By Luiz Coelho
For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way he took the cup also, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.
Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be answerable for the body and blood of the Lord. Examine yourselves, and only then eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For all who eat and drink without discerning the body, eat and drink judgment against themselves. For this reason many of you are weak and ill, and some have died. But if we judged ourselves, we would not be judged. But when we are judged by the Lord, we are disciplined so that we may not be condemned along with the world.
1 Corinthians 11:23-26
Now before the festival of the Passover, Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end. The devil had already put it into the heart of Judas son of Simon Iscariot to betray him. And during supper Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him. He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?” Jesus answered, “You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand.” Peter said to him, “You will never wash my feet.” Jesus answered, “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.” Simon Peter said to him, “Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!” Jesus said to him, “One who has bathed does not need to wash, except for the feet, but is entirely clean. And you are clean, though not all of you.” For he knew who was to betray him; for this reason he said, “Not all of you are clean.”
After he had washed their feet, had put on his robe, and had returned to the table, he said to them, “Do you know what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord–and you are right, for that is what I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. Very truly, I tell you, servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them. If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them.
Jesus said, “Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him. If God has been glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself and will glorify him at once. Little children, I am with you only a little longer. You will look for me; and as I said to the Jews so now I say to you, `Where I am going, you cannot come.’ I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
John 13:1-17, 31b-35
“Whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner…” This Bible passage has always been one of the most striking to me in my whole life. I recall not receiving communion several times, when I felt not able (or willing) to allow God to free myself from a certain sin, whether it was a personal one or even a collective one. And I know this might be a very countercultural behavior, especially at a time sin has been apparently forgotten by many, and confession has become a rare event in peoples’ lives.
However, it is my firm belief that there is no other way of behaving with respect to the magnificent care expressed by Jesus on that night right before he was betrayed, than with utmost respect and awe for his unconditional love towards us.
Acts of love are usually enhanced by unpredictable circumstances under which they happen, and the events that happened on that Thursday night were no different from that. The first of them was the washing of the feet. I imagine how shocked the disciples were to see their master, the Messiah, humbly washing their feet. Yes, the one who had taught them so much, was acting as if he were a simple servant. What they did not know, however, was that Jesus, on that night, was teaching them the most important lesson of all… a new commandment that resumed and consolidated his message so far.
“Love one another as I love you.” The strength of such a commandment goes far beyond our typical understanding of love. Jesus’ love is so deep that it reaches even the one who would betray him hours later. His humility is so impressive that he does not care to wash tired and dirty feet, probably full of wounds and scars. Are we really following Jesus’ new commandment and this new vision of love? It is easy for us to say that we love our neighbor, and in fact, many of us repeat those verses every Sunday. It is easy to strike our chests and claim we have given a certain amount of our money to the local shelter, a hospice in Guatemala or even for the Millenium Development Goals, but would we be willing to leave the ease of modern life and share all we have with the miserable? Would we live a simple life and truly be brothers and sisters of those who have no more than rice and beans to eat? Would we go to the slums and proclaim the Gospel to those for whom life has become a source of constant pain? Would we reach those who we should hate (and who hate us), whomever they are, and yet tell them we love them as Jesus loves all of us?
No, we would not. During Lent, we were theoretically called to fast, and give up on simple things that are important to us. However, how many times have we caught ourselves complaining about how hard it is to do that. How many times have we almost failed? It is difficult, it is very difficult to leave our comfort zone and realize that, for many people around the globe, our lenten fast is much fancier than what they will have in their whole lives. Do we really care? Do we really manifest this love Jesus has commanded us to show?
The apex of this love is expressed in the simple meal Jesus shared with his disciples shortly after he washed their feet. More than a memorial supper of bread and wine, more than a simple act of thanksgiving, the institution of the Holy Eucharist became a way through which Jesus’ disciples could recapitulate his final act of self giving love for humankind. By giving his body and blood, he offered himself in sacrifice for us, and made us part of his own body. He shared our pain, and even in spite of all the suffering that was about to come, he was still able to love unconditionally.
The Eucharist should mean more to us than a weekly ceremony. It is the spiritual food that nourishes us and prepares us truly to be Jesus’ disciples. When we take part of Jesus’ body and blood, we commit ourselves to follow him with all our heart, live according to his commandment and flood this world with Christ’s love. The same meal he instituted that night is a continuous reminder that, even not being perfect, we ought to struggle to be worthy of such unconditional love.
Maundy Thursday, more than a simple ceremony or a light meal, is a calling. As we remember Jesus’ last moments with his disciples before his arrest, we are called to be worthy of such a wondrous love. We are called to truly love all humankind, sacrificing our own selfish desires for the common good. We are called to go to the slums and proclaim Jesus’ message to the outcasts of society. We are called to embrace our enemies and to love them with all our heart. We are called to love the sick, the hungry and the needy. We are called to make a difference, and show to the world what Christ’s love is about.
Luiz Coelho, a seminarian from the Diocese of Rio de Janero, spends part of the year in the BFA program at the Savannah College of Art and Design. His Web site includes his art and his blog, Wandering Christian, on which he examines “Christianity in the third millennium, from a progressive, Latin American and Anglican point of view.”