Thursday, April 5, 2012

Will you let me wash your feet?

HOMILY FOR THE MASS OF THE LORD'S SUPPER, Holy Thursday, April 5, 2012:
I want to invite you to join me in a little sing-a-long. I know, you know this song, so join me. “Silent Night, Holy Night. All is calm. All is bright. Round yon Virgin, Mother and Child. Holy Infant, so tender and mild. Christ the Savior is born. Christ the Savior is born.” Now before you start thinking, Fr. Tom is losing it (some might have thought that already), let me say that I think there is a beautiful connection between the great Feast of Christmas which we celebrated almost four months ago and this Mass of the Lord’s Supper that we gather here to commemorate tonight.

The connection is that in a way, what we begin tonight brings what we celebrated at Christmas to completion. Christmas, the Incarnation, is all about gifts. Not only the gifts we give and receive between one another, but the incredible gift of the Word made Flesh. On Epiphany we celebrate the arrival of the Wise Men and the three gifts that they bring to the Christ Child – gold, frankincense and myrrh. Jesus receives three gifts that represent His Kingship (the gold), His Priesthood (the frankincense) and His sacrifice (the myrrh).

And here we are today celebrating the Last Supper, some 30 years or so after the visit of those Wise Men, and again we are celebrating three gifts, only this time, Jesus doesn’t receive them, He gives them. And, in fact, they are the greatest gifts ever given. We celebrate tonight God’s gift to us in Jesus Christ, His Son; and His three-fold gift of Christ’s presence among us in the priesthood, in the Eucharist, and in service. At Christmas, three kings, three gifts. And today, the King of Kings and again, three gifts.

Blessed Pope John Paul the Great made this same connection in his Holy Thursday message to priests 10 years ago. He wrote, “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.”

At that Last Supper so long ago, Jesus instituted the priesthood. It was during this Last Supper that Jesus ordained His first priests – the Apostles. You know, if it weren’t for the first Holy Thursday, we wouldn’t be here tonight on this Holy Thursday. The gift of the priesthood is the unique way in which Jesus has continued to transmit that Divine reality of His message, His love, His real presence through time to us today. We need the priesthood so that Jesus can continue to be present among us baptizing and confirming us into His family, anointing us when we are sick and near death, marrying us when we find the person God has chosen for us to be with, forgiving our sins when we have fallen, making present His Body and Blood in the Eucharist. The priesthood is the instrument, the medium, the person, through which God is truly present in our midst. It is our privilege as priests to be the instruments by which Christ makes Himself present in the Holy Eucharist. It is also our privilege and honor to serve you, God’s people, in Christ’s name, following His example. Especially as I prepare to leave St. Margaret’s in a few weeks, I hope you know what an honor it has been for me to be your priest. I personally thank each of you tonight for the indescribable honor of serving you and for the many ways that you have supported me. As a priest, my simplest prayer is to always serve you, God’s people, faithfully and lovingly.

Of course, supreme among what we celebrate tonight is God’s gift of the Eucharist. And no better night than its own anniversary to celebrate it together. We celebrate it as a memorial, but with a difference. Our Lord said, “Do this in memory of me.” The Greek word for “memory” is anamnesis. “Do this in anamnesis of me.” Anamnesis is a powerful word that means not just to recall, but to revive, not just to remember, but to re-live. Tonight – and at every Eucharist – we do not simply re-enact the Last Supper; we are there; travelling through space and time to that upper room. Jesus said those words once and for all – this is my Body; this is my Blood – and we hear them tonight as though for the first time. What makes the Eucharist so special is that Christ is present. He is really and truly, physically present under the appearance of bread and wine; in the reality of His Body and Blood. What makes the Mass so special is that it makes present the supper and the sacrifice – the Last Supper and Calvary – so that we can enter into the closest possible union with our Lord and offer our lives with Him to the Father. We don’t come to Mass merely to pray to God the Father. We come to be with Christ, to hear Him, to be nourished by Him, to offer ourselves with Him.

Today is the anniversary of that day when Jesus took bread and wine and for the very first time and changed it into His body and Blood. “This is my body given for you…this cup is the new covenant in my blood poured out for you.” These great words were both gift and sacrifice. Jesus in the Eucharist made an offering of Himself, an offering that would be completed the following day on the cross. So, our Mass today and always combines the two – the Supper and the Sacrifice – the night before and the day after. And our Mass doesn’t just bring it to mind, or recall it, or remember it. Our Mass makes it present again. Christ renews this offering in every Mass and invites us to enter into it.

Finally, we celebrate our third gift – the gift of Christ’s example in the washing of the feet; a gift which cannot be separated from the gift of the Eucharist. What an interesting movement we have in the life of Jesus. At the beginning of His mission, Christ took us in Cana from water to wine; now nearing the end of His mission, in that Upper Room, He takes us from wine back to water; the wine of the Last Supper to the water of foot washing. He illustrates in the most dramatic way the inescapable link between Eucharist and service. Eucharist, communion, by necessity should lead us to loving service of one another.

Don’t underestimate the power of washing feet. If you walked the dusty roads of our Lord’s time, without sandals – or even with sandals – your feet would get very dirty and very sore. And the first thing you’d be offered when you’d arrive at a house or an inn would be a basin of water and a towel. But, they wouldn’t wash your feet for you. You’d do that yourself. Foot washing was a very menial task. It was so menial in fact that often even a slave was not expected to wash the feet of his master. The master could do it for himself. This is why Peter is so shocked, “You will never wash my feet,” he said to Jesus, who replied, “Unless I wash you, you will have no inheritance with me.” To be a Christian, to be part of Christ, is to have an unbounded, limitless spirit of service; one that will do even the most menial task for the love of Christ; and the love of our brothers and sisters. The modern equivalent of washing feet might be to do things like looking after our ageing parents and grandparents; to be good to our neighbors, especially when there’s trouble or it is difficult; to be kind and tender towards the sick; to be helpful to the handicapped; to be welcoming to the stranger and the homeless; to be generous towards the poor, the marginalized, the needy.

We can, in fact, wash people’s feet without ever taking off their shoes at all. We can have a towel over our shoulder that no one ever actually sees. The point is that we don’t lord our service over anyone. We serve and we love as Jesus loved us; as Jesus loved others. That’s the example – and that’s the challenge. The importance of living the Eucharist in terms of service was emphasized by Jesus when He contemplated the weary feet of His disciples with a towel in one hand and a basin in the other. The more familiar we become with the weariness around us, the better we’ll understand the call of the Eucharist in our lives. “I have given you a model to follow, so that as I have done for you, you should also do.”

So, I ask you tonight, as Jesus asked so long ago, Will you let me wash your feet? Will you let me, in persona Christi, kneel before you and wash your feet? Will you allow yourself to be served, to receive the loving service of God through this humble action of washing? Will you receive the gifts I have prepared for you?
Jesus gives us these three incredible gifts – the Priesthood, the Eucharist and Service. They are all here for you tonight. Will you accept them from your Lord? Will you let me wash your feet?

If you will, I invite you to come forward now.

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