On Palm Sunday the homilist at our community Mass said that the people who greeted Jesus as he rode into Jerusalem considered him to be a political messiah who would free them from Roman oppression. We, on the other hand, know him to be "a crucified Messiah" and "a Savior who does not prevent our suffering and death, but who saves us through suffering and death." He said that "we stand for a Messiah who shows us not how to live off the investments of others but how to invest our very selves in the lives of others." Following this Messiah means "a life not held on to, but a life freely given away."
Today and tomorrow, in a special way, we remember how the Messiah freely gave his life away at the Last Supper and on the Cross. He gave his life so that we might have life. He gives us life as he enters into a Holy Communion with us in the Eucharist. This transforms us so that we in turn will give our lives for others.
John's Gospel does not have the story of the Institution of the Eucharist at the Last Supper. Instead we have the scene of Jesus washing the feet of the apostles at the Last Supper. The Eucharist is not mentioned. Why is that? And why didn't foot washing become a sacrament the way the Eucharist did?
I think the answer can be found in some writings of our recent Popes. In his Apostolic Letter announcing the Year of the Eucharist ("Mane Nobiscum Domine"), Blessed John Paul II asked if the celebration of that special year could not be "an occasion for diocesan and parish communities to commit themselves in a particular way to responding with fraternal solicitude to one of the many forms of poverty in our world?" He went on to say: "We cannot delude ourselves: by our mutual love and, in particular, by our concern for those in need we will be recognized as true followers of Christ. This will be the criterion by which the authenticity of our Eucharistic celebrations is judged" (#28). In other words, our celebration of the Mass should make a real difference in the way we live. Our celebrations won't be "authentic" or true if they do not transform us, if they do not lead us to live in service of others.
In his Apostolic Exhortation "Sacramentum Caritatis," Pope Benedict, quoting the Bishops at the 2005 Synod which brought to a conclusion the Year of the Eucharist, wrote that "the Christian faithful need a fuller understanding of the relationship between the Eucharist and their daily lives. Eucharistic spirituality is not just participation in Mass and devotion to the Blessed Sacrament. It embraces the whole of life" (#77).
When we put the Gospel of John with its account of the washing of feet together with the other three Gospels and St. Paul, we see that John is giving us an essential Eucharistic element. The Eucharist is not just something that is celebrated. It has to be lived and the foot washing ceremony in John shows us in a concrete way how the Eucharist is lived--by humble service of one another. This is a service that, following the example of Jesus, can even lead to laying down our lives for others.
In the opening talk to a diocesan conference in Rome on June 15, 2010, Pope Benedict again emphasized the point that unless the breaking of bread in the Eucharist leads to washing the feet of others and even being broken for others, it is a lie. He said: "The Eucharist celebrated obliges us, and at the same time enables us, to become in our turn, bread broken for our brothers and sisters, meeting their needs and giving ourselves. For this reason a Eucharistic celebration that does not lead to meeting people where they live, work and suffer, in order to bring them God's love, does not express the truth it contains. In order to be faithful to the mystery that is celebrated on the altars we must, as the Apostle Paul exhorts us, offer our bodies, ourselves, as a spiritual sacrifice please to God (cf. Rom 12: 1) in those circumstances that ask us to make our 'I' die and that constitute our daily 'altar'."
It could be said that the washing of feet really is a sacrament. It's the sacrament of daily life in which we join the offering of ourselves to the perfect offering of Jesus. The celebration of the Eucharist is not over when Mass ends and the congregation leaves the church. We go forth to live the Eucharist in our daily lives, to be bread for one another, to live in a way that shows our celebration has truly been "authentic."