In his rather provocative, though always interesting, autobiography, Angela’s Ashes, Frank McCourt tells of a confession he once made as a young boy in Limerick, Ireland. His mother had just given birth and their in-laws from the North had sent five pounds to buy milk for the new baby. But his father, an alcoholic, had taken the money and was drinking it up in the pubs. His mother had sent him, a young boy, to find his dad and bring him home. But young Frankie can’t find his father. What he finds instead is a drunken sailor in a pub, asleep, with a largely untouched plate of fish and chips in front of him.
Ravenously hungry, he takes the fish and chips outside and eats them. Then, feeling guilty for stealing, he decides he had better go to confession. It’s Saturday afternoon and he goes to the Dominican church and confesses to a priest that he stole fish and chips from a drunken man. The priest asks him why he did this and Frankie answers that he was hungry, that there is not a scrap of food in their house, and that his mother is raging by the fire because his father is drinking away the money meant to buy milk for the new baby. The priest hearing all this suddenly becomes quiet. Instead of scolding Frankie and giving him a penance, he does something else [McCourt’s words]:
“I wonder if the priest is asleep because he’s very quiet til he says, My child, I sit here, I hear the sins of the poor, I assign the penance. I bestow the absolution. I should be on my knees washing their feet. … Go. Pray for me. He blesses me in Latin, talks to himself in English and I wonder what I did to him.”
These words wonderfully describe one of the central meanings of the Eucharist. We should be on our knees washing each others’ feet because that is precisely what Jesus did at the first Eucharist and he did it to teach us that the Eucharist is not a private act of devotion, meant to square our debts with God, but a call to and a grace for service. The Eucharist is meant to send us out into the world ready to give expression to Christ’s hospitality, humility, and self-effacement.
Where do we get such a notion? It lies at very the heart of the Eucharist itself. Jesus tells us this when he gives us the Eucharist, with the words: “Receive, give thanks, break, and share.” The Eucharist invites us to receive nourishment from God, fill with gratitude, and, on the basis of that, to break open our lives and serve the poor in hospitality, humility, and self-donation.
This is everywhere evident in the Gospels, though John’s Gospel puts it the most clearly. Where the other gospels have Jesus speaking the words of institution at the last supper (“This is my body. This is my blood. Do this in memory of me.”) John has Jesus washing the disciples feet. But, for John, this gesture replaces the words of institution. It specifies what the Eucharist is in fact meant to do, namely, to lead us out of church and into the humble service of others.
An old church hymn, often used to send people forth from church, puts it well:
Called from worship into service
Forth in His great name we go
To the child, the youth, the aged
Love in living deeds to show.
This wonderfully expresses what the Eucharist is meant to do. It is a call to move from worship to service, to take the nourishment, the embrace, the kiss, we have just received from God and the community and translate it immediately and directly into loving service of others. To take the Eucharist seriously is to begin to wash the feet of others, especially the feet of the poor. The Eucharist is both an invitation which invites us and a grace which empowers us to service. And what it invites us to do is to replace distrust with hospitality, pride with humility, and self-interest with self-effacement so as to reverse the world’s order of things – wherein the rich get served by the poor and where the first priority is always to keep one’s pride intact and one’s self-interest protected. The Eucharist invites us to step down from pride, away from self-interest, to turn the mantel of privilege into the apron of service, so as to help reverse the world’s order of things wherein pride, status, and self-interest are forever the straws that stir the drink.
It is no accident that, among all the potential scripture texts it might have picked for liturgy on Holy Thursday, the feast that marks the institution of the Eucharist, the church has chosen to use John’s account of Jesus washing the feet of disciples. A splendid choice. Indeed, nothing better expresses the meaning of the Eucharist than does that gesture.