Thursday, April 1, 2010

The cloak of privilege becomes the apron of service

HOMILY FOR THE MASS OF THE LORD'S SUPPER, Thursday, April 1, 2010:


A woman accompanied her husband to the doctor's office. After his checkup, concerned, the doctor called the wife into his office alone. He said, “Your husband is suffering from a very severe stress disorder. If you don't do the following, your husband will most definitely die.” The woman quickly said, “Tell me, doctor, what I need to do.”

The doctor said, “Each morning, fix him a healthy breakfast. Be pleasant at all times. For lunch make him a nutritious meal. For dinner prepare an especially nice meal. Don't burden him with chores. Don't discuss your problems with him, it will only make his stress worse. And, most importantly, no nagging. If you can do this for the next 10 months to a year, your husband will regain his health completely.” On the way home, the husband saw how distressed his wife was and asked, “What did the doctor say?” The woman looked at her husband, thought for a moment and said, “The doctor said you're going to die.”

This humorous story points out a true reality tonight – if love isn’t paired with service, we cannot truly live.
We gather on this Holy Night and celebrate the beginning of the Sacred Triduum, three days which really serve as one singular feast. Tonight’s feast is in itself a mini-Triduum recalling three things in particular – the institution of the Eucharist, the mandate to service, and the establishment priesthood – but ultimately I think it focuses on God’s bounty; God’s goodness to us. On this holy night, our God spoils us.

The Sacred Triduum seeks nothing less than to inspire us; to remind us who we are as children of God and members of the Church; and most profoundly to remind us through dramatic moments of ritual and sacrament and prayer of one powerful reality – that Jesus Christ is real. We do not merely gather here tonight to tell a very old story. We gather here tonight to meet a very real person – our Savior Jesus Christ, who – although He walked the earth some 2,000 years ago – is still living and active and in our midst today. I’ll say it again, Jesus Christ is real!

In the history of the Church, the celebration of Holy Week and the season of Lent were originally established for those who were preparing to enter the Church as new members. Originally, new members entered only once a year, at the Easter Vigil. In my studies for my Master’s Degree in Liturgy, I did a great deal of reading about this process of preparation, particularly during the first 400 years of the Church and one thing I discovered is that these rituals in the early Church had the same goal as they do today – to help us realize what Christ has done for us and what we must, in turn, do for Christ.

There was tremendous drama in the rituals of the early Church. In our modern ritual, for example, when we do the renunciation of sin, we ask simple questions, “Do you reject Satan? And all his works? And all his empty promises?” But, in the early Church, they took those words and turned them into action. For example, St. Cyril of Jerusalem, in a Holy Week sermon from the 4th century explains the renunciation of sin to catechumens this way. He said, “You began by entering the outer room of the baptistery. You faced westward, heard a voice commanding you to stretch out your hand, you spit in the face of Satan and renounced him as though to his face. I will tell you now, for you need to know, why you face westward. The west is the quarter from which darkness appears to us; now the devil is darkness, and wields his power in darkness. So we look to the west as a symbolic gesture, and renounce the leader of shadow and darkness. So, what each of you said as you stood there was, ‘I renounce you, Satan, you wicked and most cruel tyrant’…For Christ has dissolved that power by sharing with me in the blood and flesh…I renounce you, you cunning and most vicious serpent. I renounce you, you plotter, who under the guise of friendship have worked all manner of wrong and caused our first parents to secede from God.” Now, my friends, how’s that for drama?

Likewise when it came to approaching the altar for the Eucharist, catechumens were reminded of its awesome power. In a similar Holy Week homily, St. Ambrose instructed catechumens saying this, “Perhaps you say, ‘The bread I have here is ordinary bread.’ Yes, before the sacramental words are uttered this bread is nothing but bread. But at the consecration this bread becomes the body of Christ…When the moment comes for bringing the most holy sacrament into being, the priest does not use his own words any longer: he uses the words of Christ. Therefore it is Christ’s words that bring this sacrament into being. What is this word of Christ? It is the word by which all things were made. The Lord commanded and the heavens were made, the Lord commanded and the earth was made, the Lord commanded and all creatures came into being. See, then, how efficacious the word of Christ is. There was no heaven, there was no sea, there was no earth. And yet, as David says, ‘He spoke and it was made; he commanded and it was created.’ To answer your question, then, before the consecration it was not the body of Christ, but after the consecration I tell you that it is now the body of Christ. He spoke and it was made, he commanded and it was created…You see from all this, surely, the power that is contained in the heavenly word.” What is St. Ambrose’s point? Quite simply and quite powerfully that Jesus Christ is real!

A final modern example. This one comes from Pope John Paul the Great in a letter he wrote for Holy Week 2002. He said, “Before this extraordinary Eucharistic reality we find ourselves amazed and overwhelmed, so deep is the humility by which God ‘stoops’ in order to unite himself with us! If we feel moved before the Christmas crib, when we contemplate the Incarnation of the Word, what must we feel before the altar where, by the poor hands of the priest, Christ makes his Sacrifice present in time? We can only fall to our knees and silently adore this supreme mystery of faith.” My brothers and sisters, the profound question that God places in your heart tonight is this: Do you believe that Jesus is real and is present in our midst? If the answer is “yes” then we’ve got to be like the early Christians and that belief has got to be translated through the example of our lives into so much more than words – it must be lived in action; in service!

Our Gospel proclaimed tonight, “I have given you a model to follow, so that as I have done for you, you should also do.” Have you ever wondered why it is that on this night that commemorates the institution of both the priesthood and the Eucharist, our Gospel is about foot washing? We would expect perhaps to have a passage from Matthew, Mark or Luke related to the Last Supper. Instead, we’re given the washing of the feet. John gives us an example where Jesus turns things upside down by a tremendous act of humility. The Master washes the feet of the servant. Peter is stunned, “You will never wash my feet!” But Jesus shows that the transformative power of His love is most effective when turned into humble service. In the washing of the feet, Jesus turn the Mantle of Privilege that comes from being the Son of God into an Apron of Service transforming the world with humble love. Jesus shows us that when we recognize Him in the Eucharist; when we internalized Him in our lives; we most powerfully make Him truly present to our world by the simple act of washing feet; simple acts of service.

John tells us why. He says, Jesus knowing “that he had come from God and was returning to God,” He rose from supper and took off his outer garment and took a towel and tied it around his waist. What is important is that this is the reason Jesus does what He does. Jesus washes feet not because He is the Son of God, the Lord of Heaven and Earth, the King of Kings, the Prince of Peace, but rather quite simply, He does this tremendous action because he knows that “he had come from God and was returning to God.” The fact that He, like us, is a bearer of the image and likeness of God is the reason for His humble action. As a human being, one of us, He has been created in the image and likeness of God and so He rose from supper and took off His outer garment and took a towel and tied it around His waist. My friends, we too, like Christ, have come from God and will return to God; and so we too must serve.

So, will we too take off our outer garment? Will we too take off all of the pretense and externals we put on; all of the things that keep us from humbly washing feet? We too must be reduced to nothing except God’s image shining brightly through us. We have come from God and will return to God and when we can take of our outer garments – the pride, jealousy, anger, selfishness and greed that keep us from helping others – then all things will be possible for us in and through God. We have to ask in our hearts, what are these outer clothes? What keeps me from washing feet? I heard someone say recently, when we are young we think we can change the world by sheer force of will. We march for our causes, speak out to be heard, we protest and write letters. But, as we grow in spiritual maturity we may realize that the way to change the world is to put down our placards and pick up a towel and basin.

St. Augustine said of the Eucharist, “We become what we receive.” When we receive the Body and Blood of Jesus, He wants it to be fruitful in our lives, so that we can become a true reflection of Jesus in the world. My friends, the reality is that Service is Eucharist. Our Eucharist is not complete until it finds its fullest expression in acts of Christian charity.

There is a story about some ladies who met to study the scriptures. While reading the third chapter of Malachi, they came upon a remarkable expression in the third verse: “He shall sit as a refiner and purifier of silver.” Trying to understand this passage, one lady decided to visit a silversmith, and without telling him the reason for her visit, asked him to tell her about the process of refining silver. After he had fully described it to her, she asked, “Sir, do you sit while the work of refining is going on?” “Oh, yes,” replied the silversmith; “I must sit and watch the furnace constantly, for, if the time necessary for refining is exceeded in the slightest degree, the silver will be ruined.” She then asked, “How do you know when the process is complete?” He replied, “That's quite simple. When I can see my own image in the silver, the refining process is finished.” “He shall sit as a refiner and purifier of silver.”

My friends, on this Holy Night, look into the mirror that is Jesus Christ in His Sacred Body and Blood. Look there until you see your own image reflected in the face of Jesus. Then, become that mirror for the world, reflecting the face of Christ to all who see your face. So, my friends, what did the doctor say? He said, “You are going to live.” Let us be filled with His Real Presence here tonight and let us become his Real Presence in our world. Let us become like Him, washers of feet.

“‘Do you realize what I have done for you?...I have given you a model to follow, so that as I have done for you, you should also do.”

May God give you peace.

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