Lent 2023: Holy Thursday

The Triduum begins: three days compressing time into one progressively flowering moment of revelation.

Now he showed how perfect his love was

Jn 13:1-15I

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The Triduum begins: three days compressing time into one progressively flowering moment of revelation. In these days, too, our Easter, the Jews’ Passover and the Muslims’ Ramadan overlap. What a shame and failure of leadership that, once again, they do not coincide but collide. In the city of Jerusalem, continuously desecrated by those who call it holy, violent clashes have already begun between Jews and Muslims; and we will not be surprised by clashes – or at least the exchange of hateful and suspicious looks – between the Christian denominations protecting the Holy Sepulchre. It’s enough to make you want to give up religion. If we can’t, we can look forward to the ‘heavenly Jerusalem’, described in the Apocalypse where there will be ‘no temple in the city’ because its temple will be God. The root meaning of ‘templum’ is not a ‘building’ but sacred space.

The sacred meal of Christians, the Eucharist has its roots in the Last Supper, perhaps a Passover meal (perhaps not), which then as now is celebrated among family and friends and no clergy is required. As it remembers the past, it bends time and so allows different planes of meaning and awareness to overlap transparently, gently merge and separate again. Typically Jewish, it is a good meal with wine rather than a pious church service or an interesting lecture.

In his last meal Jesus uses the occasion to illustrate his final message passionately and precisely. The catalyst moment, before the bread and wine, is the washing of the feet. A normal sign of hospitality for guests, it was performed not by the head of the house but by a slave. When Jesus puts on an apron, he wants to look like a slave not a religious leader.

Once, in a moment of illumination, it came to Simone Weil that Jesus is the consummate slave and the religion bearing his name is for slaves. This insight led to her become an exemplary though non-institutional Christian. For Nietzsche the same insight made him despise and dismiss Christianity, glorifying instead self-will and power over others.

In the washing of the feet – the forgotten sacrament of Christianity – Jesus acted out his approach to power in all human relationships. It is so subversive that later Christians neutralised the sign itself; yet it is the only one he specifically tells us to imitate. ‘I have given you an example so that you may copy what I have done to you’.

Here, it is not Judas but Peter, the future leader, who betrays. He refuses to be touched. Jesus responds, alright then, if you don’t want to participate you exclude yourself and ‘have nothing in common with me’. Peter squirms and gets pious, saying then wash all of me, not just my feet. He avoids the full union being offered, by letting his ego take control. Typically, the ego cannot receive a gift that threatens it but demands more as a way of defending its separateness. If we misunderstand the washing of the feet, we lose the key to understanding the gift of self in the bread and wine, the sacrifice of the Cross and, if we miss that what sense does the Resurrection make?

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