Thursday, March 20, 2008

"I have given you a model to follow"


Jesus said, “I have given you a model to follow, so that as I have done for you, you should also do.” We gather on this Holy Night and celebrate the beginning of the Three Great Days – the Sacred Triduum, which really serves as one singular feast. Tonight’s feast recalls many things – the Eucharist, service, the priesthood – but ultimately I think it focuses on God’s bounty; God’s goodness to us. On this holy night, God spoils us.

Now, typically we think of Christmas as the gift-giving holiday, but actually today’s celebration is the one that is truly about gifts – in fact, it is about 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 that Last Supper, Jesus instituted of the priesthood. It was during this Last Supper that Jesus ordained His first priests – the Apostles. If it weren’t for Holy Thursday so long ago, we wouldn’t be here tonight. 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 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, 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 to serve you, God’s people, in Christ’s name, following His example. On behalf of Fr. Mike and myself, may I thank you this night for the ways that you support us; for the many ways in which, despite our failings, you continue to be so good to us. May we always serve you faithfully and lovingly.

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 means not just to recall, but to revive, not just to remember, but to re-enact. What makes the Eucharist so special is that Christ is present, not just in memory. 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, and 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 the gift of Christ’s example us 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 the 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.

Let’s reflect a bit on the background. 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. 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 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?

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

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