These commentaries can be purchased in book form in The Word of the Lord: Solemnities and Feasts, available here.
The Readings for the Holy Thursday Mass focus on the continuity between the ancient Jewish Passover and the institution of the Eucharist. As the Passover was the meal that marked the transition from slavery to Egypt to the freedom of the Exodus, so the Eucharist is the meal that marks the transition from slavery to sin to the glorious freedom of the children of God.
1. Our First Reading is from Ex 12:1-8, 11-14:
The LORD said to Moses and Aaron in the land of Egypt,
“This month shall stand at the head of your calendar;
you shall reckon it the first month of the year.
Tell the whole community of Israel:
On the tenth of this month every one of your families
must procure for itself a lamb, one apiece for each household.
If a family is too small for a whole lamb,
it shall join the nearest household in procuring one
and shall share in the lamb
in proportion to the number of persons who partake of it.
The lamb must be a year-old male and without blemish.
You may take it from either the sheep or the goats.
You shall keep it until the fourteenth day of this month,
and then, with the whole assembly of Israel present,
it shall be slaughtered during the evening twilight.
They shall take some of its blood
and apply it to the two doorposts and the lintel
of every house in which they partake of the lamb.
That same night they shall eat its roasted flesh
with unleavened bread and bitter herbs.
“This is how you are to eat it:
with your loins girt, sandals on your feet and your staff in hand,
you shall eat like those who are in flight.
It is the Passover of the LORD.
For on this same night I will go through Egypt,
striking down every firstborn of the land, both man and beast,
and executing judgment on all the gods of Egypt—I, the LORD!
But the blood will mark the houses where you are.
Seeing the blood, I will pass over you;
thus, when I strike the land of Egypt,
no destructive blow will come upon you.
“This day shall be a memorial feast for you,
which all your generations shall celebrate
with pilgrimage to the LORD, as a perpetual institution.”
Strangely, ancient Israel had at least two “beginnings” to their year, one in Nisan (the spring) marked by Passover, and one in Tishri (the fall) marked by the Day of Atonement. Thus both beginnings were marked by blood ceremonies symbolizing the redemption of the people. Blood was (among other things) a sign of death. The blood rituals of Passover and Yom Kippur emphasized that “the wages of sin is death” (Rom 6:23). Why? Because the LORD is harsh and cruel? Not at all; in fact, quite to the contrary. The LORD is the source of life and all that is good. To turn away from Him is to turn away from life, which leads to death. Sin is turning away from Him. Therefore, to sin is to turn from life and choose death.
The Passover Lamb had to be perfect: a type of the sinless Son of God, the “Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” Curiously, the original Passover Lamb could be a young goat, but in time the tradition crystalized around a sheep.
The Lamb had to be eaten by the family within a single house. The house in which the Lamb was eaten symbolized the unity of the family of God; in time, the Church Fathers would see the house as a type of the Catholic Church. Only that Eucharist (New Passover) was valid which was celebrated within the unity of the “one house,” the universal Church.
The blood of the lamb—the sign of an atoning death for sin—marked the lintels and doorposts of each house, causing the Angel of Death to “pass over” the houses of the Israelites. But the Angel of death struck “down every firstborn of the land, both man and beast, and executing judgment on all the gods of Egypt.” Was God harsh in his judgment of the nation of Egypt, by striking down their firstborn? In evaluating that issue, we must keep in mind that the Egyptians had originally attempted to eliminate all the males of the Israelites (Ex 1:22). So God in his judgments is more merciful than man in his violence. Furthermore, the phrase “executing judgment on all the gods of Egypt” gives us a theological clue to understand the meaning of the Ten Plagues, of which Passover is the culmination. These plagues were ritual defeats of the Egyptian gods, starting with Hapi, the Nile God (ritually slain and turned to blood in the first plague), continuing with Hekhet, the frog-headed fertility god (mocked by an excessive plague of frog-fertility) and several others, and culminating with three days of “death” for Amon-Re, the sun god (the three days of darkness) and the death of the heir to the throne (during Passover), who was considered divine. In the process of the plagues, God was showing a certain severe mercy to the Egyptians, demonstrating to them that their gods were impotent and powerless before him, not true gods at all. The LORD God of Israel alone was creator and master of all other powers in the cosmos, whether natural or supernatural. The plagues were a sort of “power evangelism” of Egypt and the surrounding nations. Some of the Egyptians were, in fact, converted to the worship of the true God (Exod 9:20).
The blood of the lamb was applied to the lintel and the door posts using a “bunch of hyssop” which was dipped in the blood (Exod 12:22). Hyssop was a Near Eastern plant with antiseptic properties. In John 19:29, a stalk of hyssop will be dipped in the “blood of the grape” and lifted to the lips of Jesus. The transept or cross-beam of the Lord’s cross forms a kind of “lintel” from which his body hangs. So the action at the cross, lifting the hyssop with the “blood of the grape” to the “lintel” of the cross is reminiscent of the Passover ceremony. The cross is stained with the blood of the True Lamb of God. The cross is the “door,” the portal of salvation. “No one comes to the father but by me” (John 14:6). “I am the door. If anyone enters by me, he will be saved” (John 10:9). It is only through Jesus—and through his cross, which requires the embrace of suffering—that we enter into salvation and union with God.
In remembrance of God’s great demonstration of power, Israel was commanded to institute this feast. True religion revolves inevitably around “remembrance”—the calling to mind of the truth about God and what he has done for us in history. Thus Jesus will command us to “do this in remembrance of me.” In fact, the Mosaic liturgy included a “remembrance sacrifice” or “memorial sacrifice” in which grain was offered on the altar to “remind” God of his covenant (in other words, to ritually renew the covenant relationship). Jesus’ words in the Institution Narratives seem to echo the language of the “memorial sacrifice.”
2. The Responsorial Psalm is Ps 116:12-13, 15-16bc, 17-18:
R/. (cf. 1 Cor 10:16) Our blessing-cup is a communion with the Blood of Christ.
How shall I make a return to the LORD
for all the good he has done for me?
The cup of salvation I will take up,
and I will call upon the name of the LORD.
R/. Our blessing-cup is a communion with the Blood of Christ.
Precious in the eyes of the LORD
is the death of his faithful ones.
I am your servant, the son of your handmaid;
you have loosed my bonds.
R/. Our blessing-cup is a communion with the Blood of Christ.
To you will I offer sacrifice of thanksgiving,
and I will call upon the name of the LORD.
My vows to the LORD I will pay
in the presence of all his people.
R/. Our blessing-cup is a communion with the Blood of Christ.
This Psalm is very rich in symbolism for the Holy Thursday liturgy. First, it is taken from the heart of the Jewish Hallel (“Praise!”), the set of Psalms (Pss 113-118) recited at the Jewish “Seder” or Passover meal. At the Seder, the Hallel is recited in two parts: first, Pss 113-114, a retrospective on the Exodus; then Pss 115-118, understood as a prospective of the final age of the Messiah.
Psalm 116 is clearly a todah psalm, written to be recited during the performance of the todah (“thanksgiving”) sacrifice. The todah sacrifice was a certain kind of peace offering (see Lev. 7:11-15), and unlike other kinds of offering, it was not performed in atonement for sin or in reparation, but in thanks and praise to God for a specific act of deliverance. The todah was a festive occasion, because the sacrificial animal was eaten (rather than burnt up) along with many types of fine bread. The Rabbis classified the Passover as a kind of todah sacrifice, since it was offered in thanksgiving for the Exodus, and eaten rather than consumed in flame. Of course, we see great continuity here with the New Passover, the “Eucharist” (from Greek eucharisteo, “to give thanks”).
The todah sacrifice is referred to in this psalm, when we say, “I will offer to you the sacrifice of thanksgiving.” In antiquity, this referred not a pseudo-sacrifice that consists only in thanking God through song (a common misconception), but a real animal sacrifice offered in gratitude for God’s saving act. Its contemporary analogue is not a non-sacramental “praise and worship” service, but the celebration of the Eucharist.
From this Psalm we learn that it was common to offer a wine-libation as part of the todah ritual. This cup of wine, poured out (probably on the altar) in offering to God, is described in v. 13: “The cup of salvation I will take up.” Over this “cup of salvation” Jesus will later speak: “This cup is the new covenant in my blood” (Luke 22:20).
The Essenes, and possibly other Jewish groups like the Pharisaic haburim (“communities”), held regular “thanksgiving” meals that renewed the covenant on which the community was formed. Josephus tells us that the Essenes began and ended their daily sacred meals of bread and wine by “praising God,” which almost surely means by chanting a psalm of thanksgiving. We found a large collection of such psalms (the Thanksgiving Hymns or Hodayot) among the Dead Sea Scrolls, which are thought to have been composed by the mysterious “Teacher of Righteousness” who founded (or re-founded) the Qumran community (or possibly the Essene movement). All of these non-canonical psalms begin with the phrase “I thank you, O Lord My God …” which in Greek would by eucharistô kyrie, theos mou …
3. Reading 2: 1 Cor 11:23-26:
Brothers and sisters:
I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you,
that the Lord Jesus, on the night he was handed over,
took bread, and, after he had given thanks,
broke it and said, “This is my body that is for you.
Do this in remembrance of me.”
In the same way also the cup, after supper, saying,
“This cup is the new covenant in my blood.
Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.”
For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup,
you proclaim the death of the Lord until he comes.
In this Liturgy, we actually take the account of the Institution of the Eucharist from St. Paul in the Epistle Reading, rather than in the Gospel. St. Paul recalls that the Lord took bread and “gave thanks” (eucharisteo), then offered his body, and gave a command to “do this in remembrance of me.” The term “remembrance” here is full of liturgical connotation, because “remembrance” was a primary function of the liturgy. We recall that the original Passover was also instituted as a remembrance. The Israelites had an entire class of sacrificial offerings categorized as “remembrance” or “memorial” offerings.” Jesus is creating a new kind of “memorial” offering and commissioning his disciples as the priest who will celebrate it.
The Lord speaks over the cup: “this is the new covenant in my blood,” that is, “consisting of my blood.” This phrase draws on many important concepts from the Scriptures of Israel. First, Jesus is indicating a fulfillment of Jeremiah 31:31, the famous prophecy of a coming “new covenant”; indeed, the only passage of the Old Testament that uses the exact phrase “new covenant.” This new covenant consists of Jesus’ blood, which makes sense because a covenant extended kinship (i.e. blood relations) between parties. We who partake are now “blood relatives” of Jesus. And since “the life is in the blood” (Lev 17:11), we now share in the divine life. By giving his body and blood as the “new covenant,” Jesus fulfills Isaiah 42:6 and 49:8, which prophesied that the servant of the LORD would not merely make a covenant but become one. Finally, the “new covenant in my blood” recalls Moses “blood of the covenant” (Exod 24:8) at Mt. Sinai, which formed the twelve tribes into the family of God. Now Jesus renews and transforms that divine covenant, only with the twelve apostles on Mt. Zion.
Interestingly, Evangelical scholar Richard Averbeck argues that the originally the blood ceremony at Sinai not only established the covenant but also consecrated the people as royal priests (cf. Exod 19:5-6). If we see the parallel between Moses and the twelve tribes on Mt. Sinai in Exod 24:8, where Moses speaks of “the blood of the covenant”, and Jesus and the twelve apostles on Mt. Zion in Matt 26:28, where Jesus speaks of “my blood of the covenant,” then we could also draw the conclusion that the Last Supper was also a kind of ordination/consecration of the Apostles as priests of the New Covenant.
4. The Gospel is Jn 13:1-15:
Before the feast of Passover, Jesus knew that his hour had come
to pass from this world to the Father.
He loved his own in the world and he loved them to the end.
The devil had already induced Judas, son of Simon the Iscariot, to hand him over.
So, during supper,
fully aware that the Father had put everything into his power
and that he had come from God and was returning to God,
he rose from supper and took off his outer garments.
He took a towel and tied it around his waist.
Then he poured water into a basin
and began to wash the disciples’ feet
and dry them with the towel around his waist.
He came to Simon Peter, who said to him,
“Master, are you going to wash my feet?”
Jesus answered and said to him,
“What I am doing, you do not understand now,
but you will understand later.”
Peter said to him, “You will never wash my feet.”
Jesus answered him,
“Unless I wash you, you will have no inheritance with me.”
Simon Peter said to him,
“Master, then not only my feet, but my hands and head as well.”
Jesus said to him,
“Whoever has bathed has no need except to have his feet washed,
for he is clean all over;
so you are clean, but not all.”
For he knew who would betray him;
for this reason, he said, “Not all of you are clean.”
So when he had washed their feet
and put his garments back on and reclined at table again,
he said to them, “Do you realize what I have done for you?
You call me ‘teacher’ and ‘master,’ and rightly so, for indeed I am.
If I, therefore, the master and teacher, have washed your feet,
you ought to wash one another’s feet.
I have given you a model to follow,
so that as I have done for you, you should also do.”
Many have noted the irony that, on the Mass of the Lord’s Supper, we read from the one Gospel that does nothave an account of the Lord’s Supper or the institution of the Eucharist. John chooses not to tell that story again (you’ve heard it four other places in the New Testament already: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and 1 Corinthians). Instead, he focuses on the foot washing prior to the Supper.
The foot washing has several levels of symbolism. Jesus disrobing, washing the feet, dressing again, and sitting down once more are a parable of (1) the sequence of his incarnation–life–death–ascension, in which he took off the garments of his visible divinity, became humiliated, and then was clothed once more in glory, and also (2) his passion–death–resurrection, in which he takes of the garment of his humanity, descends to death, and takes up his human “garment” once more, now glorified. The account of the foot-washing is theologically analogous to the great hymn of Phil. 2:5-11, which we read on Palm Sunday.
The foot-washing itself was a humble act of service on Jesus’ part, and almost everyone perceives the basic message of the act: we also should be willing to humble ourselves in concrete acts of service to others. However, there is also a sacramental level of meaning: priests had to wash their feet and hands before entering the sanctuary to offer sacrifice (Ex 30:19,21). The disciples have washed their hands, but not their feet: Jesus completes a figurative “ordination” for them, for he intends them to be the priests of the new covenant who will celebrate the New Passover sacrifice for God’s people. Jesus and Peter get into a discussion of “having a part in me.” The Greek term for “part” (meris) is full of priestly connotations: the Levitical priesthood had no “part” (meris) of the land, because their sole “part” or “portion” was the LORD himself (Num 18:8). Thus, the disciples are to become like the Levitical priesthood of old: their sole “portion” in this life is Lord. Although this principle does not demand celibacy of the new covenant priesthood per se, we can see how the celibate life of the Latin priesthood is a beautiful expression of the truth that the LORD and he alone is the portion and inheritance of those who take Holy Orders.
It is legitimate to see in Jesus’ expression “he who has bathed” a reference to Baptism, and therefore the “washing of feet” would indicate a post-Baptismal removal of sin, i.e. the Sacrament of Confession. Thus, “wash one another’s feet” has several layers of meaning: (1) “perform humble acts of service to one another,” (2) “forgive each other’s sin” in a simple sense (3) “forgive each other’s sin sacramentally,” i.e. hear each other’s confessions.
The foot washing rite was not traditional in parish life in the Latin Church prior to Vatican II, but was instituted as an option by the Council. It has since become popular. The rite was intended to re-enact the foot-washing of the apostles as part of their ordination as the priesthood of the New Covenant. To represent the priestly college, the rite originally prescribed that men (viri) were to have their feet washed. However, in many places the connection between the rite and the ordination of the New Covenant priesthood was not recognized, and it was understood only in terms of Christ’s humility in coming to serve the entire people of God. And indeed, the Twelve do mystically represent the whole people of God.
Some years ago, Pope Francis changed the instructions on the rite to make licit what had been common practice in many places for some time, and now persons of any age or gender may have their feet washed in the rite. This changes its meaning somewhat, and excludes the connection to the ordination of the ministerial priesthood. Now, the meaning rite is primarily as a symbolic sign of Christ’s humble service to all the people of God.
Be that as it may, the celebration of Institution of the Eucharist on this holy night necessarily causes us to meditate on the gift of Holy Orders, without which the Eucharist would not be available to us.
Thus, this great celebration of the Mass of the Lord’s Supper motivates us to appreciate and value three interlinked sacraments of the Church: Eucharist, Holy Orders, and Reconciliation.
We could also add Baptism in the mix, because the washing of the feet also recalls how Jesus has already washed us all in the “bath” that he mentions to Peter.
Jesus has done everything for us: descended to save us, washed us in the Holy Spirit, fed us with his own body, anointed us with the oil of the Spirit. This liturgy should fill us with gratitude as we ponder the great things God has done for us in Christ, and should cause us to renew our efforts to show love to those around us, sharing with them all the undeserved blessing that Jesus has poured out on us.