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The Everyday Prayer

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Icon of the Holy Face
Church of Sant'Egidio, Rome

Holy Thursday
Memory of the Last Supper and the Foot Washing. Memory of St. Anselm (1033-1109), a Benedictine monk and bishop of Canterbury, who suffered exile for his love for the Church.

Reading of the Word of God

Praise to you, o Lord, King of eternal glory

I am the good shepherd,
my sheep listen to my voice,
and they become
one flock and one fold.

Praise to you, o Lord, King of eternal glory

John 13, 1-15

Before the festival of the Passover, Jesus, knowing that his hour had come to pass from this world to the Father, having loved those who were his in the world, loved them to the end.

They were at supper, and the devil had already put it into the mind of Judas Iscariot son of Simon, to betray him.

Jesus knew that the Father had put everything into his hands, and that he had come from God and was returning to God,

and he got up from table, removed his outer garments and, taking a towel, wrapped it round his waist;

he then poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples' feet and to wipe them with the towel he was wearing.

He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, 'Lord, are you going to wash my feet?'

Jesus answered, 'At the moment you do not know what I am doing, but later you will understand.'

'Never!' said Peter. 'You shall never wash my feet.' Jesus replied, 'If I do not wash you, you can have no share with me.' Simon Peter said,

'Well then, Lord, not only my feet, but my hands and my head as well!'

Jesus said, 'No one who has had a bath needs washing, such a person is clean all over. You too are clean, though not all of you are.'

He knew who was going to betray him, and that was why he said, 'though not all of you are'.

When he had washed their feet and put on his outer garments again he went back to the table. 'Do you understand', he said, 'what I have done to you?

You call me Master and Lord, and rightly; so I am.

If I, then, the Lord and Master, have washed your feet, you must wash each other's feet.

I have given you an example so that you may copy what I have done to you.


Praise to you, o Lord, King of eternal glory

I give you a new commandment,
that you love one another.

Praise to you, o Lord, King of eternal glory

"I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you" (Lk 22:15). Jesus speaks these words to his disciples at the beginning of his last supper, right before his death. In truth, Jesus’ desire had always been the same, and also on that evening he wants to be with his disciples, the disciples of yesterday and of today, including us. It is the last day of Jesus’ life, his last evening, and the last time he would be with his disciples. He had chosen them, taken care of them, loved them, and defended them. Jesus is only thirty-three years old; he is in the prime of his life. But in less than twenty four hours he will be lying in the tomb. This evening, Jesus eagerly desires to be with us. And us? Do we want to be with him, at least a little? Do we know how to give him the meagre companionship and affection that our hearts are still capable of? If we look reality in the face, we see that Jesus has always been doing everything to be near us and to connect us to the Gospel. This evening, the last of his life, Jesus continues to definitively bind himself to his disciples with one last burst of love.
We have heard in the Holy Scriptures that Jesus sits at the table with the Twelve, takes the bread, and gives it to them, saying: "This is my body, which is given for you." He does the same with the cup of wine, "This is my blood, which is poured out for you." These are the same words that in a little while we will repeat over the altar, and it will be the same Lord who will invite each one of us to take nourishment from the consecrated bread and wine. We could say that Jesus has "invented" the impossible -- is true love not capable of doing the impossible? -- in order to stay by our sides and be near to the disciples of every age. Not just near, but inside, the disciples. Jesus becomes food for us, flesh of our flesh. The bread and wine are the food that has come down from heaven for us, men and women who are pilgrims on the roads of this world. The bread and wine are medicine and sustenance for our poor lives -- they heal every illness, free us from sin, and lift us up from anguish and sadness. And that is not all. They make us more similar to Jesus, they help us live as he used to live and desire what he desired. The bread and wine also make feelings of goodness, service, affection, tenderness, love, and forgiveness flow from us. They make Jesus’ feelings flow from us.
The Gospel scene of the foot washing, which was proclaimed to us this evening, shows us what it means for Jesus to be broken bread and poured-out wine for us and for all. During the dinner, Jesus gets up from the table, takes off his outer clothes, and wraps a towel around his waste. He then takes a basin full of water, faces one of the twelve, and kneels down before him and washes his feet. He does the same thing with each disciple, including Judas, who is about to betray him. Jesus knows what Judas is going to do, and yet he still kneels before him and washes his feet. Perhaps he comes to Peter last. As soon as he sees Jesus approach him, Peter reacts strongly and says: "Lord, are you going to wash my feet?" Poor Peter! He still has not understood anything. He has not understood that Jesus is not interested in the kind of dignity that the world wants and spasmodically searches for. Once again, Jesus explains this to Peter: "For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one at the table? But I am among you as one who serves" (Lk 22:27). Jesus loves his disciples and every one of us with a boundless love, in the literal sense of the word, that is, with a love that has no end. For Jesus, dignity does not mean standing straight and tall in front of his friends. Jesus’ dignity comes from loving his disciples to the end and kneeling down at their very feet. This is the last great lesson that he teaches while still alive. At the end of the foot washing Jesus says: "Do you know what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord - and you are right, for that is what I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you" (Jn 13:12-15).
The world teaches people to stand up and encourages them to stay that way. And if there is not enough space for everyone to stand, the world justifies our shoving those who get in our way. The Gospel of Holy Thursday urges the disciples to bend down and wash one another’s feet. This is a new commandment. We do not find it among men and women. It does not come from our traditions, which are all solidly opposed to it. Such a commandment comes from God, and it is a great gift that we receive this evening. Jesus is the first to follow it. Happy are we if we understand it! The washing of the feet that takes place during the Holy Liturgy this evening is only a sign, an indication of the way we should follow: we should wash one another’s feet, starting with the weakest, the sickest, the most elderly, the poorest, and the most defenceless. Holy Thursday teaches us how to live and where to start living: true life does not come from standing tall and secure in our pride. Life according to the Gospel means bending down in front of our brothers and sisters, beginning with the weakest. It is a path that comes from heaven, and yet at the same time it is the most human path we could want. We all need friendship, affection, and understanding; we all need to be welcomed, and helped. We all need someone who will bend down for us, just as we need to bend down for our brothers and sisters. Holy Thursday is truly a human day. It is the day when Jesus’ love lowers itself all the way to his friends’ feet. And everyone is his friend, even the one who is going to betray him. For Jesus, no one is an enemy. Washing feet is not simply a gesture; it is a way of life.
When the supper ends, Jesus walks to the Garden of Olives. From this moment on he not only kneels at the feet of his disciples, he descends even further to show his love, if such a thing is possible. In the Garden of Olives he kneels down again -- indeed, he lies down on the ground and sweats blood because of his pain and anguish. Let us be drawn in -- at least a little -- by this man who loves us with a love never before seen on earth. And while we stop in front of his tomb, let us tell him about our affection and friendship. How bitter are the words he speaks to the three who are there in the garden with him: "So, could you not stay awake with me one hour?" (Mt 26:40). Today the Lord needs companionship and affection more than we do. Let us listen to his plea: "I am deeply grieved, even to death; remain here, and stay awake with me" (Mt 26:38). Let us bend down over Jesus and not deny him the consolation of our presence. Lord, in this hour we will not give you the kiss of Judas, but like poor sinners we kneel at your feet and, imitating Mary Magdalene, continue to kiss them with affection.

Holy Thursday