Holy Thursday sermon: the foot washing

12. Sermon preached in Vinegia on Holy Thursday 1539

By Bernardino Ochino da Siena

Translated by Patrick Colbourne OFM Cap

Translator’s note: This translation is based on the introduction, text and footnotes which were published by P. Costanzo Cargnoni O.F.M. Cap. In I Frati Cappuccini: Documenti e testimonianze dell primo secolo, Edizioni Frate Indovino, Perugia, vol III/1, pp.2241-2255. The only additions to the notes made by the translator are references to Francis of Assisi: The Early Documents, edited by Regis Armstrong, O.F.M. Cap., J. A. Wayne Hellmann, O.F.M. and William J. Short O.F.M. Conv., New York City Press, New York, London, Manila, for an English version of quotations from the Writings or Biographies of St Francis.

Introduction by Costanzo Cargnoni OFM Cap

In this sermon Ochino is speaking about sacramental communion with the intention of showing “clearly the purpose and the fruit of this sacrament.” He comments on the episode of the washing of the feet as it is related in St John’s Gospel interpreting it in a particular way while adhering to the letter. He goes on to list certain reasons why the faithful actually receive communion or why they approach the sacrament so rarely or only when it is prescribed. What stops some of them could be that they are imperfect or are married. What should motivate them to receive it should be that they love God and have a desire to receive spiritual gifts. He invokes the liturgical antiphon O sacrum convivium to illustrate the two principal effects of the Eucharist, it brings to mind the Passion and death of Christ on the cross, and it is a pledge of future glory.

He does not place great emphasis on the real presence, even though he does not deny it. However, he stresses charity, love and the spirit with which one should approach the Eucharistic table which he says ought to be the reasons for receiving the sacrament and not just because it is a precept of the Church because this would not involve very much love. He challenges those who are lustful, vain, those who make money unjustly and who have power and receive Christ in the Eucharist without conversion of heart. He concludes by encouraging the faithful to receive communion frequently, with love and sensitivity so as to continue to gain an intimate experience of the mysteries of Christ’s life.[1]

12. Sermon preached in Vinegia on Holy Thursday 1539

5743 Although one can see God’s generosity, wisdom, omnipotence and all of his other perfections in all created things, nevertheless, they shine forth more perfectly and superbly in the sacrament of the Eucharist, in which God’s goodness, mercy, grandeur, generosity and every other perfection shine out more clear than in anything else as St John says in today’s holy Gospel.[2]

In the whole of Sacred Scripture, you will not find a sweeter, gentler or more loving Gospel than this which not only depicts Christ as the Word of God, but which presents this in a way that shows it very clearly. Indeed, it says that: Ante diem festum Paschae, the day before the feast of the Passover, sciens Iesus, quia venit hora eius, ut transeat de hoc mundo ad Patrem, cum dilexisset eos[3] etc. When Christ knew that the hour had come for him to depart from this world and return to his Father, he showed us how much he loved us by the many gifts he had given us since he came down from heaven. In this last moment of his life he showed us his heartfelt love, as our spouse who was going on a journey. Because he loved his spouse most dearly, he wanted to show her this when he was about to depart. He was not satisfied with having created her, nourished and fed her with his grace, but at this time he wanted to show his great love by being willing to give himself up for her on the wood of the cross, by shedding his precious blood to save the world. What more could he do that that! Maiorem caritatem nemo habet, ut animam suam ponat quis pro amicis suis.[4] He had given us his body, his life, his soul and heavenly grace that were so many sparks, immo flames of love for human hearts.

5744 Et coena facta, the Sunday evening meal was finished. During that meal he wanted to nourish his Apostles with the Paschal Lamb of his precious body and blood. Et finita coena, sciens quia omnia dedit ei Pater in manus, et quia a Deo exivit et ad Deum vadit:[5] Knowing that ab aeterno he had been given all power in heaven and on earth, he wanted to make out his will using gentle words. Getting up from the table,[6] ponit vestimenta sua, he laid aside his garments and girded himself to show that he was laying aside the garments of his majesty and divinity and girding himself with his human nature. He then poured water into a basin and kneeling down on the ground he began to wash the feet of his Apostles. Oh, the great generosity of Christ!

Take note of this you who are so ungrateful for what has been given to you. This is not Abraham who washed the feet of angels,[7] or David who washed the king’s feet, or the Centurion who thought that he was not worthy to have Christ in his house and said: Domine, non sum dignus ut intres sub tectum meum,[8] or the poor little lady who suffered from a flow of blood for twelve years and who did not dare touch the hem of Christ’s garment,[9] or St John the Baptist who trembled and did not dare baptise Christ in the Jordan and who said that he was not worthy to undo the strap of his sandal,[10] or the holy penitent woman Magdalene who washed Christ’s feet with her tears in the Pharisee’s house.[11] It was no wonder that they humbled themselves before a superior Lord. However, this is Christ the Lord of heaven and earth who is on his knees, not only in front of those who loved him but etiam in front of Judas the traitor. O what holy way of acting!

5745 He did this because these were the feet that had followed him for at least the last three years through many tiring journeys, and not wishing to appear ungrateful for the many favours these feet had performed in following in his footsteps on his journeys when it was not possible for him to show his gratitude, he now washed these feet to show you when you have received the flesh of the Son of God worthily you ought to rise from the table and wash away all bad habits and desires.

If, out of love for you Christ laid aside the garments of his divinity, does not this, my Lady, make you want to lay aside your vanity, ostentatious behaviour and sins out of love for God? Just as he girded himself with our weakness and miseries, dress yourself in his Passion and keep it present continually in your heart so that it may set you on fire and enflame you when you consider the great gifts that we have received.

What is more our feet need washing because it is impossible that we will not be stained by our emotions and we need to be washed more than Judas needed it. O how sweet and loving is the way blessed Christ takes revenge! Quia omnia dedit ei Pater in manus.[12] He had just as much omnipotent power as the Father and he could have taken out revenge on Judas but he did not want to because he is all loving, so he washed his feet, the same as he did for the other Apostles, showing you that when you feel some kind of hatred or animosity towards someone do what Christ did and dismiss and forgive every offense, cast off all anger and evil thought of revenge so that Christ will wash your feet with his blood.

When he was washing the feet of the Apostles he came to Peter. Please excuse me now as I want to take a short break. Be patient as it will help me.

5746 When Peter saw Christ at his feet he said: “Domine, tu mihi lavas pedes?[13] Oh dear, my Lord, who are you to kneel at my feet, the feet of a vile creature, when you are so great, and whom I know through faith to be the Son of God, have you not given me enough gifts? When have I done anything for you besides leaving my father and my boat to serve you and why are you washing my feet? “Quod ego facio tu nescis modo, Christ replied, scies autem postea.[14] O Peter, you will not understand what I am doing now until you see what happens tomorrow, which will be different from kneeling down on the ground. You will see the wood of the cross and blood coming out of every part of my body specifically to redeem the world from sin, death and hell.”

Peter replied with great trepidation: “Non lavabis mihi pedes in aeternam.[15] You shall never wash my feet. That will never happen.” Then Christ replied: “If I do not wash you, non habebis partem mecum,[16] you will have no part with me.” When Peter heard this he said very fervently: “Domine, non tantum pedes meos, sed et manus et caput. [17] Here I am, Lord, if washing my feet is not enough, wash my hands and my head. Do whatever you like because I do not want to be excluded from your kingdom.” Christ then replied: “Qui lotus est, non indiget nisi ut pedes lavet, sed est mundus tutus, et vos mundi estis, sed non omnes.[18] Those who I have cleansed from sin, only need to have their feet washed from venial sin for them to be totally clean.” This is a reference to the sacrament.

When he had finished washing the feet of the Apostles, he put on his garments and said to them: “I wanted to do this to set an example for you, ut quemadmodum ego feci vobis, ita et vos faciatis.[19] I gave you an example that you should do as I have done and wash each other’s feet and act with fraternal charity as I did, and ignite charity in one another.”

5747 This is the literal meaning of today’s Gospel.[20] However, there is little to be gained from the sacrament if one does not receive its fruit. I want to draw out a new allegorical meaning by means of which, with the help of God, I want to clearly show you the objective and the fruit of this sacrament so that you may receive communion worthily and gain the fruit of the sacrament. I beg of you to pay attention and we shall begin.

Very many of you receive communion without knowing why the sacrament was instituted. You could have been receiving communion for twenty-five, thirty or forty years, but if I were to ask you why Christ instituted the sacrament you would say: “I do not know.” So why do you receive communion? Some would say: “I receive communion because it has been decreed”, and because it was laid down and there is nothing else to be said. Oh, to think that you go ahead with something as important as this just because it is the custom! Do not do this, because it is worse than receiving communion unworthily. St Paul said about this: Qui enim manducat et bibit indigne, iudicium sibi manducat et bibit.[21] Those who receive communion unworthily eat and drink judgement, non diiudicans corpus Domini. Therefore, I strongly urge you to please me by receiving communion worthily this morning and every Sunday. I ask this as a favour.

5748 Another will say: “I am not perfect enough to receive communion.” I know that you are not perfect, and I do not want you to think that you are worthy as then you would be unworthy and committing sin. You should receive communion to enkindle divine grace. Perhaps you could try to be better prepared.

Another might say: “I cannot do this because I am married.” It could be that you cannot stay from a woman for three days, or if not three, at least two, or if not two, one, or even none. Marriage is not a sin; it is a sacrament. Just make sure that you are neat and clean with regard to all other sinful filth.

Some will tell me: “This sacrament was instituted so that we might have the means of being united with and transformed into God through love” Others will tell me that it was instituted as a means of defence and as a shield against sin as the Prophet said: “Parasti in conspectu meo mensam adversus omnes qui tribulant nos.[22] Lord, you have prepared the table of your body and blood to be a shield against the things that try to disturb us and praecipue sins and infernal snares.

5749 Others might say that Christ left it as food for the soul and to provide the soul with sweet spiritual sensations. There is a story about how one day three young girls were on their way to a monastery to receive the habit and they intended to receive communion. There was a little old nun in a corner, and she saw a beautiful shy little boy of about twelve years of age, who was as beautiful as a flower, and he went up to one girl in the midst of the other young girls and hugged her very warmly.

Then she saw the child look at another one of the young girls with a stern and solemn face. Then she saw him look at another young girl not only with a severe[23] expression but also struck her face. The old nun was so amazed that she asked God to reveal to her what this meant. It was revealed to her that the first girl needed to be caressed because she had not yet really fallen in love with God but only desired to love him and so if she was not caressed she would go away because the path of serving God would seem to be too difficult.

The one who recieved the stern look was more set in love and even though one who is more firmly set has temptations and spiritual trials, she does not become sad because God allows these things to strengthen her. However, the third one, who had already reached the state of perfection, is not upset or saddened by temptations or spiritual anxiety, but is completely satisfied with what God wants even if it involves being scourged every day and every night, and even if this were to last all her life she would not be upset. This one will not allow herself to be taken away from the feet of Christ. She is convinced that what she has lost has never been as much as her sins deserved, and she hopes that God will allow some flogging to cleanse her from her sins and imperfections. Thus, the sacrament was not instituted to provide sweet feelings in the soul, but, in my opinion, and I am convinced of this, this admirable sacrament was instituted for two main reasons, immo very important reasons, that you should keep in mind. The first is so that we would have the opportunity to call to mind the memory of the Passion and death of the Son of God on the wood of the cross[24] to wash away our sins and take us out of the grip of Lucifer. The second reason is to give me a pledge, a deposit and down payment of possessing heaven as I shall show more clearly. Let us stop for a short while.

5750 O soul, you will not gain very much by believing that the sacrament exists under the appearance of bread if you do not know why it was instituted.

You might say: “How can you prove to me that Christ’s body in under those species? How? I can prove it. However, even though I could prove it a thousand times over I am not going to prove it to you. Once we try to prove it, whether we like it or not, Crede, et manducasti.[25] Whoever does not believe gains nothing and is committing a sin. Do you not know that fides non habet meritum, ubi humana ratio praebet experimentum? [26] Otherwise it would not be faith. Thus, neither faith nor hope is to be found in paradise. What we possess here through faith we shall possess in paradise through the merits of Christ. When we are in our homeland there will be no faith, since we shall see clearly and plainly and what we believed will be true and the same thing applies with the hope we cherish of becoming God’s children, coheirs of paradise and of grace. When we are in paradise we will not need to hope because we shall possess what we hoped for, so that only charity will remain to the end in heaven and above the angelic spirits, immo paradise will be more perfect than here.

5751 Someone else might say: “Do you mean to say that Christ wanted to become present as a form of food and not in the human form that he used on Mt Tabor? Tell me, Madame, suppose your husband was a famous lord and he had been to France or to Spain, and he loved you more than anything else and he came home secretly in disguise so that no one would recognise him, ne etiam the members of the family household, but only you, and he came into your room secretly, would you not be more happy that he had come in this way than if he had come in a way that was evident to all? There would have been [27] plenty of visits that you would have enjoyed but now with no other people present, because it is taking place in secret, you can enjoy and possess him on your own. Christ is doing the same thing. He wanted you to love him in spirit and to possess him in spirit and cling to him in spirit through faith and not through your physical senses. Therefore, so that he could enrich the spirit and completely inebriate it by means of this sacrament, he wanted to be dressed in this form, so that the folk in your household would not recognise him: these folk being your imagination, the memory, your common sense and all of the other sense faculties who would remain asleep and as Paul put it: Non plus sapere, quam oportet sapere.[28] Thus he simply nourishes the spirit, provides food for the spirit so as to enflame the spirit.[29]

5752 You might also say: “After Christ had risen why did he not remain here with us on earth in a state of glory, beyond suffering and clearly visible?” I reply, it was for your own good. You have heard what Christ said to the Apostles: Expedit vobis ut ego vadam. That means that it is good for you that I go to heaven, because si non abiero, Paracletus non veniet ad vos:[30] if I do not go to heaven the Holy Spirit will not come down into your spirits to enflame and warm them with his divine love.” You can see that what was set up in this world was fitting and indeed the very best thing that could have happened.

Therefore, beloved soul, the main purpose of this sacrament and what makes it a necessity for the faithful Christian soul is so that we would be led to recall the Passion of the Son of God on the wood of the cross. Can you see that? Christ said as much: “Hoc est enim corpus meum, quod pro vobis tradetur; hoc facite in meam commemorationem,[31] this is my body which is given for you, therefore when you eat it, always remember my Passion.” Paul said: Quotiescumque enim manducabis panem hunc et calicem bibetis, mortem Domini annuntiabitis, donec veniat.[32]

Therefore, my Vinegia, if you want this sacrament to bring about your salvation do not receive it carelessly but eat and chew it over well and carefully considering who it was that left you this sacrament as a symbol and memorial of his Passion, so that by continually recalling it you would not become ungrateful for such a gift and of the blood that was shed for you when he was moved by the most ardent charity to redeem the world and cancel your sins. When you consider this with the living eye of ardent faith and love, you will see sparks, immo flames that if you are not completely hard-hearted and stubborn, will melt your heart and you will say: Anima mia liquefacta est.[33] You will burn with real love and it will transform you and possess you so that you will value nothing else or be delighted by anything except to have Christ with you.

5753 Now a hundred words about the pledge that comes to us in this sacrament and then we will finish. The second reason why this sacrament was instituted was so that by means of faith, hope and charity we would possess a pledge, a down payment on gaining heaven, and sharing in the glory of God as Christ promised in many places.[34]

This is the same, Madame, as if when your husband was about to undertake a journey, he left you a beautiful jewel or a ring so that you so that you would not forget him while he was away. In this sacrament we have the best guarantee for having confidence, not because of our merits, but through the merits of Christ who came placing our infinite destiny above his own comfort and took our woes away. He set himself to take the blame for us and to repay our entire debt when he came down from heaven to earth. For thirty-three years he laboured for us and sweated much for us as he preached.

His fasts were for us. All that he suffered was for us. His tears were for us. His afflictions were for us. His prayers were for us. He died for us. Whatever he did in this world was for us. To entice and convince us out of love he left us this sacrament so that we would be united with him by vibrant charity. He said: “Qui manducat meam carnem et bibit meum sanguinem, in me manet et ego in illo.[35] Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me and I in him.”

5754 Here I want to draw a conclusion. Today a great number of you have little love for God and there is no great sensitivity of spirit on earth. In the early Church the Christians received communion every day. You can see that they had an ardent love for God and for their neighbour. What they said moved human hearts so effectively that after one of Peter’s sermons three thousand were converted, and after another ten thousand, and all the Apostles did marvellous things as we read in sacred Scripture.[36] However, after this zeal began to abate somewhat they received communion each Sunday, then once a month, then twenty times or once a year. Only God knows what would have happened if there had not been a commandment of the Church that legislated for once a year.

Oh, what kind of love for Christ do you have, or what kind of ardour do you feel in your heart if you receive the body of Christ once a year? Oh, your body needs food every day or else it will dry up, and you expect your soul to be fed sufficiently by eating once a year! This is certainly shameful. Therefore, as a favour, I insist that you approach this sacrament at least once a month and you will see how much of a help this is to you. If you do this every fourteen day you will experience how Christ abides within you and you in Christ. If you do this, you will be enflamed and experience a warm feeling. This sacrament will strengthen and comfort you and enable you to turn away from sin. Allow[37] this to be your guide and your refuge while you are on earth, since this is why Christ gave it to you, as he said: Ecce ego vobiscum sum usque ad consumationem saeculi.[38] Therefore, beloved soul, receive it frequently for it is a guarantee and pledge that you will gain paradise.

5755 Oh, Christ tells you very clearly: Qui manducat meam carnem et bibit meum sanguinem habet vitam aeternam.[39] Those of you who are lustful and sensual, how can you think that you can approach this sacrament covered with such filth, and unseemliness. How can it open the depths of your heart if the stench rises up to heaven as well as horrifying the world?

You, how can you expect to approach this sacrament worthily if you are so ostentatious, lustful and vain? Give all this away, for the love of Christ. You others who are filled with hatred, contempt and anger, who retaliate against hatred, who seek revenge, look at Christ for he has forgiven us our sins repeatedly and generously given us his grace and his gifts. This is what you ought to be doing. When you have a wounded finger, you cut off your finger to save the rest of your healthy body. This is what you have to do. If you can see that your neighbour needs your help, even if he has hurt you and caused you some trouble, you should help him.

What about you who are proud and who think about nothing but honours and your ambitions. Tell me this. Food is meant to sustain and nourish the whole body, but if an arm wanted the food and took it two bad outcomes would eventuate: the body would miss out and the arm having more food than it needed by nature would swell up and burst.

What about you noblemen. When you are in charge do not take everything, both goods and honours, for yourself, but show charity towards your neighbour. Each one of us is a member of the Church Militant, of which Christ is the head, and he established it on the wood of the cross with his own blood. We are all members, since we are parts of the body, as you know. When a hand is severed it is no longer part of the body. However, while it is joined it forms a part of the body. This is what Christ meant when he said: emo ascendit in coelum nisi qui descendit de coelo.[40] No one can go up to heaven except the one who came down from heaven. Hinc est, no one has descended from heaven except Christ and the members who have been joined to him through love and form part of the mystical body of the Church Militant.

5756 Because he made us his brothers, children of God and heirs of heaven he said: Nolite esse pusilanimes.[41] Do not be fainthearted any longer, but have vibrant faith as the Apostle Paul said: Iustificati igitur ex fide, pacem habeamus ad Deum per Dominum nostrum Iesum Christum, per quem accessum habemus per fidem in gratia ista, in qua stamus et gloriamur in spe gloriae filiorum Dei.[42]

Paul said: “Having been justified by faith we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, and through Christ we hope to possess the glory of the children of God.” Therefore, we should not be fainthearted. Christ clearly said: “Et ego dispono vobis disposuit mihi Pater meus Regnum.[43] Since ab aeterno my Father decreed that I should be one with him in omnipotence, knowledge and other qualities, and to be the Lord of the kingdom of the triumphant Church, so I decree that you shall be heirs with me to the heavenly kingdom.

Therefore, O soul, do not waste time, try to return such love by acknowledging him and thanking him for the countless gifts that he had given us due to no merits of our own but only out of his most ardent charity. There are some who entertain Christ in their soul by making good resolutions and with ardent desires. Some go along with Christ through good works, the practice of virtue and setting a good example for their neighbour. Some die with Christ, dying to the world, not being upset by tribulations, afflictions, illness or adversity of any kind. There are others who are buried with Christ and have placed a stone over their pride, wealth, honours and status and every inordinate emotion or evil desire. Others have risen with Christ as Paul said: Et nos in novitiate vitae ambulemus.[44]

5757 Let us revive ourselves with a new way of life which cherishes love for God and delight in him and for our neighbour. Let us try with all our might to bring some soul back to God and take it away from sin. Still there are others who go up to heaven with Christ and are so close to him in love that they are no longer still on earth. Their soul is always concerned with divine matters and the things that are above. Paul said: Conversatio nostro in caelis est,[45] as we feed and nourish ourselves on the most precious food on the regal table. How happy are those who experience this. I cannot find words to describe it. It is like as if a German were to come here and speak to you and you did not understand him. It is the same with this sweetness; one cannot explain such gentleness in human language. Those who have experienced it will clearly understand what I am saying.

There are others who together with Christ have received the Holy Spirit. For them love is everything. They are always greedy, always ready to show charity towards their neighbour.[46] With Paul they exclaim: Quis infirmatur et ego non infirmor?[47] They show love for their neighbour when he is experiencing both human and spiritual needs. When they come across a sinner, as members of Christ, when they recognise their sins, they exert all their strength to bringing the lost sheep back to Christ’s holy fold.[48]

So beloved soul, I beg of you for the love of Christ on the cross, try to begin again considering the evidence of Christ’s love and try to start from the beginning so that you may be happy here and come to possess the glory of God.

  1. The sermon was delivered on 3rd April 1539
  2. The passage is from Jn 13:1-15, the washing of the feet.
  3. Jn 13:1
  4. Jn 15:13
  5. n 13:2-3
  6. Jn 13:4
  7. Cf. Gen 18:4
  8. Cf. Mt 8:8
  9. Cf. Mt 9:20-22
  10. Cf. Mt 3:14
  11. Cf. Lk 7:37-38
  12. Jn 13:3
  13. Jn 13:6
  14. Jn 13:7
  15. Jn 13:8a
  16. Jn 13:8b
  17. Jn 13:9
  18. Jn13:10
  19. Jn 13:15
  20. To this point he explained the literal meaning of the Gospel passage.
  21. 1 Cor 11:29
  22. Ps 22:5 (Vlug.)
  23. Rubesta in the text = fiera, altera.
  24. This is why Ochino had a procession that carried the cross during the celebration of the Forty Hours. Cf. below n 6550 and 6555.
  25. Cf. S. August., In Joan. Evang. tr. 25, n 12 (PL 35, 1620).
  26. Cf. S. Gregorio M, Hom. 26 in Evangelia, n 1 (PL 76, 1197)
  27. Aria in the text = avrebbe
  28. Cf. Rom 12:3
  29. Note how carefully he speaks about the spirit. This will be very important when comparisons are being made with Lutheran and Calvinist ideas. The pre-eminence of the spirit in the reception of the Eucharist was a concept that St Francis stressed in the famous First Admonition. Cf. FAED I p. 128.
  30. Jn 16:7
  31. Lk 22:19; 1 Cor 11:24.
  32. 1 Cor 11:26
  33. Cant. 5:6
  34. This is expressed in the liturgical antiphon: O sacrum convivium.
  35. Jn 6:56
  36. Cf. Acts 2:41; 5:12, etc.
  37. Facciati is an ancient form of fate.
  38. Mt 28: 20
  39. Jn 6: 54
  40. Jn 12: 3. The expression “Cristo é il capo” which appears five lines earlier was written weongly in the text “Christo é il corpo”.
  41. Sir 7: 9
  42. Rom 5:1-2
  43. Lk 22:29
  44. Rom 6:4
  45. Ph 3:20
  46. Const 1536 speak about this n. 112 when they mention “redundazia de amore” being filled with love.
  47. 2 Cor 11:29
  48. His is a splendid reflection that could explain the apostolic zeal and the sensitivity towards the poor that characterised the early Capuchins.