Q on Maundy Thursday: Were You Breast-fed?


21 April 2011 Holy Thursday
Exodus 12:1-14; Psalm 116; 1 Cor 11:23-26; John 13:1-15

I was breast-fed. What has this to do with Holy Thursday? I believe, a lot. So read on.

In the 4th century, pilgrims who made it to Jerusalem wanted to bring their experience home. So they began to reenact the last scenes of the life of Jesus in their liturgies, especially at the end days of Holy Week. The practice spread throughout all of Christendom that today Thursday, Friday and Saturday became the Triduum Sacrum (holy three days). These days correspond to the remembrance of the Last Supper, Passion, and Death of the Lord. Together with Easter, they have become the most solemn celebrations in the liturgical year.

Holy Thursday begins with the commemoration of the Last Supper. The Gospel brings us to the story of Jesus with his disciples at table. There is a feeling of impending doom. Judas, the betrayer, has entered into a pact to sell Jesus for 30 pieces of silver and has been waiting for an opportunity to give his Master away. The Pharisees’ plot has started rolling. After all, Jesus has provoked their religious sensitivities by healing on a Sabbath and calling God, His Father, thus making Him His equal (John 5:18). Jesus, Himself, knows that the events are all coming to his eventual arrest. And so, to leave a mark, Jesus does two acts that will be remembered through all time: He breaks bread and He washes the feet of His disciples.

First, He breaks bread and shares the cup. These are gestures of nurturance. From one loaf at table, we slice the breakfast bread for everyone. In the drinking custom in the Philippines, tagay is drinking from one glass that is passed on among a group of friends. These nonverbal actions say more things than what meets the eye; its simplicity speaks which even a thousand words cannot suffice. Let’s take the words of St. Paul from his letter to the Corinthians in the 2nd reading. The words I say during consecration at mass are taken from these too:

“The Lord Jesus on the night He was betrayed took bread, and when He had given thanks, he broke it and said, ‘This is my body which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me’. In the same way, also the cup, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” 1 Cor 11:23-25

Thus, to remember Jesus’ gesture by breaking bread and passing the cup to one another became the identity of the early Christians. Today we call it their trademark or brand as a group of believers who proclaimed the Lord (1 Cor 11:26). It was their gesture of communion, of being one in the Lord.

And therefore, the sharing of one bread is an experience of being people of need, but also, people who fed each other from each other’s substance. Isn’t this what mothers do when they breastfeed their babies? Their milk is from their very substance which they give for their child’s nourishment. And it is still best for babies-with effects even in adulthood!

In other words, being fed and at the same time of feeding one another are palpable experiences of communion, of being one body. It is Christ who feeds us from His substance and in turn, we also feed one another continuously, for the nourishment of all. Thus, we can talk about being fed from Christ’s breast. St. Catherine of Sienna also says this. She writes to her friends in Naples:

Dearest mother and sisters in sweet Jesus Christ, I Catherine… write to you in his precious blood, with the desire to see you confirmed in true and perfect charity so that you be true nurses of your souls. For we cannot nourish others if first we do not nourish our souls with true and real virtues … Do as the child does who, wanting to take milk, takes the mother’s breast and places it in his mouth and draws to himself the milk by means of the flesh. So… we must attach ourselves to the breast of the crucified Christ, in whom we find the mother of charity, and draw from there by means of his flesh (that is the humanity) the milk that nourishes our souls. (Carolyn Walker Bynum, Holy Feast and Holy Fast: the Religious Significance of Food to Medieval Women, Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1987, p. 176)

Second, Jesus washes the feet of His disciples. The gesture is radical and revolutionary. Even today, no matter how we hear this from Jesus every single year, we are still in the ‘old way’ of thinking. Imagine the president of the country washing your feet? In a significant gathering, the ‘who’s who’ will be given the presidential table. Or they will be given the first priority at the buffet table. If not, someone else will get food for them, so they won’t have to bother lining up. Think of the mayor of the town in a wedding reception: no one will have him seat where the waiters are. Think of the priest who baptized your child: he will be shoved to the VIP table right away. But not anyone’s fault: culture has it that to best way to show hospitality to the guest is to make them feel like the monarchs of old.

In other words, the shock value of Jesus’ action is meant to be remembered. It illustrates that he is indeed radical and revolutionary, therefore His teaching on love is new and fresh. Service is defined as a washing of another’s feet, a reversal of values. In practical life, the mayor and the priest should take the place of the food servers and househelps, and they in turn will be the ones to be served by those in the seat of power. (And challenge, will you do that to the mayor or the priest of your wedding? Or, will they like it? Test it: invite the homilist at the Holy Thursday mass and have him wash the dishes before you give him food. Try to do that to the bishop.)

The newness of the commandment of Jesus is where Maundy Thursday comes from. It comes from the latin, Mandatum novum, a new commandment. It is the Antiphon we use in the washing of the feet. The way to nurture each other is to serve each other THESE ways. If the mayor or the parish priest expects to be served than to serve, the effect is not mutual nourishment. I don’t think I need to say more.

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