On Holy Thursday, we are invited to remember and celebrate four events: the Last Supper, the Washing of the Apostle’s Feet by Jesus, Christ’s agony and prayer in Gethsemane, and the arrest of Jesus.
In Jesus’ time, the Hebrew Pasch (Passover) was celebrated at home, in the family. It was prescribed that, on that night, no one could leave the city of Jerusalem because the city was considered a place of salvation (remember that on the night of Passover, the Jews gathered together with their families and remained in their homes as the “Angel that brings death” passed by). It was a time then, in the words of Ratzinger, “in which Israel had to resort in pilgrimage to this city every year at the Pasch so as to go back to its beginnings, be created anew, and receive anew its salvation liberation and foundation.”
As Christians, on Holy Thursday we too go back to our beginnings, that is, to the founding Mysteries of our faith. This beautiful 15th Century Russian icon invites us to meditate on the four events of Holy Thursday.
Evidently, there are many possible interpretations of this icon and I would love to hear you comments. Please leave them below!
1. The Last Supper (top-left)
The Last Supper was a Passover meal that Jesus shared with the Twelve. But He gave the traditional Passover a radically new meaning: now it is He who becomes the sacrificial lamb. Christians have come to see in this celebration the institution of the Eucharist, whereby bread and wine become truly the Body and Blood of Christ, and the ministry of the priesthood.
Two elements are worth pointing out: John, who rests on Jesus’ bosom and Judas, who dips his hand in the dish. Jesus is a sign of contradiction that leaves us with only two options: loving discipleship or egoistical betrayal. Christ looks upon us, points towards his heart and invite us to rest our head there. John lives out a beautiful moment of intimacy where he draws so close that he can hear the heartbeat of Jesus, and thus allow his own to beat in harmony.
The word “disciple” (μαθητής), comes from the Greek word “manthanó”(μανθάνω), in which we find the root “menos” (decision, power). From this we get, in turn, the idea of mind, the center of the person, or the heart. Put simply, the disciple isn’t only someone who learns something intellectual, rather it is he or she who acquires the same mind or the same heart as that of the master. This is what we are called to do with Jesus.
While John rests and – like a child waiting to be fed – leaves his hand open to receive, Judas reaches to dip his hand in the dish. He alone feeds himself; he no longer believes that the Master is the “bread of life.” For him, food – and therefore life – must be taken, greedily and even by force if necessary.
As you go to receive communion at Mass, reflect on how we do just that: Receive. In opening our mouth or our hands, we allow ourselves to be fed. This is because life-giving love is always a gift, it can never be taken by force. Our task this Holy Thursday is to simply trust and open hearts to receive.
2. The Foot-Washing of the Apostles (top-right)
Here Jesus, the Master (Rabbi), commits a scandalous task: He takes off his robe and begins to wash the disciples’ feet, normally the job of a slave. A microcosm of His entire message, Jesus came to serve, not to be served. Such an act provokes a series of reactions.
One is of Peter who refuses. Peter was self-sufficient, determined and courageous, but he was blind to his own weaknesses or simply didn’t know what to do with them. His feet are soiled and distasteful in his eyes. Like ourselves many times, he tries to keep that part of him hidden before Jesus. He pushes back when Jesus draws close. Jesus, however, didn’t come for just part of him, he wants to enter into relationship with all of us, both the light and the darkness, otherwise He can never pour out the fullness of his love. So, ask yourself: what parts of my life am I too ashamed to share with Christ? What are the weakness, fears, wounds that I still keep trying to cover up before His eyes?
Peter may have been the one to speak out, but there is little doubt that the other disciples had their doubts about what Jesus was doing. I particularly like the image of the apostle who is lifting up his hand and looking away as if in disbelief. What kind of master is this?, he might be asking. Time and time again, Jesus recognizes himself to be “Teacher and Lord,” but then He goes and demolishes all the ideas that the disciples had about lordship! To wash the feet of another is to set aside one’s own concerns, one’s own wounds and address those of the other. It is to bend low and take the risk that the other might just step on you and take advantage of your goodness! Our world claims that leaders, presidents, CEO’s are precisely the ones that get to do the stepping-on, not the other way around! Christ teaches us the contrary: We too have to be ready to offer one another the service of slaves, confident that only in humbling ourselves in the Lord will we discover our true glory.
3. Christ’s agony and prayer in Gethsemane (bottom left)
After finishing the meal, Jesus got up and transgressed the limits prescribed by Jewish law by crossing the brook Kidron, the boundary of Jerusalem. Thus, He left the safety promised within Jerusalem, the city of salvation. “He went out into the night. Not fearing chaos, not hiding from it, rather he went into its depths, even into the jaws of death” (Ratzinger). Jesus is able to do so because He knows the Father, He knows that beauty and that light that comes from the love of the Father. He knows that the light is stronger than the darkness and that his Father’s love will never fail Him. The disciples, on the other hand, are overwhelmed and fall asleep, their fear overcomes them. They break away from reality and take refuge in their dreams.
It can be helpful to recall here the experience of Israel escaping the hands of Pharaoh on the shores of the Red Sea. Imagine how their eyes must have glazed over with fear as they saw the approaching armies on one side, and the mountains on the other, and the sea on the other. Trapped, suffocated, perhaps even feeling betrayed by God’s mediator, Moses? Some start dreaming. They want to throw in the towel, act like nothing every happened, and go back to Egypt. But it can’t be done! The only escape from the fear and the storm is through it! And – thanks be to God – Jesus, like Moses, is the one Who drives us right through the ocean. He does so through His Cross and Resurrection.
Let us strengthen our faith, then, and ask for the grace to keep vigilant, to keep our eyes open, even when everything has gone dark. Because, just as we see in the image, if only they would open their eyes, there they would see Christ, the light of the world.
4. The arrest of Jesus (bottom right)
After one of the most beautiful prayers to God the Father ever prayed (John 17), Jesus “came forward” and confronted his arresters. After having left the dinner table, Judas appears once again on the scene. The company that he keeps illustrates the reality of his heart: he comes bearing weapons, violence, hate and injustice. Judas probably started out with good intentions, but like all of us, he probably began to tire of Jesus: all talk and no action. When was the “Messiah” going to start conquering?
What’s more, 3 years walking by his side, perhaps Judas felt that he had earned even more than 30 pieces of silver. Judas is like one of the Israelites who say, “Let’s go back to Egypt!” He trusts more in the sword than in faith. Enough was enough, convinced that it is Jesus who has betrayed the cause (Judas’ cause), Judas does what he has to do, even by force. And behold, for a flashing moment, Judas’ dreams come true, he walks into the scene like a Messiah leading and army; yet with those thirty pieces of silver he has done nothing but buy his own slavery and enslave the man who came to set him free.
Don’t we all get impatient when we feel like Jesus is just too passive, when we don’t understand just where He is leading us? All too quickly, those seeds of our impatience can turn into a full-blown garden of violence. Quick “solutions” come to mind and tempt us to pick up the sword (or that angry word, or compulsive buy, etc). But in the end, where do they lead us? What freedom do they bring? To be patient means to trust, even when we must suffer, that the Passion is a path towards Resurrection; and this is what each Christian is called to do.
Jesus then responds to the guards saying, “I am he.” With this phrase, He attributes himself the same name that God gave to Him when He revealed himself to Moses at the burning bush. Christ is God: He has power. As He said these words, “they drew back and fell to the ground.” This gesture is the way through which the gospel writer John reveals Christ’s “glory” through his telling of the Passion. Through His signs, His miracles and His words, Jesus demonstrates His power, but through His accepting the Father’s will, He redefines what power is all about. Christ allows himself to become subject to the authorities because He knows that the only true power and glory lie in following the Father’s will.
So often the world brags of its technology and weapons. We too look at our titles, our bank accounts and our cars and say, “That is power.” Christ on the Cross, however, is absolutely “powerless,” yet His words and His life continue to knock us “to the ground.” And here is the final key: Christ’s power is limitless, but He will never impose it (like Judas and the authorities, and like we so often seek to do). The entirety of His Passion, in fact, can be understood as Christ’s willingness to be stripped of glory, in order to take away any doubt that He wishes to forcefully impose His will on any of us. If we have the courage and the faith to trust Him, the glory that He offers is always a free gift.