The “last supper” scene in John’s gospel is strikingly different than its counterparts in the other gospels. When we read the passages from Matthew, Mark and Luke, we witness a scene — bread and wine, eating and drinking — that is reminiscent of our own experiences of Eucharist in the liturgy. But the ritual action in John’s gospel is completely different. Why? Is it that John simply did not know of the tradition of eating bread and drinking wine? Most scholars agree that this is not the case; for instance, John presents Jesus in a very “eucharistic” setting in chapter 6 at the multiplication of the loaves and again in 6:52-58 , where he speaks of his flesh as “true food” and his blood as “true drink.” So why is it that John chooses a different ritual action for Eucharist — the washing of feet — instead of employing the action of eating bread and drinking wine?
John tells us that Jesus washes his disciples’ feet in order to provide a model for the discipleship community to follow, to practice among their membership. Many of us know the action of washing another’s feet in the cultural milieu of first-century Palestine was an action not even required of the lowest of slaves. Therefore Jesus’ action toward his disciples is one that calls for a radical redefinition of leadership within the discipleship community — namely that service to one another is the true manifestation of leadership. This in itself is a stunning reversal of the dominant myth of our culture that leadership is about power. But why does John choose to place the foot-washing in the context of Eucharist?
First, it is clear John is making a connection between Eucharist and service to one another. A commitment to radical, deep discipleship is a commitment to live a life in service to one another, especially to the most vulnerable among us. Secondly, discipleship must be practiced in community. As one wise disciple put it, ” If I live alone, whose feet will I wash?” But foot-washing makes a further demand on the Christian community. It is a very intimate action, one not easily engaged in between complete strangers. How many of our churches today can claim to be a place of intimate communion? And yet John’s gospel expects that such intimacy is an essential quality of Christian community.
John highlights foot-washing as the ritual action of Eucharist because he wants us to understand that the validity of our celebration of Eucharist is dependent on our commitment of intimate service to one another. The surrounding society spoke of the early Christian communities by referring to their great love for one another and their care for the needs of each member so that there was not a poor one among them. Eucharist should demonstrate our oneness in Christ, our communion with each other. It is impossible to talk of authentic Christian community if we remain strangers to each other.
This reflection was written by Johnny Zokovitch, director of communications for Pax Christi USA and co-founder of the Gainesville (FL) Catholic Worker House. The reflection is from Rise, and Do Not Be Afraid: Reflections for Lent 2002, published by Pax Christi USA.