Online Edition – March 2006, Vol. XII, No. 1
The Footwashing — Jesus Christ Establishes the New Covenant before Calvary
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Copyright ©2006 Msgr LaFemina
by The Rev. Msgr. Anthony A. La Femina
The Footwashing is often presented as an example of Jesus’ humility and obedience — how He, the only-begotten Son of God, at His Father’s command — emptied Himself of all appearances of His divinity and took our human likeness — “the form of a slave” (Phil 2:7) — in order to die for the salvation of rebellious human beings.
While it is true that the Footwashing is an example of Jesus’ astounding humility and obedience, it is far more than this.
In the very brief Last Supper accounts of Matthew, Mark, Luke and Paul, the central action of the Last Supper is the liturgical action of the institution of the Eucharist. John, on the other hand, wrote the longest Last Supper account in which, however, there is no apparent mention of such an institution. It is five chapters long and makes up about a quarter of the entire fourth Gospel. In this account all leads up to and flows from one central action: the Footwashing. This action is not mentioned in any of the other Last Supper accounts.
Given these facts, could there be a relationship between the Footwashing in John’s Last Supper account and the Eucharist of the other Last Supper accounts?
In John 12:23 — just before John begins the Last Supper account — Jesus states: “the hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified”. In John 12:28, Jesus further specifies that it is also the hour for God to be glorified as Father. “The hour” that Jesus often spoke about during His life had arrived at the Last Supper. “The hour” marks the time for “the Son of Man” to complete the work of His Father. It is a time connected with His death; it is a time that does not depend upon the will of man but only upon the Father’s will. During this “hour” the Son of Man will be glorified and God will be glorified in Him.
But who is “the Son of Man”? In John’s Gospel Jesus gives Himself this title as a substitute for the title of “messiah” (Christ), which was the title of the king of ancient Israel. The reason for the substitution in John was because the Jews expected a political messiah who would build up the earthly kingdom of Israel. But Jesus’ kingdom “is not of this world”. (Jn 18:36) Therefore, when Jesus speaks of “the Son of Man” He is talking about His messianic kingship. Consequently, “the hour” is the time of Jesus’ glorification as the Messiah of God’s people, Israel.
God sent His only Son into the world to share His sonship with us by making men, through sanctifying grace, children of God in the likeness of His Son. Those people who accepted His Son would comprise God’s new kingdom of Israel. As John says in the beginning of His Gospel: “No one has ever seen God. It is God, the only Son — ever in the Father’s bosom — who has revealed Him”. (Jn 1:18)
In Chapter 12, Jesus also gives the program for the work of His “hour”, a work directed to obtain His glorification as Messiah King and the glorification of God’s name of Father. Jesus explains His program by the following words (Jn 12:31-33): “Now has judgment come upon this world, now will this world’s prince be driven out, and I — once I am lifted up from earth — will draw all men to myself”. John then explains what is meant by Jesus’ being “lifted up from earth”: “This statement indicated the sort of death He had to die”.
The work of Jesus’ final “hour” is to bring judgment upon the world. This judgment has two aspects: one is negative, the other is positive.
The negative aspect of the judgment upon the world is the driving out of Satan, whom Jesus called “the ruler of this world”. (Jn 12:31; 14:30; 16:11) In the fourth Gospel, Satan is presented as Jesus Messiah’s rival sovereign. Satan obtained his sway over mankind through the sin of Adam, which destroyed the original relationship between God and His human creatures. Jesus will repair this broken relationship by His death and thus despoil the kingdom of the devil.
The positive aspect of Jesus’ judgment upon the world is to draw all men, without distinction — both Jew and Gentile — to Himself. This signifies the establishment of the new and everlasting Covenant, spoken of in the words of the Eucharistic consecration. “Covenant” means union. But covenant is a special type of union. It is a union created by God that is likened to that of a family. The New Covenant is a union that makes those who accept and follow Jesus Messiah — the only begotten Son of God — related to God as Father. Thus, by creating His covenant, Jesus reveals His Father as our own.
Therefore, the fourth Gospel tells us that at Jesus’ death, He would complete the work of judgment upon the world that His Father commanded: He would establish a kingdom for His Father and take His rightful place in that kingdom as messiah king. His kingdom is composed of the children of God the Father, who are God’s children because they share His very life of the Son of God made man.
Having said all this, John then begins his report of the Last Supper with chapter 13. This account starts by saying that Jesus — who had received all power from His Father (Jn 13:3) — loved His own in the world and would show His love for them to the end, i.e., in a complete and final manner. John also carefully notes that Judas was the instrument of the devil, Jesus’ rival sovereign, in procuring Jesus’ death. Having made these remarks John then presents Jesus who begins washing the feet of His apostles.
Then, upon His completion of the Footwashing, Jesus makes the most astounding declaration: “Now is the Son of Man glorified and God is glorified in Him”. (Jn 13:31)
In His preface to the Last Supper in the fourth Gospel, John very carefully stated that the final work of Jesus during His “hour” could only be accomplished by His death upon the cross. This death is a sine-qua-non requirement for the accomplishment of the double glorification. Yet, upon the completion of the Footwashing, Jesus declares this work completed. This is to say that the establishment of the New and Everlasting Covenant has vanquished the ruler of this world and his kingdom. The Footwashing is indeed a unique action in John’s Last Supper account because through it Jesus declares His work completed. He is saying that He has been “lifted up” and glorified at the Last Supper.
This can only lead to the conclusion that in John 13:31, the fourth Gospel is teaching about the presence of Jesus’ saving death at the Last Supper before it took place on Calvary.
Since the Footwashing is the central action of John’s Last Supper account and the Eucharist is the central action of the Last Supper accounts of Matthew, Mark, Luke and Paul, there must be a connection between the two actions: between the Eucharist and the Footwashing. And, indeed, this connection exists. Both these actions are similar in their circumstances as the central events of their respective reports about the Last Supper. Moreover, both these actions have similar attributes and effects.
The Eucharistic formula indicates Jesus’ death by stating that Jesus’ body is “being given” and His blood “being shed”. In John, however, it is the Footwashing that signifies Jesus’ death. John describes the Footwashing as an action by which Jesus loved His own “to the very end”. Furthermore, when stating that Jesus laid down His outer garment for the Footwashing (the New American Bible translation badly puts it: “took off”), John uses the same Greek word He used when Jesus described the laying down of His life in obedience to His Father’s command. (see Jn 10:17, 18)
It is evident that all the Eucharistic formulas speak of the Eucharist as establishing the New Covenant: The Eucharistic cup is the cup of Jesus’ blood of the New and Everlasting Covenant. In John it is evident that the Footwashing is establishing a covenant because Jesus says that Peter can have no share in His inheritance from the Father except by the Footwashing. This means that the Footwashing is an action establishing a family-like relationship between God the Father, Jesus, and His disciples.
Lastly, as the Eucharist action is for the forgiveness of mankind’s sins, so the Footwashing cleanses from sin. Jesus told His apostles after the Footwashing that they were all clean, except, of course, the unrepentant traitor.
Since it has been shown that, in fact, both the Footwashing in John’s Last Supper account and the Eucharist in the Last Supper accounts of Matthew, Mark, Luke and Paul have similar circumstances, attributes and effects, it is justifiable to conclude that the Footwashing is simply John’s analogical presentation of the only central event of the Last Supper, the only action that founded the New Covenant for the forgiveness of sins: the Eucharistic Sacrifice.
John made the Footwashing an analogical presentation of the Eucharist to teach about the true meaning of the Eucharistic Celebration. He teaches that the Eucharist is a true sacrifice, really making present the death of Jesus on the cross of Calvary. And that it was by means of the Eucharist of the Last Supper, which made Calvary pre-exist as the Mass makes it post-exist, that His Church was born. The Church thus depends upon the Eucharist not only for her sustenance and continual growth but, most importantly, because Our Lord willed that she have her very origin from His Eucharistic celebration of the first Holy Thursday. John thus teaches that the Church, by her very origin, is a Eucharistic People and that the Eucharist must be the center of the lives of her members.
In the light of this explanation it is most interesting to read the account of Saint Mary Faustina, the first canonized saint of this millennium, about a vision she was given of the Last Supper. She wrote:
“Jesus allowed me to enter the Cenacle, and I was a witness to what happened there. However, I was most deeply moved when, before the Consecration, Jesus raised His eyes to heaven and entered into a mysterious conversation with His Father. It is only in eternity that we shall really understand that moment. His eyes were like two flames; His face was radiant, white as snow; His whole personage full of majesty, His soul full of longing. At the moment of Consecration, love rested satiated — the sacrifice was fully consummated. Now only the external ceremony of death will be carried out — external destruction; the essence of the sacrifice is in the Cenacle. Never in my whole life had I understood this mystery so profoundly as during that hour of adoration. Oh how ardently I desire that the whole world would come to know this unfathomable mystery!” (Diary, Notebook II, 684, emphasis added)
Saint Faustina states, therefore, that the death of Our Lord indeed mystically and sacramentally preceded that bloody scene on Calvary. She tells us that just as the Mass is the re-presentation of that act on Calvary, the first Eucharist in the Cenacle was the pre-presentation of that very same saving act. Thus it was that the Son of Man’s glory and the glorification of His Father occurred on the first Holy Thursday. Thus was the Church born. Our Lord willed to make His death truly — not figuratively — present through the Eucharist on the First Holy Thursday — before He suffered — so that the Church would owe her origin directly to the Eucharist.
Because the Eucharist truly makes Calvary present at the Consecration of the Mass, it means that one has no further to go than to Mass to be truly present at the foot of the cross on Calvary — as truly as Mary and John were there two thousand years ago! Catholics do not look to an “old rugged cross on a hill far away” to reflect upon the saving action of God for us, they have only to kneel in silent adoration and wonder on Mount Calvary as they assist at the Consecration of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass and bend low as the Precious Blood of our Savior pours out upon us in a veritable flood of divine grace and redemption.
Therefore, the Footwashing is not merely a striking example of the God-Man’s profound humble obedience to His Father. Through the Eucharistic celebration our Savior makes Himself present for His Church in His greatest act of love for His own and then offers Himself as the food of that life of His that is received at baptism and shared with Him by grace. Truly John shows why the Eucharist is the fount and apex of the Church.
The Footwashing is the death of Jesus Christ that brings judgment upon the world through the establishment of the Covenant of the sons of God in the Son. By the New Covenant one becomes a part of the “New Israel”, branches of the “True Vine”. (Jn 15:1,5) The New Commandment is about imitating what Jesus accomplished in the Footwashing, which is John’s allegory for the Eucharist. The New Commandment is the bestowal of Christ’s universal mission to all the new children of God incorporated into the Son. They must participate in the mission of Jesus Christ to bring all men to accept His saving mission and become children of the Father: “To those who did accept Him He gave power to become children of God”. (Jn 1:12) The New Commandment is a command to evangelizing action in union with the death of Jesus that is re-presented (i.e., made present) in the Eucharist. The New Commandment is John’s presentation and explanation of the commandment of evangelization — to go into all the world to preach the Gospel — that is expressed by the Synoptic Gospels in the commissioning of the disciples with the missionary mandate. (see Mt 28:18-20; Mk 16:15-18; Lk 24:46-49)
Monsignor Anthony LaFemina, a canonist, theologian and iconographer, is on the staff of the Diocese of Charleston. His icons and explanations have appeared in Adoremus Bulletin and Voices. (His icon of the Priesthood, and essay on its meaning appeared in the Adoremus Bulletin, May 2002; see also Prayers for Priests on the Adoremus web site: www.adoremus.org/Prayers-for-priests.html.)
Monsignor Anthony LaFemina, who created the icon of the Priesthood, tells us that the Diocese of Charleston has copies of the icon.
For information, write or call the Charleston chancery office:
Andrea Crawford, Administrative Assistant,
119 Broad Street, Charleston, SC 29402.
Phone: (843) 853-2130
Related Article: Paths to Rome: Washing of feet on Holy Thursday: "For I have given you an example, that you also should do" — by Fr. Jerry Pokorsky [March 1997]
Relevant paragraphs of Paschalis Sollemnitatis follow:
45. Careful attention should be given to the mysteries that are commemorated in this Mass: the institution of the Eucharist, the institution of the priesthood, and Christ’s command of brotherly love; the homily should explain these points.
51. The washing of the feet of chosen men [viri selecti] which, according to tradition, is performed on this day, represents the service and charity of Christ, who came "not to be served, but to serve."  This tradition should be maintained, and its proper significance explained.
See Women for Faith & Family’s Holy Thursday page.