What, for you, is this day about? A friend asked me that question this morning and I found myself texting her back a long message, filled with excitement. Such is my heart. Today marks the beginning of the Triduum, those sacred days in the Christian liturgical calendar when we move deep into the mysteries of the life and embodiment of God in Jesus the Christ. In three days we hold pain, joy, sorrow, communion, waiting, and risen life.
Today it begins with Jesus, a devout Jew, and his followers celebrating one of the feasts of Judaism—the Passover. Even then, as we do today, they were remembering a time of sorrow, of pain, a time when their people were suffering deeply, and when God acted mightily. They were remembering and celebrating their position as the chosen people of God, of the destruction of God passing over their homes and sparing their children. Accordingly, on this night, they ate simply, and they gathered, embodying both sorrow and joy, lament and celebration.
I love thinking about what the setting might have been like in those days—where they were, what they ate and drank, who was there. Often, in religious art and modern retelling, we get images that reflect our own culture and expectations. Yet what was it like then? Certainly, there were not only men present, as is often depicted in interpretations of the last supper. Jesus’ followers were there, and his followers were men and women, children and elderly persons, the rich and the poor, the well and the sick, the outcast as well as the accepted members of society. Some had the means to provide a meal, some could only bring their smiles and their thanks. All were, indeed, welcome. Maybe it looked something like this:
What was happening? What were they doing? Were they aware, as Jesus was, of what was to come? Surely, they were aware of the mounting tension, of the repeated confrontations with power that had been occurring, of Jesus slipping away to avoid condemnation and persecution. One among them was already planning a way to turn Jesus over to the authorities of death, yet he too, was there, sharing that meal and receiving Jesus’ love.
What were they thinking when Jesus took the bread and wine, the most ordinary elements of their daily meal, and shared it with them, telling them to remember him. As often, he seemed to be saying, as you eat this (all the time), remember me. I am as close to you as these elements, made from your own hands, and when eaten, a part of your very selves. Did they catch his urgency, maybe his worry, that they (still) didn’t get it? That they might forget? Did they brush it off with a “sure, sure, Jesus, we know! You love us. You’re here for us.” Did they get the depth of it, that this would be the last time he would be with them in this body, in this way, and he was trying to tell them—no matter how my physicality changes, I will always, always be with you—every day, in every meal, in every moment, always! Did they get it? Do we?
And then, what was their reaction when he removed himself from the place of honor at the table, took off his outer coverings, knelt in the dirt and began to wash their feet? Feet shod only in sandals, feet that had walked miles and miles maybe that day alone, dirty and perhaps filled with sores, feet that usually only slaves could touch? Yet here was Jesus, the one they had deemed Lord, in utter love and connection, touching and cleaning those feet. We hear Peter’s response of horror—no, Lord! And Jesus’ reprimand—“then you will have no inheritance with me.” I can imagine his exasperation at this one, this rather rocky “rock” of the Church who seemingly still doesn’t get it, who keeps trying to control the situation, who can’t seem to understand that in following the heart of Jesus it’s not really going to make all that much sense, but jump in man! The water’s fine, and Jesus is there, in the flow, in the power-turned-upside-down newness of Christian life. Jesus so embodies this new water of life that he washes Peter, the lowliest part of him, his feet, with desperate love and kindness and service, hoping beyond hope that Peter will understand and in turn, do this for others.
For me, this meal and all its actions are Jesus’ final attempt to communicate to his disciples—all of them, not just the 12—that what he has been so we now are called to be. In sharing the meal, in washing their feet, he urges them with all that he is—as I AM love, as I have loved you, GO, do this for others! Do it, he says, because you ARE it.
It’s not about worshiping Jesus, as so much of Christianity has made it. It’s not about following the rules or getting it right. It’s about falling into the heart of Jesus. On this day, it is a heart that holds much—sorrow, pain, as well as joy and the hope of eternal communion. It’s a heart pouring over in Love, even on the eve of death. It’s about digesting the food that He is, trusting it becomes so a part of our own bloodstream that we cannot help but be it, embody Him, in the world.