Jesus’ actions on Holy Thursday were revolutionary and radical. They are meant to shock our consciences. Indeed, St. Peter was so shocked he exclaimed, “You shall never wash my feet.” (Jn. 13:8) His sensibilities were offended that the Messiah, the very Son of God, would perform the actions of a typical household slave of those days. Jesus turned the world upside down. True greatness would no longer be measured in money, power and social status, but in simple humble service to our fellow man, as Jesus taught them, “He who is greatest among you shall be your servant.” (Mt. 23:10)
It was in the Cenacle in Jerusalem that Thursday night that Jesus faced His imminent death. Just hours from His Passion and Crucifixion – this supreme moment in His life – all of His words and actions in the Upper Room carried special meaning and weight. Jesus waited until this moment at the Last Supper to institute the Eucharist and Holy Orders. In this intimate setting with His closest friends and Apostles, Jesus washes their feet, and gives us the Mandatum, or the mandate, the new commandment. As John tells us:
Jesus “rose from supper, laid aside His garments, and girded Himself with a towel. Then He poured water into a basin, and began to wash the disciples’ feet, and to wipe them with the towel with which He was girded.” (Jn. 13:4-5)
Following the washing of the disciples’ feet, Jesus says, “If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.” (Jn. 13:14-15)
Here, with His final actions before Good Friday, Jesus shows the disciples that they are to humbly serve one another. He reinforces this with His final discourse, “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; even as I have loved you, that you also love one another.” (Jn. 13:34) On Holy Thursday, the beginning of the paschal Triduum, Jesus commissions all of His disciples, that is, all Christians, above all else, to love one another.
As with all things, Jesus’ words and example is the model for us to follow. Jesus Himself said He “came not to be served but to serve.” (Mt. 20:28) St. Paul too speaks of Jesus’ humility as He “emptied himself, taking the form of a servant.” (Phil. 2:7) He spoke often about the need for humility and service, and the necessity to live one’s life with Christian charity. One of Jesus’ great teachings is the parable of the Good Samaritan. He uses the parable to demonstrate what our mercy should resemble, and that we should “Go and do likewise.” (Lk. 10:37) In another parable, the Rich Man and Lazarus, Jesus warns us about the implications of not living a life of mercy and charity. In the parable, the rich man, who did not show mercy or compassion towards the poor man Lazarus, ends up in torment in Hades. Abraham reminds him that he had his opportunity to demonstrate mercy during his lifetime, but chose not to. These are sobering words from Jesus.
Perhaps the most jarring words on this is Jesus’ depiction of the Final Judgment. The Righteous inherit the kingdom and eternal life, with Jesus telling them: “for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.” (Mt. 25: 35-36) The Righteous had lived Jesus’ Beatitudes, especially “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.” (Mt. 5:7) But to those who fail to perform works of mercy and charity, Jesus sends them to eternal punishment. Ultimately, we are judged by whether we follow Christ’s new commandment or not. In serving the needy, we are, in reality, serving Christ, as He said, “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these My brethren, you did it to Me.” (Mt. 25:40)
Jesus says the distinguishing characteristic of His disciples will be their “love for one another.” Tertullian remarked that the early Roman pagans would exclaim of Christians, “See how they love one another!” And what should this charity towards our neighbor look like? The Church teaches the corporal works of mercy, in which we minister to the bodily needs of the person, primarily as: “feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless, clothing the naked, visiting the sick and imprisoned, and burying the dead.” (CCC 2447) The Church similarly teaches that we should practice spiritual works of mercy as well, primarily by: instructing, advising, consoling, comforting, forgiving and bearing wrongs patiently, and praying for the living and the dead. These bring to mind Jesus’ words to St. Faustina on the absolute necessity for us to demonstrate mercy towards our neighbor through deed, word, or prayer. (Diary, 742)
Jesus’ new commandment is clear; we are to love one another. How then do we do this on a practical level? The varied number of ways we can fulfill this are as long as they are deep. We can do it in our everyday life and work. We can donate our time and money, or goods and services. We can volunteer at a soup kitchen, or be involved in a parish social ministry. One of the areas I find rewarding is working with the homeless population. Regardless of what the social and economic causes may be for homelessness, and whether our actions may be enabling them to some extent, Jesus did command us “Give to every one who begs from you.” (Lk. 6:30) To enter into the world of the homeless is to be barraged by sights, sounds, smells and struggles. It is to witness firsthand the brokenness in humanity in drug addiction and mental health sickness, and at times, crime. On the other hand, they are people just like you and me. Each homeless man or woman is a person, with an inherent dignity, made in the image of God. In their faces and bodies is Jesus. Although sometimes it is a difficult experience, I almost always feel enriched and spiritually renewed in serving them.
And so, it is up to us to live out Christ’s commission of mercy and charity towards our neighbor: to love one another in humble service as He has loved us. This is Christ’s radical idea that upended the trajectory of the ancient world. The God-man took the form of a servant and washed the feet of His disciples. This is Jesus’ radical example for us. It was in this Passover setting that the sacrificial lamb gave way to the sacrifice of Christ: the prefigurement gave way to the reality. Christ gave us this sublime example and new commandment at the Last Supper, as He offered the sacrament of His love in the Eucharist. We too can offer ourselves, as a living sacrifice, in our mercy and charity towards others, in union with the sacrifice of Christ.