The forty day season of Lent, is the Church’s preparation for the celebration of the Paschal Mystery. It is a time of prayerful contemplation, of reaching out to those who need our compassion, and of offering the food we deny ourselves to the starving and homeless.
The Holy Thursday Revolution
The Lenten season concludes with the Holy Thursday ceremonies, remembering Jesus’ washing of the disciples’ feet and celebrating a final meal with them. (Jn 13:3-17). The scene was the cenacle. There were two main events; the first represented the destruction of the old model of masters and slaves, the second was the institution of the new, a companionship of empowerment, giving of one’s life and shedding of one’s blood so that others may live. Jesus was initiating a religious and social revolution and it was his final symbolic expression of his life’s mission, on the night before his crucifixion. To enter more fully into the celebration of the solemn ceremonies of Holy Thursday and to appreciate their meaning we will first reflect on the socio-religious world in which Jesus lived – a world of masters and slaves, of domination and control, of oppressors and oppressed.
The Socio-Religious World of Jesus’ Time
In the Jewish world in which Jesus lived, domination was the model of social relationships. Racial purity was of the highest value for the Jews. One was racially pure if one’s ancestors were Jewish for five generations. The Scribes and the Pharisees, the Jewish priests and judges belonged to this category. The stratum of society below the racially pure was the mixed race. It was comprised of Jews who had married Gentiles as often happened during the exile to Babylonia and Persia. The Good Samaritan and the Samaritan Woman belonged to this category. The lowest ranking people were the impure and they included almost everyone else – tanners, butchers, barbers, bath attendants, blacksmiths, nurses, shepherds, caravan riders, tailors, tax collectors and dung collectors etc. – the majority of the society in fact. Lepers, prostitutes, bandits and murderers, were lower still on the pyramid. Finally, at the very bottom were the mentally ill and physically handicapped who were believed to be possessed by evil spirits. They carried the stigma of the sins of their parents. As well as the above list there were 39 types of prohibited works on the Sabbath. The majority of the poor including the beggars and the lepers could not refrain from work on the Sabbath as their families were materially poor and hungry.
The Domination Paradigm
We digress for a moment to discuss the origin of the ancient domination model of social relations as experienced by Jesus in Israel. It has a long evolutionary history and it has produced the world we now live in. Anthropologists tell us that this model is about 5,000 years ago, when nature was full of dark forces and mysterious events and the life of the tribe had to be protected. Domination is a non-reciprocal relationship. The dominator determines the being of the dominated. We recognize that dominance in the political, economic and the social structures (sex, race, class) of our civilization. Institutions such as the government, the military and the churches which are carefully structured in terms of rank, order, and chains of command, can produce landlords and servants, leaders and their submissive masses. In the domination model people define themselves by their race, nationality, religion, power, wealth, talents or fame and they believe that their description is valued by society. This comes about, not because people are evil, but because of the way society structures its sense of values. We think we are our descriptions. When life is judged by comparison and contrast it allows people to find their place in society. Who do we look up to? Who so we look down on? Jesus was very conscious of how this model was operative in the social relationships of the Jewish world in which he lived.
Jesus’ Commitment to His Father’s Mission
Growing up in Nazareth as a pious Jew, Jesus practiced the Law in accordance with the spirit of the Pharisees who believed that holiness meant separation from everyone and every-thing unclean. However, his commitment to his Father’s mission demanded an extraordinary lifestyle of service to the suffering poor of the society. He therefore had to distance himself from that Jewish domination model of social relationships. Instead he became a critic of the purity system and he did not allow the social rigidity of the structures of society to affect him. He experienced the poverty of Galilean villagers, who often had to borrow money to pay the triple tax of temple and state, many falling into increasing indebtedness. Those who considered themselves racially pure only invited people from their own caste to share a meal with them. Because meals were sacred functions that symbolized the messianic banquet so sharing a meal with the poor signalled their presence at the messianic banquet.
United in intense contemplative stillness with his Father, Jesus embodied the Father’s compassion, and ignored every form of social and controlling bias, reaching out to all in need. He offered us an extraordinary maxim: Be compassionate as your heavenly Father is compassionate. (Lk 6:36). Dining with a broad category of people, he was making a statement that they too would share in the heavenly banquet. There were no privileged places at the table. This practice of meal fellowship would eventually lead to confrontation with the religious-political leaders and finally his death.
The Foot washing
While at supper Jesus began a menial task, washing the feet of his companions, a task ordinarily performed by a servant. In a world structured by the domination model, servants wash the feet of their masters; masters do not wash the feet of their servants. What Jesus was doing was a shocking reversal of the proper roles of the Rabbi and his disciples. Peter resisted this reversal; “Lord, are you going to wash my feet? (Jn 13:6). If the Lord washes my feet how are we to be governed? was Peter’s question. How can we run the world except some have power and others obey? He did not see that his world was being turned upside down. Jesus responded “You do not know what I am doing, but later you will understand” (v.7). He tells Peter that unless he consents to the destruction of his former sense of how the world is patterned, he cannot enter the new life that he wishes to share with them. Jesus cannot be forced back into a position he is determined to destroy so he responds: “Do you not understand what I have done? You have called me Lord and master.” (vv 12-13). You have been living in a world of lords and masters. This is not a good way of living or of thinking about relationships. Then he continued, “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.”
What is needed is a revolution, not reform. If the root causes are not attacked there will be new dominators and submissive peoples. There is no room for the domination of servants by lords. The world perceived by the Creator ought to be a gigantic Holy Communion. Jesus was symbolically destroying the whole concept of domination. A final word to Peter: I no longer call you servants but friends. He had earlier reminded them “You know that the ruler of the Gentiles dominate them, and their great men exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you.” (Mt: 25-28). Every human being is of equal value. The domination model of human relations must give way to the communion model of the Holy Trinity, the model for Christians, whose lives are modelled on the Trinity.
The Giving of One’s Life for Others
Jesus continues to explain the communion model. He shows them another sign: Here is bread; this is my body. (In Aramaic my body means my person, my life). Eat it and receive it into yourselves. He shares his own life, his values, energy, and attributes with his friends under the guise of food. He lives in the person whom he feeds with his life. My life is given to nourish your life, to help you live more fully. People are to be cared for and nurtured, not exploited or used for one’s own ends. He gives himself as nourishment into the lives of his disciples because he wants them to have abundant life. Then he adds: As I have done, so you are to do; give your life’s substance, your life’s energy for one another! Become nourishment for one another that life may become more abundant among you.
Then he took the cup of blessing “this is my life poured out for you.” Drink it and live! “He took and blessed,” are the actions of the master; “broke and gave,” are the actions of the servant. He blesses the bread and shares it himself with the disciples. Masters and servants are no longer distinguished; all are equal. Now you must do the same! His followers are invited to lay down their lives for one another, even if it leads to a torturous death as it did for him. Then he asks them to remember him when he is gone, by living the kind of life that he lived. That was his final gift to them, and that was their last supper together. He was killed the next day.
With thanks to Sr.Margaret Murphy,SSC