He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, ‘Lord, are you going to wash my feet?
In St John’s account of the Last Supper there is more emphasis on the washing of the feet than on the bread and wine. But both points of view focus on the body.
To understand how central the human body is to the meaning of Easter – indeed to the essence of Christianity – we need to think of our own body. Thinking of our body usually has two options. One is, how attractive or unattractive I feel myself to be physically. There is a brief, even gloriously immortal, period in life when we (never with a hundred percent certainty) realise that we are young, fit and may even be actually competitive with other bodies in the market place. There are a few among our contemporaries who are gloriously certain of this for a time. If they were in a slave market in ancient Rome, they would be the most popular item for sale. This – hopefully – is only a minor key in our self-estimation; and for most of us it is subdued. But for a certain period of time we may be confident about our physical being. Increasingly, today, however, and tragically, young people feel alienated from their own bodies, as self-harming and eating disorders show.
The other option comes later, when we think of our bodies, not as being attractive or unappealing, but in terms of performance or survival. When our bodies become medicalised – and trapped in a dualistic medical system of tests and experiments – ‘my body’ becomes alienated from the person who says ‘my’ or ‘mine’. In fact, every use of the possessive pronoun suggests a degree of alienation from any true relationship. What can we ever say, for sure, is really ‘mine’ or ‘yours?
At some point – as when we are being cared for in hospital, or when we sell oneself on the streets – somebody else may even own it. When Jesus says, ‘this is my body’, however, he owns his own body. That means, not ‘possesses’ but that he is his body. How else, except with this degree of self-incorporation, could he give it to others – give himself as an embodied being? He is fully embodied and accepts this incarnational truth of himself, regardless of what his body may look like or how well it may be performing. It is not possessed and managed by specialists and insurance companies. Only in that state, when we enjoy bodily freedom, without our bodies being possessed by others – whether for medical treatment or for the pleasure of others – can we say, ‘this is my body. For some people, in the middle ages or today, the words of consecration ‘hoc est corpus meum’ are words of power and include the deepest meaning of the community in which they are spoken.
For others, these words may be merely remnants of a magical past. The truth is found in between, in the web of relationships that make up the body. We all, uniquely, belong to a greater body than our private body which shrinks and withers in its individuality. The other body dies but is raised in its uniqueness, to a new and greater intensity of life. For those who have the taste of the Eucharist this is something we can share day by day. Even for those who don’t have this connection, meditation gives access to it.