Humberto Rincón Fernández, OSB
Abbot of the monastery of the Epiphany,
Eucharist and Service,
the ministry of welcome in our monasteries
‘He loved us till the end’ (John 13.1)
The account of the washing of the feet contains nothing about what we normally call the ‘Eucharist’, narrated in the gestures and words of Jesus over the bread and the wine. Nevertheless, in the Fourth Gospel, the Last Supper, that is, the Eucharist, consists of the washing of the feet.
I leave to specialists the task of working out what really happened at the Supper: was it a sacramental act over the bread and the wine or a prophetic act of washing feet in the way that slaves normally did? I have read that at the beginning of the life of the Church the two actions were linked, and that little by little, for practical reasons, the action over the bread and the wine took precedence.
The first verse of John 13 is very solemn and profound:
‘Before the festival of the Passover, Jesus, knowing that his hour had come to pass from this world to the Father, having loved those who were his in the world, he loved them to the end.’
We are at the festival of the Passover, and Jesus is preparing the celebration of the Passover. He knows that the hour has come for him to pass from this world to the Father, that is, the hour of his glorification, the hour of his definitive revelation, the complete revelation of the Father, showing his glory, his being, his essence. Throughout his life Jesus has shown his love for his own, but now, at this hour, he carries his love to the extreme, he carries it to the ultimate consequence, death, even death on the cross, a death like that of a crucified slave.
‘They were at supper... and Jesus got up from the table... taking a towel he wrapped it round his waist... then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and wipe them with the towel wrapped round his waist’ (John 13.2-5).
‘He got up from the table’, that is he gave up the place which was his, the place of honour. He had already said this elsewhere in the gospel. ‘Who is the greater, the one who sits at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one who sits at the table? But I am among you as one who serves’ (Luke 22.27). ‘He removed his outer garment.’ St Paul in Philippians 2.6ff develops this: ‘Being in the from of God he did not count equality with God something to be grasped. But he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, born in human likeness, and found in human shape; he humbled himself, becoming obedient unto death, death on a cross.’
‘He began to wash the feet of his disciples and to wipe them with the towel wrapped round his waist’. This means that he did the task reserved for slaves and servants of the house, or even for women in a patriarchal society, where men had the first place. In the logic of the hymn to the Philippians it is this humility which makes him the Lord, leads to his exaltation, to receiving the Name which is above all names, that is, to recognise that this man is Son of God, that God acts this way to men; it shows the quality of the love of God for his own.
‘Peter said to him, “You shall never wash my feet!” Jesus answered him, “If I do not wash you, you can have no part with me”. Simon Peter said to him, “Lord, not only my feet but my hands and head as well.”’ (13.8-9).
Out of respect for the Master, or perhaps out of misplaced humility, or from a deliberate calculation (if I allow myself to be washed he will surely require that I do the same!) Peter refuses this gesture of Jesus. It makes too strong an involvement. But in the face of this threat by Jesus, saying that, without this, Peter can have no part with him, that he would lose his friendship and his relationship of Master-and-disciple, he reacts and asks to be washed all over. This loving gesture of the Lord seems to touch him profoundly.
‘When he had finished washing their feet Jesus took his outer garment, sat down again at table and said to them, “Do you understand what I have done for you? You call me Master and Lord, and rightly, for so I am. From now on if I have washed your feet, I the Lord and Master, you too must wash one another’s feet. I have given you an example: what I have done for you, you also must do”’ (13.12-14).
A remarkable detail: Jesus puts on his outer garment without taking off the towel round his waist. Even when he is sitting at table he remains the servant, a slave. The fact of being Lord and Master does not prevent him remaining the servant. Then comes the instruction which corresponds to the account of the bread and wine, ‘Do this in memory of me’. The expression applies equally to the washing of the feet and to the meal itself, the Eucharist.
‘From now on, if I have washed your feet, I the Lord and Master, you also must wash one another’s feet. I have given you an example: what I have done for you, you also must do.’
To wash one another’s feet – that is the commandment. To make ourselves slaves and servants of our neighbour is the consequence of participating in the Supper of the Lord. To give up our lives as he gave up his – even to the end. The chapter continues with the announcement of the treachery of Judas and the denial of Peter. From the very beginning the possibility of those who participate in the Supper being able to betray and deny the Master is a real danger. For the Master it does not matter what may happen: he continues to invite us to his table, his table of love and detachment, whatever the consequences may be.
I would like to come back to the other gesture, which is more familiar to us, that of the bread and wine. Jesus makes a declaration over these two elements. He identifies with them, this bread is myself, who give myself for you. I make myself bread to be broken, shared, distributed. I am life abandoned, shared. The wine of this cup is my blood which is to be poured out to celebrate a new covenant. This wine is my blood, shed to give a new life. There is the same instruction as in our Chapter 13, ‘Do this in memory of me’. The repetition of this sacramental act at every Eucharist is as forceful as that of washing the feet. To eat the body of Christ and drink his blood enjoins us also to be for the sake of others a body abandoned totally, without reserve, to be blood shed to give our life, drop by drop, for others.
These two actions of Jesus are deeply related to monastic life. Participation at the Eucharist must be translated into the concrete life of each monk and each nun in the service of washing the feet. Speaking symbolically, not only in the welcome and service of guests, which is easy enough, but in the service of everyone and especially the brother or sister with whom we share the same ideal of life.
This link between the Eucharist and life which is required of us for welcoming others must be total, beginning in our monastery, in our community. There cannot be an authentic welcome for guests without a true and authentic fraternal life within the community. Whether we like it or not, guests notice this when they visit our monasteries. Often their only contact is with the porter, the guestmaster and perhaps a spiritual companion, but they leave messages in which they express their gratitude to the monks for the witnes of their lives, their attention, their fraternal communion, and more profoundly the relationship to the Lord which they have noticed in the celebrations and various expressions of care lavished upon them. But when they witness division, spitefulness, selfishness, incoherence of life they notice that also. They do not dare to express it in writing, but they speak of it and harbour a bitter memory, and this is a counter-witness.
When we speak of the Eucharist we speak of the community. The Eucharist is celebrated by a community. A single person, even a priest, cannot celebrate the Eucharist (in fact the General Instruction of the Roman Missal [no 252] requires that there should be at least a minister to assist the priest; it is only in exceptional circumstances and justifications that the Eucharist may be celebrated without a minister or one of the faithful [no 254]). The Ite missa est is a plural imperative, indicating that the mission which follows from participation in the Eucharist is no private mission. Following on from our theme, this means that the host who represents the monastic community is no lone sniper. This implies that one who enters upon this service acts in the name of the community and not on the margin, or worse, not in opposition to the community. Consequently it implies a duty on the part of the whole community: in what way are they present to the guestmaster or guestmistress, aware of what they are doing and ready to lend a helping hand? The service of guests is a mission given by the superior of the community, and exercised in communion with the community, by keeping them in touch with what is going on.
‘All guests who present themselves should be received as Christ himself, for he himself says, “I was a stranger and you welcomed me”’. This is a reference to Chapter 25 of the Gospel of Matthew. This shows that for St Benedict it is not only the sacrament of the Body and Blood of Christ which sends us on the mission of service and welcome to the monastery, but it is also the sacrament of a brother. This theme returns several times in the Rule: the brother not merely represents Christ but is Christ coming to visit us. That is why he deserves the greatest care.
I am sure that we have all experienced this in the monastery: guests are not a disturbance, a slight nuisance which we must tolerate in our monastic life. They are real witnesses of what we are doing, sometimes distractedly or as a matter of routine. They themselves witness to the strength of their faith, to their efforts to a coherence of life, of the way they struggle in their ordinary lives to stay faithful while leading a courageous life, struggling to earn their daily bread, run their household, be responsible in their work without making all kinds of excuses.
To conclude I would like to quote St Benedict once more. In Chapter 53 he gives some indications about the choice of a guestmaster. Like everything else in the monastery, this service occurs in the fear of God, that is, in the presence of God. In faith I know that my life is continually present to God. This is not to track my movements and note my falls in order to punish me, but to love me in his sight and his merciful love. I am loved by God, and my life radiates this love in my relationship with others.
In the Church we are living through difficult times with the problem of sexual abuse of minors. I do not wish to discuss this question here, for it is not part of my purpose, but I would like to build on what the Pope has developed in several of his pronouncements: sexual abuse is preceded by an abuse of power and an abuse of conscience.
The monk and the nun represent a very special reality in the eyes of the faithful and of the people who come to our monasteries. They regard us more or less as saints. This unconsciously creates in us an idea that we are superior, above others. This is what gives us power. From there we can easily slip into abuse of power. We can make use of others, namely of guests. To compensate for our emotional deprivations and to bind up caring friendships outside the monastery, to secure indelicately economic advantages for the monastery, to get presents or respect, or – what is worse – to divert for our own advantage presents given by guests to the monastery.
In all these cases, we can, blind to the abuse of conscience, easily find justifications for our conduct. I am the guestmaster or guestmistress, I must take care of the comfort of the guests… I must not be cold or dry towards them… I am doing nothing wrong… I do deserve some sort of reward… I work hard enough!
Let us remember what I said: our service of welcome is founded on the Eucharist. We welcome and serve those who come to the monastery because we want to offer them the humble service of Christ at the Last Supper, we want to offer them our lives as he did. We receive a guest and all visitors because it is the very person of Christ who is coming to meet us. We do all this with a pure heart, without any distorted motive, since it is Christ himself, our Lord, who has given his life for us by dying and rising again.