John 13:1-17, 31-35
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. 2 The devil had already put it into the heart of Judas son of Simon Iscariot to betray him. And during supper 3 Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, 4 got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself. 5 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. 6 He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?” 7 Jesus answered, “You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand.” 8 Peter said to him, “You will never wash my feet.” Jesus answered, “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.” 9 Simon Peter said to him, “Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!” 10 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.” 11 For he knew who was to betray him; for this reason he said, “Not all of you are clean.” 12 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? 13 You call me Teacher and Lord—and you are right, for that is what I am. 14 So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. 15 For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. 16 Very truly, I tell you, servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them. 17 If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them.
31 When he had gone out, Jesus said, “Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him. 32 If God has been glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself and will glorify him at once. 33 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.’ 34 I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. 35 By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
In medieval Europe, C.H. Lawrence reports, monasteries often tailored their almsgiving around specific holy days, adjusting their habits to reflect the special significance of a given day. On Maundy Thursday, the policy was to admit as many homeless people as there were monks in the abbey, and give each of them a penny.
What a curious arrangement, to the modern eye: why decide the number of homeless people to be admitted by the number of monks in the abbey rather than some other more efficient calculus—such as the number that could be safely supported, or whatever number constituted the most desperately needy? And why the addition of the penny when, on other significant holy days like Christmas Eve, a bed and roof were seen to suffice? It looks something like paying a guest to stay at your hotel, a very unusual exchange by modern standards.
What appears to be at hand here is an invitation to oneness through an act of selfless servitude. That the number of served matches the number serving creates a kind of parity: you are just as we are, and we invite you to meld with us into a greater we, which is created through self-giving.
With this being the spirit of Holy Thursday, it is no surprise that this is the day we honor the Eucharist, though the Scripture taken from John makes no direct mention of the verses more commonly associated with Holy Communion. Jesus’ washing of his disciples’ feet gives an excellent model of self-giving, and yet again there is something more: it reflects the very spirit of the Eucharist, as Jesus uses his service to model and exhort. “For I have set you an example,” says Christ, “that you also should do as I have done to you.”
In behaving as Christ did, we become more like Him, and in doing so together in community we grow closer: the commandment, after all, is to love one another, to strengthen our bonds and give of ourselves to dissolve the barriers between us. And this is equally true of the Eucharist.
But as we have seen through the example of medieval monastics, this ethic of self-giving toward oneness is radically different than the spirit of our age. Why? We operate in a world that is dominated by a particular anthropology, one that imagines human persons to be most thoroughly themselves when they have acquired, delineated, and excluded others from pieces of creation. Or, as William T. Cavanaugh puts it,
In Aquinas’ thought, Adam’s right of property was based on dominium utile, justified by its usefulness to society in general. Under the influence of Roman law in the early modern era, the Aristotelian suspicion of the right of exchange over use gave way to an absolute right to control one’s person and property. This movement was the anthropological complement of the voluntarist theology: humans best exemplify the image of God precisely when exercising sovereignty and unrestricted property rights.
The result of this shift in thought fractures rather than mends. Christ’s commandment that we love as he loves and give as he gives after his example should bolster relationships profoundly by fading out the boundaries created by self-interest. However, the theology advanced by Enlightenment thinkers like Locke and Hobbes imagined following the example of Christ to have serious moral significance only after a person’s rights to property (and thereby their right to the exclusion of others from their property) had been correctly hashed out. The reasoning remains reminiscent of conservative religious discourse to this day: if a person isn’t “free” (in strictly proprietary terms, that is, having a particular set of Enlightenment-approved political rights related to ownership and use) then what good is their decision to follow Christ’s example?
Our society, it seems, has taken on rather disordered priorities, supposing that unity and growth together in Christ can only really be genuine after we’ve gone about the business of establishing all our little dominions.
But the Eucharist poses a shattering challenge to this way of thinking. As Augustine writes in the Confessions, Jesus’ offering of the Eucharist can be imagined as such: “I am the food of the fully grown; grow and you will feed on me. And you will not change me into you like the food your flesh eats, but you will be changed into me.” In his Tractates on the Gospel of John, he comes to a similar conclusion when reporting Peter’s response to Jesus’ insistence that He wash his feet: “Since this, indeed, is Your threat, that my bodily members must be washed by You, not only do I no longer withhold the lowest, but I lay the foremost also at Your disposal. Deny me not having a part with You, and I deny You not any part of my body to be washed.” In his offering of his entire self to Jesus, Peter has come to be more like Christ; indeed, in the coming days, Christ will offer His entire self in the ultimate sacrifice. Christ’s self-giving transforms: through the Eucharist and self-giving service, we are made more like Him, changed fundamentally to return to His image.
As Cavanaugh explains of this Eucharistic transformation, “the contrast with Locke’s explanation of property—that through labor one assimilates things from the state of nature to the property in one’s person—is extremely suggestive.” In the proprietary ethic of the Enlightenment, we become singular sovereigns equipped to make things more like us, to extend to them our own rights—not to be tampered with or even interacted with unless we will it, regardless of the outcome. But through the Eucharistic vision of Christianity, we become more like Christ, and we do so together enveloped in an all-encompassing commandment of love: we grow together, not only in that we all simultaneously grow, but the barriers between us dissolve and our original love is mended.
In this light the ethics of the medieval monastery’s Maundy Thursday practice, though wrought with symbol, make perfect sense: you match our number because we are fundamentally the same, and through our service to you and your joining us we come a little closer to mending what was broken between us by the Fall. In all this we come to resemble Christ through His transformation of us, and this is the mystery and promise of the Eucharist.
Elizabeth Stoker is a student of Christian theology at the University of Cambridge, focusing on Christian ethics. She writes on Christianity and culture, political theology, and ethics for publications including The Week, Salon, and the Boston Review Blog. She tweets @e_stoker.