Jesus had a keen sense of what is essential about a life of faith in God, and in discussion with the guardians of orthodox Jewish teaching his summary of what is most important about God's law is not on his own words, but in direct quotations from the Torah - Deuteronomy 6:4-5 and Leviticus 19:18b.
"One of the teachers of the law came and heard them debating. Noticing that Jesus had given them a good answer, he asked him, "Of all the commandments, which is the most important?" "The most important one," answered Jesus, "is this: 'Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength. 'The second is this: 'Love your neighbor as yourself.' There is no commandment greater than these." " (Mark 21:28-31)
His choice of texts reflects the priority of the Good News about God's kingdom which he believes he must convey to the world, that it is a kingdom where love reigns, first and last.
On this unique day in the Christian calendar, we hear how Jesus re-iterates and develops this teaching for the intimate circle of his companions, though not this time by means of quoting scripture, but by actions he employs to show them what he is talking about.
He follows Jewish tradition in the way he prays before, during and after meals, thanking God the creator and provider of all for the gift of food and drink, and for making his people who they are, in recalling their God given liberation from slavery and journey into the freedom of the Promised Land. He augments the received tradition of prayer however identifying himself with the broken bread and wine out-poured that they share with him.
In the light of what happens to him in the next few days, we learn to understand that this action with these words points to his self-sacrificial death, whilst pointing beyond it to his resurrection presence with them, as they continue to repeat his words and actions and remember him.
Before Jesus made this change to their traditional table prayers, this moment of each meal shared was one of pure worship, a wonderfully mundane expression of loving gratitude to God, fulfilling the first Commandment. Associating the prayer with his death and resurrection, takes this act of worship to another higher level altogether, in which the domestic and the cosmic are made one.
Then, after the supper, Jesus washes the disciples' feet, insisting that any and every person entrusted with responsibility and power over others must be able to serve them in the humblest of things, and make themselves as dependent and vulnerable as a slave in respect of their real needs, always seeking to put the needs of others first.
Loving your neighbour as yourself, the second greatest commandment is a noble, if general statement. Jesus makes it concrete not by talking but by serving them, with no thought for his status. Is he perhaps already aware that he is soon going to lose every shred of human dignity? His concern is simply to show his friends that love is never a matter of mere words, but of words and deeds together. Divine truth is not a matter of ideas expressed, but something that is lived, something done, right action. His last supper is then, the occasion for his most memorable teaching.
It is noteworthy that the first three Gospels record the changes Jesus makes to the prayers, but not the foot washing. John records the foot-washing after the meal without mentioning the prayers. If indeed Mark is the first to record an account of this innovation in traditional Jewish prayer, he is mentioning something which groups of disciples have been doing regularly over the previous thirty years based on recollections of eyewitnesses passed on. He makes a written account of an oral tradition.
For John this is so much a given practice that his intended audience doesn't need such a record. He is keen to remind them of what they may well be prone to forget - that Jesus was among them as 'one who serves', and that they should remember to do likewise in their ministries, as those who love God and love their neighbours as themselves.