Since this is a particularly busy time for many of us, I don't know how often I'll be able to post during the Triduum; some people have even "given up" their electronic ventures "for Lent." Still, I hope to post some reflections on these days as time permits.
One of the most unique features of our Celebration of the Lord's Supper tonight (Holy Thursday) is the mandatum, during which Christ's action of washing the feet of his disciples is re-enacted in our parishes, often with the clergy washing to the feet of members of the assembly. I think it is important to consider a particularly powerful moment in the Gospel account.
Following the washing of the feet, Jesus returns to his place at table and asks the disciples if they understand what he just did for them. Clueless as always, the disciples don't have an answer for him. He then remarks, "I have given you a model to follow. . . ." And this is where many people stop. "OK, Jesus washed feet; that was a service even slaves could not be commanded to do, it was so menial. This meant that usually only women did this. So, what Jesus is saying is that we all have to do this for each other, right?" Well, that's right, but only to a point! But there's much more to the story.
See, the Gospel of John uses a very unique word for that "model" or "example" that Jesus mentions. The Greek word in question is hypodeigma, and it appears in v. 15 of the passage. This expression, found only here in the New Testament, is associated with exemplary death. Jesus’ exhortation is not to moral performance but to imitation of his self-gift. . . . Entrance into the Johannine community of disciples meant taking the risk of accepting the hypodeigma of Jesus, a commitment to love even if it led to death. (For more on this passage, see Francis J. Moloney, The Gospel of John (Collegeville: The Liturgical Press, 1998), 375.
The implications of this passage for the identity of Christ as well as the identity and ministry of the apostles are profound, since it links the kenotic self-sacrifice of Christ to the life of the disciple. Just as Christ is willing to give himself completely “to the end” for the sake of others, so too must his disciples. Fr. Moloney writes, “To ‘have part with Jesus’ through washing means to be part of the self-giving love that will bring Jesus’ life to an end, symbolically anticipated by the footwashing.”
Furthermore, those who would be servant-leaders in the community of disciples are to be identified by their own self-sacrificing love in imitation of the kenosis of Christ.
So, for all of us, we should ask ourselves, "How willing am I, not only to do whatever menial tasks are necessary to care for others, but even to sacrifice my total self in their service?" This is the ultimate meaning of the mandatum.