in itself. Some people hold deep convictions which is fine in itself. But there is also much polarization. Too often people view others with condescension and judgement. We don’t meet as persons; we meet as viewpoints. We have lost the art of conversation because we show disdain rather than respect. We need compassion and humility in order to talk to one another rather than about one another or at one another. Conservatives / Liberals, Christians / Muslims, Jews / Christians / Muslins, Atheists / Believers become labels that divide rather than diversities that unite.
Given this bleak but, unfortunately, real situation, we need the basin and the towel; we need to wash one another’s feet. This comes to us through the compassion and the humility of Christ in the washing of the feet and the breaking of the bread.
Once again, Pope Francis is teaching us by example. In washing the feet of women he is being inclusive in our world today. In washing the feet of Muslims he is reaching across cultural divides.
Compassion is a virtue of strength. It is not a blind or weak stance that says “nothing matters” or “anything goes.” In compassion we hold dear our own beliefs and values but we embrace those who think or believe in a different way. This involves a tension that cannot be ignored.
Humility is also a virtue of strength. In humility I don’t have to put others down in order to raise myself up and I don’t have to put myself down in order to see the good in others. In humility I am who I am and, in that realization, I am one with others, not better and not worse.
Finally, our Christian metal is also being tested in another way. Presently, we are being bombarded and overwhelmed by news of beheadings and mass murders of Christians. These evils cry out to heaven for justice but not for revenge. While they may be carried out in the name of Allah, that does not justify the condemnation of all who profess that name. Nor does it justify violence on our part. Here too we need the basin and the towel, challenging as that may be. We need compassion and humility, virtues of strength. But, we cannot will these into existence. We need God’s grace, a humble realization.
May the Lord give you peace.
Rev. James M. McNamara