When the Jewish Passover meal is celebrated the youngest in the family asks “what makes this night different from all other nights?” This gives rise to the telling of the story of the Exodus. We could well ask this same question this evening; what makes this night different from all other nights? This evening the scene is set for us in the upper room. According to tradition this is the place where Jesus shares the Last Supper with his disciples; where he will appear among them after his resurrection and where the Holy Spirit will descend upon them. Here, in this room the Church is born and from this place she goes forth into the world. What happens in this room forms the Church, you and me, and the memory of all that takes place here tells us who we are. What happens in this room reminds us of service, sacrifice and communion. What happens in this upper room, however, also reminds us of other things, betrayal, pettiness and jealousy. The entire spectrum of human life is found within the walls of this one room and out of this mixed bag of experiences the Church is born. It embraces all of life and by so doing makes all things new in Christ.
At the Last Supper their little community was falling to pieces; things were not going well. Just when it all seemed hopeless Jesus does something completely unexpected. He took bread into his hands “this is my body which will be given up for you”. In that upper room on this holy night the Lord Jesus gave his body and blood for us. He leaves us the covenant that he will seal with his blood on the cross. Every time we celebrate the Sacraments the Lord Jesus kneels down again before our feet and washes us. The new commandment consists in loving together with him who loved us first. I have given you an example. The foot washing has been traditionally referred to as the Mandatum, the Command. It is a command from the Lord himself to become a man or woman poured out for others.
Jesus’ action speaks of loving kindness, mercy, tenderness and compassion. These are things that heal. This is to be our way of being in the world. It speaks of a God whose heart was capable of being deeply moved when confronted by human suffering and need; it speaks of a body that is given for us; it speaks of someone who is true and faithful, someone who understands and is always present. This is what our world today longs for; authenticity, honesty, kindness and integrity.
We are presented on this night with a scene unlike any other. Jesus removes the garments of his glory and clothes himself with the towel of humility. Never before and never since have we witnessed an action which speaks such love and such respect for everything human. It becomes for Jesus a profound offering of intimacy and communion. This is re-enacted not just when we celebrate our Eucharist, but also when we do even small things that speak of human dignity and hope.
Each one of us can identify with the uncertainty and confusion of the disciples in the Upper Room at the Last Supper. When Jesus commands his disciples to repeat this action he is not merely talking about the washing of feet. He is insisting that we forgive one another as he has forgiven us; that we love one another as he has loved us. Do this in memory of me. The Lord puts the jug and towel into our hands this night so that we can become truly Christian. No mere spectators in this Act of Love we are empowered to become participants.
Who needs my forgiveness and love this night? From whom do I need forgiveness? How important this is, is brought home to us forcefully when we look upon the face of human tragedy; victims of mass shootings, victims of natural disasters, famines, wars, violence and hatred, the homeless and refugees, those who die of the cold on our streets. It is here that the foot washing comes to life and it is here that we understand the meaning of this sacrament we celebrate. It comes with a cost, but this is what it means to be a Christian. What makes this night different to all other nights? Tonight we say ‘yes’ to his Mandatum, his command to love as we begin the journey of these three days. And as we say yes we show ourselves to be a people of the Lamb.