Thinking about Christ’s Last Supper evokes many images. The institution of the Eucharist stands at the fore. But, of course, John’s Gospel casts a different light on the event. He doesn’t explicitly mention the institution of the Eucharist at all, in fact. His focus, instead, is on Jesus’ washing of his apostles’ feet. This act of humility and charity ties his impending sacrifice to service.
The washing of the feet and the institution of the Eucharist go together, then, forming a whole of what Christ bequeathed to the church the night before he died. The Eucharist is the means by which we receive Christ’s love, and his foot washing gives us the model for sharing his love.
But there’s yet another aspect of John’s narrative of the Last Supper that I think completes and bonds the ties between instituting the Eucharist and the washing of the Apostles’ feet. Here, I’m thinking of Christ’s lengthy prayer to His Father — his prayer for unity.
Fully aware of our fallen nature, Jesus anticipated the struggles and strife, divisions and discord that would plague his followers down the road. In the context of the first Eucharist, Jesus offers a prayer in which he pleads for unity among his followers. He indicates that the very credibility of his message hinges upon that unity. The very mission of the church depends upon it.
“I pray not only for them, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, so that they may all be one, as you, Father, are in me and I in you, that they also may be in us, that the world may believe that you sent me. And I have given them the glory you gave me, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may be brought to perfection as one, that the world may know that you sent me, and that you loved them even as you loved me” (John 17:20-23).
Jesus prayed that his disciples would be united. But are we?
Very little is new in Church history, but there are some features to ecclesial life today that haven’t been experienced for some time. Church teaching is openly questioned. Bishops publicly argue with bishops. Catholics enter into uncharitable disputes (to put it mildly) on social media. We can’t even agree on Eucharistic practice. Most days, the Church can look more like a debating society than the living Body of Christ. How can we convince the world to believe in Christ when we can’t get our act together and show the world a better way?
The task before us in reviving our Eucharistic faith is multifaceted. Yes, we need greater reverence and wider worship of our Lord in the Eucharist, but — as Pope Benedict XVI wrote in “Deus Caritas Est” — “A Eucharist which does not pass over into the concrete practice of love is intrinsically fragmented.”
“The Body of Christ” the minister says as we receive the Eucharist. This means we receive the whole Body of Christ. We are one body in Christ, right?
“Amen,” we respond, agreeing to treasure all those who receive the Lord’s body, recommitting ourselves to Christ’s last hope at his last supper.
Perhaps a fruit of our Eucharistic Revival will be a reinvigoration of our desire to foster ecclesial communion. It’s the Eucharist itself that establishes and reinforces the communion of believers. The Eucharist is the tie that binds. The Eucharist is also our model and blueprint for achieving it. Christ prayed for unity among us, and he showed us how to achieve it through sacrifice and charity. Our reception of the Eucharist should mean we do not impose upon Christ an image of who we want him to be; we accept him for who he really is. And that means we accept each other, help each other and love each other — and truly work toward the advancement of the kingdom of God through lives of sacrifice and charity. The life of the world depends upon this Eucharistic living.
Michael R. Heinlein is author of “Glorifying Christ: The Life of Cardinal Francis E. George, O.M.I.” and currently in formation for the Association of Pauline Cooperators.