Teaching the One Lesson Well

Holy Thursday Evening Mass of the Lord’s Supper

“What I am doing, you do not understand now, but you will understand later.” Most teachers, when they want to teach effectively will employ a variety of images and metaphors, describing, defining, dramatizing, comparing, differentiating, offering examples, making analogies, producing charts, graphs and PowerPoint presentations for the sole purpose of conveying to their students some measure of knowledge and understanding. Acquiring knowledge and understanding will certainly take time, so a good teacher will use repetition and review, with the occasional creative variation, and will try to reinforce learning by showing how the new lesson relates to previous lessons, and how the whole wonderful mess relates to life. When I taught Algebra to high school freshmen, I thoroughly enjoyed watching the lights come on upstairs. Even better when they did the work properly and got the right answers. Unfortunately, I rarely was able to tell my students how I made use of Algebra in daily life, but I still tried to make the class fun. And if I were to meet a former student today, I probably would not inquire how they were using what they learned in my class, at least not until much later into the conversation, if at all.

In today’s gospel reading Jesus tells Peter to be content with observing and listening for now, that knowledge and understanding will take place at a much later time. Perhaps Jesus was hoping not to have to spell everything out himself. The kind of understanding he was speaking of would come after reflection and prayer.

“I have given you a model to follow,” Jesus told them, “so that as I have done for you, you should also do.” … Here the Church explores the implications of leadership, discipleship and sacred orders, not only in Jesus’ command that we remember him in the breaking of bread, but more so in Jesus’ command that we wash each other’s feet.  It was clear to the Christian community early on that Jesus did not command us to wash each other’s feet in ritual fashion each time we broke bread. Can you imagine doing that at every mass? Our linen ministry alone would require more volunteers! And finding twelve people to get their feet washed is not always so easy. Instead, it seemed Jesus intended we follow his example in a much different way.

“You will understand later.” Easily, we can relate to Peter’s objections. “Are you going to wash my feet?” “You will never wash my feet.” Only servants and slaves washed other people’s feet. If Peter allowed One who was Master and Teacher to wash his feet, he would upset the natural order. It seemed he did not know Jesus as well as he thought. He had witnessed Jesus interact with and touch public sinners and lepers, the blind, the deaf, the mute and the lame. He was there when Jesus fed the hungry, when he blessed the children, when he welcomed the outcast, when he comforted those who were grieving, when he raised the dead. What harm would a little foot-washing do? If he allowed it, would Peter himself have to identify with the sinner and the leper, the blind, the deaf, the mute and the lame, the hungry, the children, the outcast, the grieving and the dead? Would he have to regard himself no longer a close collaborator, but a beneficiary of Jesus’ kindness? And not just any kindness, but the kindness of a servant, of one obligated to extend kindness. “Unless I wash you, you will have no inheritance with me.” As much as Peter objected to Jesus’ reasoning, he was not comfortable with the ultimatum. He will need time to think this through.

Each year on Holy Thursday, we remember that Jesus washed his disciples’ feet and told us we had to do the same for one another.  He doesn’t want us to wash his feet.  He wants us to wash each other’s feet, we the public sinners and lepers; we the blind, the deaf, the mute and the lame; we the hungry, the children, the outcast, the grieving and the dead.  When we understand what Jesus meant in giving us a tremendous example of humility and service, of leadership and discipleship, then we might understand the true meaning of Eucharist.  He gave his own body and blood to be our food and drink.  So our breaking bread and sharing from the same cup is not complete until we have washed each other’s feet, until we are willing to be food and drink for others.

Most of us here tonight are not new to the liturgies of Holy Week. We have seen and participated in these annual rituals. But have we began to understand yet?  These mysteries we celebrate are not intended merely to be remembered or re-enacted. They are meant to transform our understanding, our thinking, and our living. The lesson of this holy night will be learned well when we understand what Jesus meant, when we can recall what he said and did, and understand how it all comes together: about forgiveness, about justice, about truth, about righteousness and fulfilling the demands of the law, about storing up treasure that lasts, about trusting in the providence of God, about judging others and entering through the narrow gate, about building on rock and not on sand, about being light for the world and salt for the earth, about dying to oneself and bearing abundant fruit. We will understand when we are transformed, when our thinking and our living are transformed. Until then, we are only doing what we have been taught, doing the work properly, even getting the answers right. But until we live what we have been taught, we have not yet begun to understand.

Altar of Repose
Altar of Repose at St. John the Evangelist Catholic Church, Waynesboro VA.

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