Imagine being the apostles during this week. On Palm Sunday, the moment they had been waiting, nay, preparing for had arrived. Their rabbi was finally being recognized as king in the Holy City. And it was all happening around one of the holiest times of the year, Passover. Surely it felt surreal.
I’m sure they were chuffed being in the inner circle of the One whom Jerusalem was hailing. But this was so much more than their moment in the spotlight. It was the fulfillment of thousands of years of biblical history. It was the moment that the great figures they had heard about since childhood—figures like Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, David, and so many others—looked forward to. It must have felt epic.
Then, on Holy Thursday, something truly extraordinary occurred. They were preparing to celebrate another Passover, a feast they knew by heart. Yet as he had done with so many Scriptures in his teachings, Jesus took them by surprise and transformed this familiar event. He instituted a new covenant and issued a new commandment.
Let’s take a deeper look at what we celebrate on Holy (or “Maundy”) Thursday. The liturgical celebration of Holy Thursday combines several events: Jesus washing the apostles’ feet, the institution of the Eucharist, the issuing of the new commandment, and his prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane.
The New Priesthood
The most moving and well-known rite of Holy Thursday is the foot washing. It’s been a feature of Holy Thursday celebrations since at least the seventh century. It’s often taken to be a profound demonstration of Christ’s humility and service, when the master fulfilled his own instructions by becoming a slave to his servants (see Matthew 20:26-28).
But the foot washing is not just about Christ’s humility and love. There’s clearly something significant going on here. When Peter notices that Jesus is washing his feet, he refuses. Jesus insists, saying:
“What I am doing you do not know now, but afterward you will understand.”John 13:7
After he washes everyone’s feet, Jesus says to the assembly what he said to Peter in private:
“Do you not know what I have done to you?”John 13:12
Clearly there’s more to the foot washing than just cleaning feet.
In washing the apostles’ feet, Christ is instituting a new priesthood. He is ordaining the apostles to be ministers of the New Covenant he will establish in the Last Supper. How do we know this? The foot-washing scene contains several striking allusions to the washing of priests in the Old Testament. For example, after Moses completed the Tabernacle, it speaks of Moses and Aaron “washing their hands and feet” before they entered and went to the altar (Exodus 40:31). In Leviticus 8, which is labeled in modern Bibles with the title “rites of ordination” Moses washed Aaron and his sons with water and vested them, consecrating them as priests (Leviticus 8:5-12).
There are significant parallels between Jesus’ foot washing and Leviticus 16 as well. There, it speaks of Aaron, the priest, putting off his garments (Leviticus 16:23), just as Jesus “laid aside his garments” (John 13:4). Aaron then washes himself, puts back on his garments, and then offers a sacrifice. Likewise, after Jesus washes his apostles’ feet, he puts back on his garments (John 13:12) and then celebrates the meal of his body given and blood poured out like a sacrifice. Is it a coincidence that the foot washing contains the same sequence as we find demonstrated by Old Testament archetypal priests like Aaron?
Peter seems to get it. When he discovered Jesus washing his feet, he protests only to embrace the event:
“Peter said to him, ‘You shall never wash my feet.’ Jesus answered him, ‘If I do not wash you, you have no part in me.’” Simon Peter said to him, ‘Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!’John 13:8-9
Jesus’ mention of a “part” brings to the fore the Old Testament priests having the Lord as their “portion” (Deuteronomy 10:9). What Jesus is saying, which Peter perceives, is that if Peter’s feet aren’t washed, he will not be a priest, he will not have a “part” in the Lord’s new covenant ministry, sacrifice, and temple.
What was Jesus doing that they couldn’t quite understand? He was ordaining them priests of the New Covenant he was instituting in the Last Supper.
The New Commandment
In John’s Gospel, the foot washing sets up Jesus’ issuing of a “new commandment.” This is why Holy Thursday is often called “Maundy Thursday”—“maundy” deriving from the Latin mandatum, which means “command” or “law.” Mandatum novum do vobis or, “A new commandment I give to you,” says Jesus, “that you love one another; even as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:34-35).
Interestingly, this new commandment occurs in between Jesus foretelling Judas’ betrayal and his prediction of Peter’s denial. The passage turns on the questions of Jesus’ departure—“where I am going you cannot come” – and the “glorification of the Son of Man.” This new commandment, then, is once more not merely about being kind and loving, but especially about the glorification of Christ through his Church. Christ calls his new priests to be a brotherhood, not self-interested or self-preservationist like Judas or Peter. Christ’s glory will be known in the world through the unity of his Church, the love which his priests and people have for each other.
The New Covenant
At the heart of Holy Thursday is the commemoration of Christ’s institution of the Holy Eucharist. Everywhere the Evangelists, particularly John, connect the Lord’s Supper with the Jewish Passover. Jesus transforms the Jewish Passover into a commemoration of his sacrifice as the Lamb of God on the Cross. He is the new Moses who leads God’s people on a new exodus, not from slavery in Egypt and bondage to Pharaoh but from slavery to sin and captivity to Satan. It will be his Body that will be our bread from heaven in the wilderness of this world and it will be his Blood that will protect us from death.
In sharing Jesus’ Body and Blood through the Eucharist, we become what he is, a child of the Father. The Eucharist is our family meal, it is when we dine together in family fellowship and share communion. By it, we are incorporated into the eternal family of the Blessed Trinity. It is a foretaste of the eternal banquet of the beatific vision of God in heaven.
In a profound and beautiful Holy Thursday homily, Bishop Hugh Gilbert, O.S.B. of Aberdeen, Scotland asks “if there are any words in the world quite like” the words of institution—“take, eat, this is my Body, given for up for you; this is the chalice of my Blood, which is poured out for you.” Indeed, the words Jesus said on that fateful night are strange, to say the least. And yet, as Bishop Gilbert observes, they reverberate and resound throughout the world. They are words the world will hear until Christ comes again. Bishop Gilbert meditates on this observation, asking:
“How many languages have they been said in? How many places have heard them? How many times are they said each day? Have any sayings so filled time and space? Shakespeare wrote famous plays, translated into many languages, performed repeatedly all over the world for 400 years. ‘To be or not to be’ – that is the question. Who doesn’t know Hamlet’s famous line. But it fades before Jesus’ words. There are no words in the world with such a charge, such power – this is my Body which will be given up for you; this is the chalice of my Blood, poured out for you.”
It is breathtaking to think about the effect and endurance these words have.
Bishop Gilbert goes on to discuss the way in which the Eucharist is the key to understanding Christ’s crucifixion. It is the real action and energy of his Passion. I can’t improve upon what he’s said, so it’s best to let him say it:
“What did he [Christ] mean? What was he saying? Let’s say this: he was showing what would really be going on the next day, on the Cross. On the outside, the Passion looks like passivity. Jesus seems more acted upon than acting. He is arrested by the Temple authorities. He’s handcuffed. He is led here, led there. He’s betrayed. He’s denied. He’s questioned, interrogated, laughed at, beaten up, tried, judged, condemned. He’s handed over to the Romans, handed over to crucifixion. He’s led out, nailed, offered vinegar. He is not entirely silent, but largely so. The waters rise to his neck. His side is pierced. He’s declared dead and he’s buried. He’s no longer, as it were, the subject of the sentence; he’s the object. He’s no longer at the wheel; he has been bundled onto the back seat. But tonight in the Upper Room, on the eve of it all, he takes, he blesses, he breaks and he gives, and he says: ‘This is my Body, which will be given up for you … this is the blood poured out for you.’ These few gestures and words enfolded his Friday in the Thursday. This was the real inside story of the Passion. It’s action. It’s a deed. It’s free and chosen and deliberately done. It is the giving of this body and the pouring out of this blood. It’s self-giving. It is a sacrifice. Made willingly, in obedience to the Father, effecting forgiveness of sins.”
The Eucharist is the establishment of the new covenant of Christ’s blood. It is the way we access the reality of Christ’s death. Though we were not there to witness it, we receive its saving effects by receiving the Eucharistic bread and wine.
The New Betrayal
After the Communion on Holy Thursday, the priest and ministers take the Sacrament to an “altar of repose” usually decorated like a garden. It’s a representation of the way in which—after the Lord’s Supper—Jesus and his apostles left the Upper Room and went to the Garden of Gethsemane. Anytime people are in a garden in Scripture, we should immediately think of the famous Garden of Eden. Indeed, we have just discussed how the Eucharist is the reestablishment of the covenant with God, a returning of heaven to earth, a return to the original Garden of Eden.
Yet, as always, there is a new betrayal. Of course, Judas will betray Christ with his infamous kiss. But there is another forsaking. The apostles can’t keep vigil with Jesus as he prays to the Father. They fall asleep, having to be woken twice by Christ. And when Jesus is arrested and put on trial, they all abandon him.
At this moment in the liturgy, we are invited to keep watch with Christ by adoring the Blessed Sacrament. We are encouraged not to flee out the parish doors, but to stay a little while and pray with Christ, to linger in the Garden of Eden of the Holy Eucharist.
Holy Thursday gives us the meaning of Christ’s Passion, the establishment of the New Covenant through a new priesthood and new Passover. It returns us to the Garden of Eden where we try not to abandon our Lord like Adam and Eve or the apostles did. It’s a time to give thanks for the Eucharist and for our priests and bishops. It’s a time to ask ourselves, “Can we remain in Christ? Can we pray with him and offer ourselves to the Father as living sacrifices of praise? Can we love one another as Christ loved us?”
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Dr. James R. A. Merrick is a lecturer at Franciscan University of Steubenville, Senior Fellow at the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology, and a theology and Latin teacher at St. Joseph’s Catholic Academy in Boalsburg, Pennsylvania. Follow Dr. Merrick on Twitter: @JamesRAMerrick.
Featured painting, The Last Supper (c. 1562), by Juan de Juanes sourced from Wikimedia Commons