Among the many names by which the Eucharist was called, the one that best expresses the meaning and richness of the sacrament is the breaking of the bread.
The disciples of Emmaus recognized the Lord “in the breaking of the bread” (Lk 24:35); the community of Jerusalem diligently participates in the catechesis of the apostles and to “the breaking of bread”, at Troas they met “on the first day of the week to break bread” (Acts 20:7).
Why were the early Christians so fond of this expression? What memories, what emotions it aroused in them?
The meal of the pious Israelites always started with a blessing on the bread. The head of the family took it in his hands, broke it and offered it to the diners.
It could not be eaten before it is being broken and shared with everyone present.
Since childhood Jesus noted Joseph devoutly fulfill this sacred rite every day, and he himself, as an adult, repeated it several times: in Nazareth, when his father passed away, and, during his public life, wherever he was invited at table.
One evening, in Jerusalem, he gave it a new meaning.
At the Last Supper he took bread, gave thanks, broke it and gave it to his disciples saying: “This is me. Take, eat!”; arcane, enigmatic words that the disciples understood only after Easter.
At the end of his “day” the Master had summed up in that gesture his entire history, his whole life given.
He had not offered anything but himself. He had given his person as food. Every bit of his existence had been given to satisfy people’s hunger:
hunger for God and his word, hunger for meaning of life, happiness and love.
Moving in front of the “sheep without a shepherd” he sat down to teach many things: he had broken the bread of the Word (Mk 6:33-34). To those who were hungry for forgiveness he had offered the signs of God’s tenderness.
In Jericho, no one imagined that Zacchaeus was hungry. No one showed himself sensitive to his pleading for understanding and hospitality. No one but Jesus, saw, hidden among the leaves of a sycamore tree, the one who was ashamed to be seen. He entered his house and satiated him with love and joy.
At the Eucharistic table, during any celebration, Jesus presents—in the signs of bread—all his life and asks to be eaten.
In the world people “eat.” They struggle to overpower and enslave; they “devour” themselves to hoard the goods and to dominate. The one who proves himself the strongest in this competition for food, is successful.
Jesus revolutionized this pre-human way of relating.
Instead of “eating” the others, of fighting for the conquest of the kingdoms of this world—as the evil one had suggested to him—he had himself eaten.
It is from this gift of himself as food that the new humanity began.
The gesture of putting on a table, in front of a hungry person, a loaf of bread and a cup of wine is a clear invitation not to look at or to contemplate, but to sit down, to take, to eat and to drink.
On the altar, the Eucharistic bread is a proposal of life: eating it means to adhere to Jesus, to accept to become with him bread and to offer oneself as food to anyone who is hungry.
“We cannot live without the Lord’s supper.” “Yes, I went to the assembly and celebrated the Lord’s supper with my brothers and sisters, because I am a Christian.” Uttered by the martyrs of Abitinae, in proconsular Africa, these words reveal the passion with which, from the earliest centuries, Christians have participated in the breaking of bread every Sunday. It was for them an indispensable requirement. They understood that that was the hallmark of the disciples of the Lord Jesus.
Gospel: John 13:1-15
One is surprised, reading the Gospel according to John, by the fact that the institution of the Eucharist referred to by the other evangelists is not narrated.
This gap becomes even more remarkable when one considers that, to the theme of “Bread of Life,” John devoted an entire chapter (Jn 6) and that the story of the Last Supper occupies a quarter of his Gospel (Jn 13-17). How come he has not hinted the most important fact in these five chapters?
It was not an oversight. The omission is deliberate and, if one considers the episode, which has been replaced, one understands also the goal John wants to achieve.
In lieu of the institution of the Eucharist, he inserted the washing of feet, a fact which the other evangelists ignore, but which for him has paramount importance.
With this substitution he wanted to make it clear to the Christians of his community that Eucharist and the washing of the feet are, to some extent, interchangeable. They are intertwined, linked; they can be understood only if one is related to the other.
The washing of the feet clarifies the meaning of the breaking of the bread. It highlights what it entails for the disciple to enter into communion with the body and blood of Christ in the Eucharist.
The introduction of the story is solemn.
It starts with the indication of time: Easter was fast approaching. It is the feast that celebrates the passage from slavery to freedom. Jesus is about to realize his Easter. Now is the time of his departure, the transition from this world to the Father. He must plunge into the deep and dark waters of the passion and death to trace the path that will introduce all people to the land of freedom.
After recalling Easter, the hour is mentioned, that mysterious hour which John has already referred to several times in his gospel.
The first stroke rang out at Cana when Jesus said to her mother: “My hour” (Jn 2:4) has not yet come. Later, in Jerusalem, other chimes were heard: no one has managed to get their hands on Jesus “because his hour had not yet come” (Jn 7:30; Jn 8:20). A few days before his Passion, Jesus announces that the hour is approaching: “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified … Now my soul is in distress. Shall I say, ‘Father, save me from this hour? But I have come to this hour’” (Jn 12:23,27).
It’s the time he awaited most, the one in which, having immensely loved his own, the opportunity is offered to him to give the highest proof of his love with the gift of life.
After alluding to the dinner and to Judas—the disciple who, moved by the evil one, was about to deliver the Master to the chief priests—the story resumes with a very solemn voice: “Jesus knew that the Father had entrusted all things to him, and as he had come from God, he was going to God.”
Why this long turning of words? The reference to Jesus’ authority, his divine origin, his final destiny seems excessive to introduce an apparently trivial washing of the feet.
The text would be redundant if no one realizes the revolutionary significance of the gesture made by Jesus. For John, the fact is of exceptional importance: the one who is going to stoop to the level of the slave is none other than the Lord, the Only-Begotten, seeing whom one sees the Father (Jn 14:9).
Before and during the ritual meals, the pious Israelites used to make ablution with water. At the head of the table hands were washed by a servant or the youngest of the guests.
At the Last Supper something unheard happens. In the mind of the evangelist the fact remained so clearly and indelibly engrained to be minutely remembered. Under the astonished gaze of the disciples, Jesus rises from the table, lays aside his garments, takes a towel, girds it around his waist; then he pours water into a basin and begins to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel he was wearing.
Everything takes place in silence.
The disciples are silent: the scene they are witnessing is so amazing to leave them stunned. They do not believe their eyes: Jesus takes off his clothes—as do the slaves—and does not wash the hands, but the feet. He subjects himself to such humiliating gesture that a Jew, enslaved, had to refuse to perform in order not to dishonor his people.
Jesus does it: he, God.
The astonishment of the disciples is understandable: they lived for three years with
Jesus, recognized him as the Christ and are impatiently waiting for him to bring the Scriptures to completion. They learned that the Messiah “reigns from seas to sea… his foes are crushed before him… all kings bow down to him, and all nations serve him” (Ps 72:8-11).
Now, in the upper room their hopes of glory fade, mercilessly demolished by the scene that is slowly taking place under their eyes.
At the Last Supper, the God “who dwelt among us” (Jn 1:14) has shown his cards and showed his true identity. In the washing of the feet of the disciples they have been able to read, loud and clear, his profession: not master, but “slave.”
It is impossible to imagine a more surprising revelation of God. Yet this God-servant is the only true One; all others are idols created by people’ mind.
Now we begin to see the reason of the importance that John has given to this episode.
Washing the disciples’ feet, Jesus has forever destroyed the image that people had made of God: the great sovereign God sitting on a throne; the God who claims worship, respects, acts on submission by the subjects; the God who demands obedience and respect otherwise is indignant and reacts with reprisals and punishments; the dominating God who destroys those who dare to stand against him.
Jesus makes present a God with a completely different face. It is the God who kneels before man, his creature. He places man on a pedestal while He—the Almighty—bows down to serve. This is the only God in which we are invited to believe. Take it or leave it!
Faced with this scene—which causes dizziness—our grotesque and pathetic competitions to get hand-kisses, bows, honorary titles, awards are revealed. Our conflicts to reach, always, higher positions are petty.
Peter understands that the Master is introducing into the world a principle that messes up all the patterns dictated by common sense, distorts all criteria of judgment welcomed as logical by people.
That is not so. He cannot admit that the superiors, the most gifted, one who, with full merit, can succeed and assume a prestigious position, must be regarded as servants of the least.
He reacts and, on behalf of all, amazed he asks: “Why Lord, do you want to wash my feet?”; then he poses a categorical denial: “You shall never wash my feet!”
He cannot accept that the Master performs this gesture.
Jesus is not surprised of his inability to understand: the logic of the free and unconditional service is far from people’ thoughts as heaven from earth. Not surprisingly, it is unacceptable to Peter who—as Jesus has already noted—does not think as God, but as people do (Mk 8:33).
“If I do not wash you, you can have no part with me,” he says.
The gesture made by the Master is neither a rebuke nor an invitation to accept as a norm of one’s life. It would be asking too much from a baffled and hesitant disciple. Jesus does not say: “If you do not agree to wash the feet of the brothers, you have nothing to do with me”, but, “If I do not wash your feet.”
It is Jesus—not Peter—who has to wash the feet.
Peter is asked only not to prevent God from revealing his own identity of being people’s slave. If he forbids Him, he would not obtain salvation.
To be saved, in fact, means letting oneself be freed from the belief that what humanizes one is going up, dominating, not making one to serve.
The one who rejects this proposal suggested by the evil one and chooses—as God does—to be the servant of all is saved.
Salvation has come to us when Jesus fulfilled the descent song in the famous hymn of the Letter to the Philippians: “Though he was in the form of God, he did not regard equality with God, as something to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking on the nature of a servant, made in human likeness, and in his appearance found as a man. He humbled himself by being obedient to death, death on a cross” (Phil 2:5-8).
Having concluded the dialogue with Peter, the story continues with a detailed description of the gestures made by Jesus: “he puts off his garment, went back to the table….”
Each movement is accurately detected by the evangelist and is charged with symbolism.
Jesus had laid down the garments, gesture indicating his slave identity. The slaves, in fact were the ones who wore skimpy clothes to be more free in their movements.
Now Jesus takes up his clothes and sits down.
Both of these gestures recall the condition of the free person (the slaves do not put bulky coats but remained standing, ready to take the master’s orders).
After having given his own service to people, Jesus entered the glorious condition of heaven and the Father has him seated to his right.
A detail that is likely to go unnoticed is noted: John does not say that Jesus took off his apron before getting back his clothes. He kept this garment on; he brings it also to heaven. He did not come to earth to play the part of the servant and return to heaven to be the master. He always remains a servant because that is the identity of God.
The apron is the symbol of service. It is the uniform that the Christian can never put off. He must wear it around the clock. At any time a brother or sister may need him, and he must be available to run to his aid.
It is from this apron and not from other garments that authentic disciples are recognized.
A few verses later Jesus represents, in the form of a will, the central point of his proposal of life: “Now I give you a new commandment: Love one another! Just as I have loved you, you also must love one another! By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (Jn 13:34-35).
Disciple is one who follows in the footsteps of the Master.
“Your attitude should be the same as Jesus Christ had”—Paul recommends to the Philippians (Phil 2:5). “I have just given you an example,” Jesus says, “that as I have done you also may do.”
He “has not come to be served but to serve” (Mk 10:45). Even his disciples, following his example, are called to be servants.
Now we can resume the topic of the Eucharist.
The washing of feet makes us learn what the gesture of approaching the altar to “receive the Eucharistic bread” means. It means to consciously accept to identify oneself with the one who, throughout his life, has worn the “apron”. To eat his body and to drink his blood means becoming one body with him.
In the second reading, Paul recommended that, before the breaking of the bread, everyone should do a thorough examination of conscience. The question, the only question that must be asked, and that sums up all the commitments of the Christian life is: Have I always worn the “apron” or am I naked and, like Peter on the Sea of Galilee (Jn 21:7), I need to get dressed before going out to meet Christ?
“A servant is not greater than his master, nor is the messenger greater than he who sent him. Understand this, and blessed are you, if you put them into practice” (vv. 16-17).
The passage proposed by today’s reading does not include these two verses. We notice them all the same because they form the conclusion of the whole story.
To undress oneself, to make oneself a slave, to put on the apron! It is a journey that seems to have as its ultimate goal pain, humiliation and death.
A certain spirituality of the past has indeed presented adherence to Christ as a search of suffering and pain as a means of pleasing God. From here the conviction that the Christian life is not a source of joy, but of anguish and fear is derived.
We seek happiness. It is God who has placed this irrepressible desire in our heart. It is difficult to identify the path to get there and it is easy to focus on the wrong targets and find oneself disappointed and dejected.
One sins when one bets on an illusory happiness. The gospel is good news; it offers bliss. Against all human logic, Jesus guarantees to those who trust his proposal: “You will be blessed.”
Here is the surprise: the gift of self is the only path that leads to joy. It is the first of the two beatitudes found in the Gospel of John. Jesus will address the second to Thomas: “Happy are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe” (Jn 20:29).
Two beatitudes: one for those who practice charity and the other for those who have faith.