Holy Thursday: The Washing of the Disciples’ Feet

SCRIPTURES & ART: Tonight’s Gospel from John focuses instead on the Mandatum, Jesus’ washing of his Apostles’ feet at the start of the Last Supper.

Jacopo Tintoretto (1519-1594), “Christ Washing the Disciples’ Feet”
Jacopo Tintoretto (1519-1594), “Christ Washing the Disciples’ Feet” (photo: Public Domain)

With the Evening Mass of the Lord’s Supper, the Church begins her three most sacred days. From Thursday evening through Sunday evening, the Church observes the Paschal Triduum, marking the Passion, Death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ.

The Evening Mass of the Lord’s Supper commemorates the institution of the Eucharist at the Last Supper. Earlier today (or, in most American dioceses which transfer the celebration, sometime this week) the Church commemorated the institution at the Last Supper of the sacrament of Holy Orders, indispensable to the Eucharist. 

But although Holy Thursday’s central mystery is the Eucharist, the Eucharist is, in fact, somewhat obscured today by the larger focus on the Lord’s Passion, which is one reason why the Church celebrates Corpus Christi at the close of the Easter season. Christ’s impending death, which the Eucharist re-presents, nevertheless casts a pall over the joy of this sacrament. And while the First and Second Readings focus on it (Exodus through the Eucharist’s prefigurement in the Passover, 1 Corinthians through the account of the Eucharist’s institution), the Gospel does not.

The Gospel is taken from John. While John treats the Last Supper more extensively than any of the other Evangelists, the five chapters he devotes to it do not include the narrative of the institution of the Eucharist. That’s not because John forgot. It’s because John deals with the question elsewhere, in Chapter 6. In that chapter, Jesus multiplies the loaves to feed the hungry crowd that was following him. That sign serves as the segue for Jesus’ “Bread of Life” discourse, in which he expounds on what the Eucharist is and which results in many of his followers abandoning him.

Tonight’s Gospel from John focuses instead on the Mandatum, Jesus’ washing of his Apostles’ feet at the start of the Last Supper. 

Guests at an important Jewish meal washed. They washed for ritual purification and they washed to feel better after trudging the dusty roads of Israel. This was a sign of hospitality, though one usually left to servants if the host had any.

Jesus is the “servant of the servants of the People of God” being formed this night around the Eucharist. In Philippians (2:6-11), he is described as not clinging to his Godhead but taking the form of a slave. Tomorrow, the First Reading for Good Friday — from Isaiah — will describe him as the Suffering Servant. Between now and then, he’ll be betrayed by one of his own Apostles for 30 pieces of silver — the price of indemnification for harm done to a slave. 

It takes humility to wash another. Holy Week began with such an example: In Monday’s Gospel, Mary of Bethany anointed Jesus’ feet with precious nard. That brought forth Judas’ outrage. Today, even though Jesus himself wants to cleanse him, Judas is preparing to betray him. He is the one “not clean.”

Jesus recognizes the meaning in terms of status of his washing of his Apostles’ feet and enjoins this group — which has spent no small amount of time these past three years arguing among themselves over their rankings — to do likewise. He likewise recognizes the meaning of his act in terms of its significance of cleansing. He wants his Apostles to be “clean” as they sit down to Passover and the first Eucharist. He is preoccupied not with physical dirt but with moral purity; as he once reminded the Pharisees who took him and his Apostles to task for their lapses in ablutions, “Nothing that enters one from outside can defile that person; but the things that come out from within are what defile” (Mark 7:15). 

“‘But not all are clean.’ For he knew who would betray him.”

Moral goodness is essential to entering into communion with God and, therefore, to receiving Communion. That does not mean we are perfect. But it does mean, according to consistent Catholic teaching, that one must be free from mortal sin, because it is impossible to be attached to God and anti-God at the same time. If one has committed mortal sin, recourse to sacramental Confession must precede reception of Communion.

The Eucharist is medicine: that is the teaching of the Fathers of the Church. But it is not magic. It is not the purpose of the Eucharist to re-establish ruptured communion with God. There’s another sacrament for that: Penance.

That’s why moral uprightness bookends the Paschal Triduum. Tonight, at the Last Supper, John reminds us that we need to be “clean” before partaking of the Eucharist. Three nights from now, when Jesus first encounters his Apostles altogether on Easter Sunday night, he will give them the means to cleanse others by instituting the sacrament of Penance (John 20:22-23). We should also note that immediately following the selection of First Corinthians which is our Second Reading — the institution of the Eucharist (vv. 23-26) — Paul himself solemnly warns against unworthy and sacrilegious reception of the Eucharist and its fatal spiritual consequences (vv. 27-32). There’s a basic imbalance between the phenomena of frequent Communion and infrequent Confession. 

When Jesus commands his Apostles to imitate him in terms of “washing each other’s feet,” this is no more a wash-a-thon any more than his healings are a public health campaign. Jesus’ actions always point beyond themselves. His healings do not just make the woman with the hemorrhage or the man born blind “feel better” (though they do) but point to a deeper healing from the thing that really destroys a person: sin and its consequences. Likewise, his washing of the Apostles’ feet does not just simply clean their ankles (though it does that) but also points to the need to cleanse their souls. The Apostles help wash not just with wash basins but with spiritual counsel. 

Today’s Mandatum Gospel has been artistically illustrated by the 16th-century Venetian artist Tintoretto. It’s no exaggeration to say “artistically illustrated” because Jesus’ washing of feet at the Last Supper was a theme to which Tintoretto returned at least six times, with different perspectives. The paintings hang in Italy, Spain, England and Canada.

I chose “Christ Washing the Disciples’ Feet,” an oil painting from later in his life (ca 1575-80) and now in the British National Gallery in London. Jesus is, as is proper, at the center of events: he is right in the middle of the painting and his reddish-pink robe (and nimbus) stands out against the otherwise darker colors of the room. That halo, attesting to sanctity, is in contrast to the darkness of the room. Indeed, that is one reason I chose this Tintoretto. John remarks (13:30b) that, when Judas leaves, “it was night” — and for John, “night” refers above all to the venue in which evil is perpetrated, the time of the devil. The shadows and contrasts in this painting accentuate that.

Jesus is engaged in conversation with Peter (in his usual yellowish gold in Christian iconography). He has one foot in the basin: has Jesus started to convince him, about to convince him, or convinced him? The other disciples mill around, watching Peter or reflecting on what they have experienced just means.

Compared to a relatively contemporaneous Tintoretto on the same subject painted for San Moisè in Venice, the London painting differs in two important ways: (1) it makes Jesus more central and (2) contains the action in a smaller room. Its broader color palette also makes the overall painting brighter than its London counterpart. Other versions of the painting situate the event in even bigger venues. 

As the Church enters her most sacred days, spiritual cleansing is a priority. Jesus gives us the example. Let us, like Peter, respond readily.