Friday, April 6, 2012


This was the homily I preached at the Holy Thursday Mass of the Lord's Supper here on April 5, 2012. The emphasis on the unity of the events of the Paschal Mystery makes this a pretty fair reading for Easter as well.


Look around this beautiful church for a moment, at the festival lights that remind us of the Last Supper on the first Holy Thursday, the crucifix that reminds us of the first Good Friday – last Sunday that processional cross was decorated with palms, and in the little bouquet on the altar a couple of small lilies offer a hint of Easter.
Then think about the events that we celebrate at this time each year in the Liturgy: Palm Sunday, the Last Supper, the Agony in Garden, Jesus’ trial, crucifixion and burial; And then the Resurrection, the Ascension and Pentecost.

We want to be careful, however, as we celebrate and meditate on each of these events separately, not to think of Palm Sunday, Holy Thursday, Good Friday, Easter Sunday and so on as individual stand-alone events as separate from each other as, say, the trees that line King Boulevard in front of the monastery. We need to constantly remind ourselves that these seemingly separate happenings are all parts of the single event, the “Paschal Mystery” of Christ’s suffering-death-resurrection. We want to experience all of the ritualized events of Holy Week as inter-related parts of the one single mystery.

Our solemn celebration of the Lord’s Supper this evening gives us a good opportunity to see a little bit more of how the various mysteries of Holy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter Sunday are all interconnected.
Tonight we are not just celebrating one stand-alone event (the last supper) or a couple of separate actions (washing of feet, institution of Eucharist) but instead the whole paschal mystery of Christ’s suffering, death and resurrection.
To see what I mean, let’s look more deeply at John’s gospel account of the washing of the feet that we just heard proclaimed. With a little reflection we can see how it interweaves several central themes. But before we reflect on this passage, though, it will be helpful to remember that we’re meditating on the Gospel of John, which means that we should be on the lookout for symbolism and especially for symbolic references to various sacraments.

BAPTISMAL IMAGERYLet’s start with one sentence in today’s Gospel passage, at the end of the interchange between Jesus and Simon Peter who doesn’t want Jesus to wash his feet. “Jesus said to him, ‘Whoever has bathed has no need except to have his feet washed, for he is clean all over; so you are clean, but not all.’” The Greek root word for “bathed” means “total immersion;” and it’s baptismal language; it shows up in lots of baptismal passages in the NewTestament. Here are just a couple of examples: “Now you have had yourselves washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God” (1 Cor 6:11). “Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ loved the church and handed himself over for her to sanctify her, cleansing her by the bath of water with the word”(Eph 5:25-26). “He saved us through the bath of rebirth and renewal by the holy Spirit, whom he richly poured out on us” (Ti 3:6).

So John clearly wants us to see in this “washing” of the feet on Holy Thursday a reference to the great Easter sacrament of baptism. The first Christians were so convinced of this connection that they made washing of feet part of the earliest baptismal rite.
EUCHARIST While we’re on sacraments, what about the Eucharist? How does John make a connection with washing feet and the bread and wine? Well, the he just about hits us over the head with this one: John’s account of the Last Supper does not even MENTION the bread or cup or the words “this is my body” or “this is my blood.” Instead, at the point of the meal where the other gospels have Jesus taking the bread and the wine and instituting the sacrament of the Holy Eucharist John shows us Jesus washing his disciples’ feet. And it is this story that the Church uses, as we’ve just seen, as the Gospel reading for Holy Thursday.

Where the other three gospels have a command: Do this in memory of me” John has a command as well after the washing of the feet: “If I, the master and teacher, have washed your feet, you ought to wash one another’s feet. I have given you a model to follow, so that as I have done for you, you should also do” (John, 12-15).

So, John, in his usual fashion, gives us not the account of Jesus’ instituting the Eucharist but rather the deeper MEANING of the Eucharist: loving service of one another. And this brings us to our next symbolic reference in this passage: Loving service of one another.

JESUS’ SACRIFICE ON THE CROSSIn giving us the Eucharist Jesus said, “this is my body given up for you” and “this is my blood poured out.” So in the same way Jesus’ example of humility and service in the washing of the feet is also a symbolic giving of himself that that reflects and foreshadows his self-giving death on the cross.
So far, then, we’ve seen how John has linked together in the washing of the feet the themes of the Easter sacrament of Baptism, the sacrament of the Eucharist in which Jesus gives himself to us under the appearance of the bread and the wine, and the sacrificial death of Jesus on Calvary.

So, John shows us how all of these mysteries, Holy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter Sunday fit together in the one single Paschal Mystery of the suffering, death and resurrection of Christ.


All of this is fine theology and certainly makes for good theater and great liturgy, but how does it affect our lives? What difference does it make in the way we live? Did you know that the earliest Christians took Jesus’ command literally, “If I, the master and teacher, have washed your feet, you ought to wash one another’s feet?” When they visited one another’s houses, the host would wash the feet of his guests.
Caesarius of Arles, a sixth-century bishop, said in a Holy Thursday sermon how sad and disappointed he was to see Christians abandoning the custom of washing one another’s feet. He regretted the loss of such a powerful and beautiful sign of Christ-like humility and service.
So if we twenty-first century Christians are not going to literally wash one another’s feet, what does Christ’s command mean for you and me? What is this gospel passage telling us tonight about how to live as better Christians?
Well, it might help if we remember that at the time of Christ, the act of washing someone else’s feet was about the most menial and humbling thing one could imagine. No wonder Peter refused to let Jesus wash his feet!
Washing feet was slave’s work. In fact, if a servant was Jewish, his Jewish master could not require him or her to wash people’s feet. You can imagine a Jew applying for a servant’s position the way a housekeeper or a maid might today: Today’s housecleaning applicant will warn “I don’t do windows.” But back then it wasn’t “I don’t do windows,” it was “I’m Jewish, I don’t do feet.”
It was such a demeaning task that he or she couldn’t be asked to perform it. Yet this is exactly what we see Jesus doing in tonight’s gospel story: Jesus “DOES FEET.”
And now we can see the practical message start to take shape for us: Jesus makes himself as humble as the lowest servant by “doing feet” at the Last Supper, and then asks us his followers to “do feet” as well. But still, what does that mean? What does that look like for you and me in our everyday lives?
Back in 1998 I wrote a book, A Saint on Every Corner, that included a chapter on the Holy Thursday ritual of the washing of the feet, and I wrote how it had become a reality in my life. Shortly after the book was published I received a letter from a nurse in Pottstown, Pennsylvania thanking me for writing the book and that chapter in particular. Here is part of what she wrote:
As a nursing supervisor I am often called to wash someone’s feet both physically and as a metaphor. Your description of your meeting with a problem student and his angry father in that chapter touched my heart.
I have just come from a difficult meeting with an upset family and, having read this chapter in your book about washing feet I was able to approach the meeting in a more gentle, Christ-like manner. What could have been awful became a time of grace!
Thank you! Sincerely …

It seems to me that she got the point of John’s message, of Jesus’ example: Every day Jesus presents you and me with people who need their feet washed in that deeper sense of needing to have someone pay attention to them, to care about them, to act like they matter, to really listen to what they are saying, to be Christ for them.

When I’m faced with an unruly student in the classroom, for example, it’s as if Jesus is coming up to me with his arm around this kid’s shoulders and saying to me, “Listen, Albert, I need a favor. This kid is very special to me, And he needs his feet washed. Could you please do that for me?”

When I respond generously and selflessly, when I take the time to wash this student’s feet by listening patiently to him and treating him with concern and respect, then it’s a beautiful experience for both of us. You’ve had that experience yourself, I’m sure.

But I’m afraid that sometimes my response falls short and the student walks away from the encounter disappointed, without having met Jesus, and with his feet still in need of washing.


And what about you? Do you “do feet?” If so, who are the people that Jesus brings to you asking for your help? Maybe it’s someone at your workplace who is always acting obnoxious. Or on any given day it may be a customer, a client, a parent or a teenage daughter or son, or a difficult relative. If you’re a teenager it may be a parent, a classmate or your Religion teacher or your brother or sister.
It doesn’t really matter who it is, because tonight Jesus’ request sounds loud and clear in the gospel: “I have given you an example so you should do this too: Love one another as I loved you.”

A FINAL PRAYERAnd now would you like to bow your head and pray with me for moment?
Lord Jesus, as we gather here on this most solemn and sacred night, we humbly ask you a special favor: When you present people to us wanting us to wash their feet, please help us to remember the beautiful and challenging example you give us tonight by washing your disciples’ feet. Help us in those difficult moments to see in our mind’s eye the image of the ancient ritual that we are about to witness in a few moments: Abbot Melvin kneeling in front of some brothers and sisters to wash their feet.

Finally, dear Lord, help us during these next few days to enter ever more deeply into your paschal mystery and let us accompany you devoutly from your washing of the feet and instituting the Eucharist tonight, through your betrayal and suffering and crucifixion tomorrow, so that we may finally rise with you, glorious and immortal on Easter Morning. You who live and reign with the Father and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever and ever. Amen!


...................................A Blessed Easter!

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