When we prepare to welcome our young people to the Eucharistic table for the first time, we often start by remembering familiar experiences, like family meals at big holiday events—Christmas, Thanksgiving, the 4th of July. These familiar experiences all evoke in us a deep sense of unity, of belonging one to another. They all point to a much deeper reality, greater than the actual reality we experience at that very moment. And they all say something profound about us that often fades into the background. And when we remember it, the moment passes quickly, because we would much prefer to just get going with our lives. And for many people, that simply means football.
By design, we pay more attention to our first time at the Eucharistic table. I know we remind our young people and their parents that our communion at the Eucharistic table points beyond the table into our lives outside the church building. It is not about what we are wearing, or who is coming to the party after. It is not about getting that perfect family photo in church to send to grandma who wasn’t here just to let her know we’re still Catholic in spite of all the rumors she’s probably heard. I know you know it, but it bears repeating. Our communion at the Eucharistic table points beyond the table into our lives outside the church building. But since the experience has become familiar and ordinary for most of us, we may also have unknowingly narrowed our focus down to what is easy and comfortable, as well as what is probably also stale and sterile.
The meal that we celebrate this evening calls to mind that last meal Jesus shared with his apostles the night before he died. “For as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the death of the Lord until he comes.” But tonight’s mass is truly no different from any other mass the church has celebrated in its 2000 year history. We will take the same bread; we will take the same cup of wine. The same words will be spoken that he spoke once many generations past. And with the many Christians who have broken bread and shared a cup of wine in memory of the Lord, we know and believe that the same Jesus is present among us. He speaks those very words himself. It is his very body and blood we take. And we are one with the whole church across the ages and across the world, in heaven and on earth, in the one sacred meal in that upper room the night before he died.
Jesus clearly meant for us to share this meal often, and in doing so, we proclaim his death. But proclaiming the death of the Lord is not something we immediately or easily connect with the Eucharistic table. The idea can be both morbid and far-fetched at first glance. Yet the one obvious reminder of the death of the Lord in all this is the “not so subtle image” that presides over everything we do in this room. How do we not proclaim the death of the Lord? Is that image so familiar and comforting that it fails to move us anymore? We proclaim the death of the Lord every time we sign ourselves or anything with the cross, and we do that quite a bit. We proclaim the death of the Lord each time we reject selfishness and make the difficult choice for truth and compassion and peace. By his triumph over sin and death, we have strength and courage to put our sinful and selfish ways to death. So in our own dying to ourselves, we proclaim his death. But that connection doesn’t easily pop into our minds, although it makes sense when we think about it.
What he is telling us is that the bread we break and the cup we share is his same body that was broken and his blood that was shed on the cross. Although the horrific events of his suffering and death had not yet taken place as he sat at table with his apostles, he was already making the connection for them. He knew they would be so shaken up by the events yet to unfold, it would take a while before they understood their meaning. The physical food we eat and drink sustains the physical life within us. So his death on the cross sustains the life of grace within us. Now everything we take as food is derived from what used to be alive. In effect, something has to die in the flesh so we might live. Even vegetarians have to take the life of innocent vegetables! Now the fruits we eat are often the food that a seed needs to begin life. Chocolate comes from beans that would have otherwise been the start of new life. Coffee is also made from beans. Jello comes from collagen in animal tissue. Milk is nourishment for the young of mammals, and cheese is just milk gone bad. And you can ask your parents where hotdogs and hamburgers, pizza, Cheetos, and donuts come from. So we cannot live solely on things that were not once living themselves. Thus life and death are very intimately connected. As life cannot be sustained unless death first comes about, so death in turn is not the end, for it is capable of bringing about new life.
When bread that is his body is broken and when wine that is his blood is poured, the life of grace that is God’s gift is nourished in those who believe. And when we die to our own selfishness and sin, we nourish the life of grace in our sisters and brothers. Death offers no benefit to the one who dies. So by his own death, the Lord Jesus gains nothing for himself. The glory that the Father bestows on the Son was already his by right from before the creation of the world. And the glory of faithful disciples is a sharing in the glory of the Lord.
So when Jesus stooped to wash the feet of his disciples, he was inviting them and us to share in his death, death to our exalted view of ourselves, death to our own self-importance, death to our hardness of heart. When we wash each other’s feet, it is not for the photo-op. It is a sharing in his death, and a sharing in the life of grace that is nourished in others. But how much harder it is sometimes to let someone else wash our feet. Were it not for Peter and his objections to Jesus washing his feet, we would think our discipleship is limited to serving our neighbor. Rather, it is also about allowing our neighbor to serve us.
We heed the call of Jesus to die to self when we wash one another’s feet. And we proclaim his death each time we eat bread and drink wine in his memory. In his death is life to nourish us. And in our death is life to nourish our sisters and brothers.
Rolo B Castillo © 2014