I read a cute story recently. A little five-year-old child and his mother were on their way to McDonald’s one evening, and on their way they passed the scene of a car accident. The mother pointed out the scene and the ambulance, and said they should say a prayer. So her son joined his hands, closed his eyes, and fervently prayed, “Dear God, please don’t let those cars block the entrance to McDonald’s.”
Eating is important to us, at least at times, is it not? Something as simple as a shared meal at McDonald’s can become a special ritual that celebrates the simple bonds of love and affection we have, often with children. And when we celebrate a birthday, or an anniversary, or a job promotion, we want to celebrate with family and friends. Even at sad times, like after a funeral, we find something supportive and comforting about sharing a meal together.
In our first reading we have heard a description of the Passover, the special meal the Jewish people have recalling their freedom, their establishment as a people, God’s people, and a reminder of the bonds that unite them despite all their differences or disagreements. They celebrate a common identity.
Tonight we begin the three-day celebration of who we are as Christians, baptized into the very dying and rising of Jesus Christ, and formed into a community that binds us to him and to each other. Normally, whatever we eat becomes a part of us, providing nutrition and supporting the various parts of our body. Our second reading, taken from St. Paul’s writings, is the earliest description we have of the Eucharist—written at least fifteen years before the gospels. This is our sacred meal that gives us our identity—sacred because Jesus becomes part of us and we become part of him. Our mortal nature, which destines us to die, becomes part of his nature, which destines us never to die.
How odd it is, in a way, that our gospel reading doesn’t focus on the actual description of the institution of the Eucharist, but rather something rather strange that Jesus did at the first Eucharist, the Last Supper: he reversed the normal social order, took on the task and identity of a slave, and told us we are to do likewise. What’s this all about?
I believe that, at the heart of it, Jesus’ washing of feet is about a very special kind of love to which we are called. Feet in those days wore sandals, which means they were exposed to dirt and mud. They would have been unattractive and smelly. Washing feet represents difficult love, loving those who are not particularly attractive, who may have hurt us, who are undeserving of love. That’s what Jesus did; he loved right to the bitter end, even giving his life for those who didn’t particularly deserve it.
How often we tend to put conditions on our love: I will love you if you somehow satisfy my needs, are attractive to me, think as I do, fulfill some basic criteria. The kind of love Jesus showed was demonstrated in a dramatic way by Mother Teresa, who loved without condition, even those who were tossed aside by society as unworthy of attention. She loved them, she said, because in them she could see Jesus in a distressing appearance, like Jesus suffering on the cross. And Mother Teresa challenged us by her life to move beyond a superficial love that doesn’t demand very much.
And when I think about that scene at the Last Supper, I think I can really identify with Peter. It just made no sense for the Messiah, the teacher, the Lord, the Son of God, to do something so menial, so repugnant, as washing feet. Parents, by the way, do that a lot, cleaning up messes and making the stink go away, kissing the boo-boos, and strengthening fragile egos. It can be harder, however, to receive love. It happens when you are sick, or as you age. Those who are used to standing on their own two feet, of doing things on their own, of serving others, can find it very difficult to receive love and service. But Jesus reminds Peter that this is the way God’s love is. Before we have the capacity to love, before we even existed, God loved us first. And, especially when it is difficult to love others, we first need to be fortified by the gift of love, strengthened for the journey, nourished by the Lord. Otherwise, we can burn out and have nothing left to give. It is the love of Jesus Christ, the love of God, that washes us, cleanses us of our pettiness, our anxiety, our greed, our self-centeredness. When we receive selfless love ourselves, then we can give selfless love to others. The love Jesus asks of us is just too difficult to go it alone, without support, without nourishment. We need him and we need each other to live the demanding life of a Christian. And so we gather to be fed, and then to feed others; to be loved, and then to love even those who don’t particularly deserve our love, to forgive as we have been forgiven, and to create a world watered by God’s love and washed clean of division and hate.