HOMILY HOLY THURSDAY
Faith Expressed Through Loving Service
(Ex 12:1-8, 11-14; 1 Cor 11:23-26; Jn 13:1-15)
Have you ever noticed the change that happens to someone when they fall in love?
Let the love of Jesus lead you into and intimate relationship with him and humble service of others.
Tonight, we remember that intimate meal Jesus had with his disciples the night before he died to show his love for all humankind. It was a meal that continues to speak to us today about the Eucharist, about priesthood (ministerial and baptismal), and about Christian love or agape expressed in humble service.
Very significant for not just this liturgy, but for the whole passion of Jesus, is his focus on love, rather than the physical suffering that awaits him. It is all about love. Jesus came from the Father whom he loves, and now he is returning to the Father who loves him. Out of that love, the Father has trusted everything to Jesus – the whole plan of salvation. Jesus in turn has always loved his disciples, and now he wants to show how perfect his love is. He will do this, not so much by his physical suffering, but by a radical act of humbly washing his disciples’ feet.
The first reading about the Passover meal in Egypt prepares us for what Jesus would do centuries later on the cross – give up his body and shed his blood for us. The Hebrew people sacrificed a lamb and put its blood on their doorposts, and the angel of death “passed over them.” What power the angel of God gave to the flesh and blood of a lamb! Imagine the power there is in the flesh and blood of Jesus, the true Lamb of God, for those who believe in him, for faith in him is the key to that power. This event provides the foundation for the Last Supper.
The second reading takes us to that “Last Supper”, the meal that Jesus shared with his disciples the night before his death. The Church sees this meal as the institution of the Eucharist and the ministerial priesthood for us as Catholic Christians. It is also the fulfillment of the original Passover. This meal is the “New Passover” – we no longer need to sacrifice lambs and sprinkle their blood on altars. Rather, we believe that through the power of the Holy Spirit and the prayer of the ordained priest and community of faith, the simple gifts of bread and wine become for us the sacred body and blood of Jesus Christ, the true Lamb of God. For those who really believe and approach in faith, reverence and repentance, this “communion with the body and blood of Christ” breaks the power of sin, heals our sinfulness, and is itself a sharing right now in the heavenly banquet Jesus promised us.
Turning now to the Gospel, we see that Jesus, secure in the Father’s love for him, is free to take off his robes, symbols of external status, prestige or power. John Shea would say that Jesus took the mantle of privilege and turned it into the apron of service. He then proceeds to humbly wash the feet of his disciples, the task of a slave.
Jesus then asks his disciples if they understand this humble gesture. It is a statement that sets the scene for all that will follow – his passion, suffering and death on the Cross. The focus through all of that for Jesus is not his physical suffering, but his love for his disciples, and for us. All the evangelists take pains to point this out by barely referring to his physical suffering. Both Mark and Matthew mention only that Jesus was stripped, mocked, struck on the head with a reed, then led away to be crucified. Luke mentions only that they led him away to be crucified. John says even less: “Then Pilate handed him over to them to be crucified.”
This is just the opposite of the movie The Passion of the Christ by Mel Gibson, who makes Jesus out to be a Rambo V, beaten and bludgeoned ad nauseum. The evangelists, by saying so little, want to keep the focus on the deeper meaning of the Last Supper and the passion of Christ, and for us, the deeper meaning of the Eucharist and discipleship. It is all about the love that Jesus had for his disciples, and us, and the hope that we would enter into as intimate a loving relationship with him as he had with the Father. That is because it is a relationship of intimate love and not physical suffering that transforms hearts.
The lesson for us is that we are to imitate Jesus, the Lord and Master, to become a carbon copy of him, to do as he did, to let go of any need for possessions, prestige and power, to let go of any need to make a name for ourselves, and to give our lives in humble service out of love for him and for each other. We are to take off our outer robes as well, and to wash each other’s feet.
The gospel strikingly reminds us we do not celebrate the Eucharist for our own sake, or for our own personal holiness only, as if that was disconnected from life. We do it for others, for the broken world. Surprisingly, the gospel for this night when we remember the institution of the priesthood and the Eucharist, is not the account of the last supper, but the washing of feet.
Jesus washed the feet of his disciples to show the meaning of the priesthood, the meaning of the Eucharist, the meaning of our own baptism, and the meaning of what he would do the next day on the cross. Love, following Jesus and Christian ministry is not about power and glory. No – love, following Jesus and ministry, is all about humble service.
There can be no compromise about this. Those who profess to follow Jesus, filled with his Spirit, must die to power and glory, and willingly accept to express their faith and love through humble service, through “washing each others’ feet.” To wash each other’s feet is to serve one another lovingly with complete humility. When we were baptized, we were made priests (prayer); prophets (truth) and shepherds (caregivers). We live out our baptism by celebrating the Eucharist together, and then going to live out the Eucharist through lives of humble service, washing the feet of our brothers and sisters.
Through the foot washing, Jesus unites the believer with him as he enters the events of his hour. If one removes oneself from this act, then one removes oneself from Jesus and the promises of God. To have Jesus wash one’s feet is to receive from Jesus an act of hospitality that decisively alters one’s relationship to Jesus and through Jesus to God. One’s share with Jesus, then, is the gift of full relationship with him that he offers in the foot washing, a relationship that opens the believer to Jesus’ eschatological gift of eternal life. The salvific dimension of the foot washing, therefore, is lodged in the relationship with Jesus that it offers, not in the foot washing as an act of ritual purification.
Peter’s emphatic request to be washed all over shows that he still does not understand the relational dimension of the act. The foot washing is not about water per se: it is about entering into relationship with Jesus by receiving his gesture of hospitality.
The cleanliness of which Jesus speaks is accomplished by one’s reception of Jesus’ word, not by the ritual cleansing Peter envisions and requests. Jesus’ own are clean through their reception of his enacted and spoken word. The fact that the one who is not clean is the one who will betray Jesus confirms that cleanliness has to do with one’s relationship with Jesus and acceptance of the foot washing, not with the cleansing power of the water itself. To be unclean is not to be unwashed, for Judas was washed too. Rather, to be unclean is to turn away from union and intimacy with Jesus.
As at the earlier prediction of the betrayal, the mention of Judas’ betrayal reminds the reader that even election as one of Jesus’ own, one whom he loves completely, is no guarantee of a faith response. In order to have one’s share with Jesus, one must choose to accept the gesture of love that Jesus makes in the foot washing and enter into an intimate relationship with him and the Father through him.
Lillian Yonkers was president of Oblate College in San Antonio, Texas. The group of priests and sisters who had completed a renewal program at Ministry to Ministers in San Antonio were told that she would be coming to their closing banquet. Indeed, there was an extra place set at the table for her. However, the banquet started without her. The participants were somewhat bemused, wondering why she had not come, when suddenly she appeared out of the kitchen, dressed with an apron. She had come, not as the guest of honour, but as one who would serve their table. The participants were surprised and delighted, yet also humbled – the president of the college was serving them. What an example of discipleship – truly following the teachings of Jesus!
So, as we celebrate tonight the gifts of priesthood and Eucharist given out of tremendous love by God to the Church, let us appreciate the Eucharist as a memorial meal and thanksgiving sacrifice.
Let us also take to heart the meaning of these gifts – humble service and intimate loving union with Jesus and the Father. Let us pray for the faith and love to live out the Eucharist and our baptismal priesthood in humble service.