Friday, March 29, 2013

Putting on the Apron of Service | Holy Thursday Homily

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 very severe stress. 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, “Every morning, fix him a healthy breakfast. Be pleasant at all times. Make him something nutritious for lunch. At dinnertime prepare an especially nice meal. Don't burden him and don't discuss your problems with him, it will only make his stress worse. Most importantly, never nag him. 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 and said, “Honey, the doctor said you're going to die.”

This humorous story points out the reality of what we celebrate tonight – if love isn’t paired with service, we cannot truly live. We gather tonight and begin 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 tonight focuses on God’s bounty; God’s goodness to us.  On this holy night, our God wants to spoil us.   

These Holy Days seek 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.

In the history of the Church, Lent and Holy Week were originally established for those preparing to enter the Church as new members.  Originally, new members entered only once a year, at the Easter Vigil.  Just as today, in the early centuries of the Church, there was tremendous drama in these rituals.  For example, in the 4th Century, St. Ambrose, in a Holy Week homily instructed catechumens on the awesome power of the Eucharist. He wrote, “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 is real! 

Likewise, a modern example.  This one from Blessed Pope John Paul II 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? Do you believe that He 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 bread and wine of the Last Supper.  Instead, we’re given the washing of the feet.  John gives us an example where Jesus turns things upside down through 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 turns 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 have  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 that make Jesus real.  

We have been blessed in these recent days to have such a profound example of exactly this type of humble service in our new Holy Father, Pope Francis,  haven’t we?  Certainly, as Pope, as leader of more than a billion Catholics throughout the world, he has assumed a Mantle of Privilege as well – one that comes with tremendous authority, power and the trappings of a such a position.  But, we know that in the few weeks that he has been Pope, he has set the Church and the world on its head with his simple form of humble leadership.  From the moment of his election, he has chosen the Apron of Service as the hallmark of his leadership of the Church.  Like Christ, he is giving us an example that we too should do.  He wears the simplest clothing available to the Pope; he has chosen not to live in the vast Papal Apartments available to him instead living in community with others who work at the Vatican; he wears simple black shoes and no cufflinks; a simple silver cross instead of one clad in gold.  He is a Pope who in his very first moments as our leader did not stand triumphantly on the balcony of St. Peter’s but instead bowed down before the world and humbly asked us for our prayers, for our blessing.  And perhaps, most profoundly, earlier today, he did not preside over a lavish celebration of the Mass of the Lord’s Supper at St. Peter’s Basilica washing the feet of the chosen; instead he went to a juvenile prison and washed the feet of youth prisoners, one of whom exclaimed, “At last I get to meet someone who says that he is my father.”

I have given you an example, so that as I have done for you, you also should do.  Why is the Holy Father doing this?   I think the answer is in the name he has chosen – Francis.  He has been inspired by the Saint of the Poor, Saint Francis of Assisi.  St. Francis lived in a time much like our own – there was scandal in the Church and people were far from the faith.  Today, though, we remember his times for the great period of holiness that it gave birth to.  We remember the luminary saints who were born in response to that sin – St. Francis and St. Clare; St. Bonaventure and St. Anthony; St. Albert the Great and St. Thomas Aquinas and so many more.  And so much of it began with Francis.

St. Francis changed the Church and changed the world with one simple proposition – that the Gospel is meant to be lived; that the Gospel can be lived. And that we live the Gospel by being men and women of loving service to one another; loving service to those in need. “Preach the Gospel at all times, when necessary use words.” Eight hundred years later, this new Francis, our Holy Father Pope Francis, I think, wants to propose it to us again – and if we follow where he wants to lead us – not in word, but in action – we will again change the Church and change the world.

Pope Francis kissed the foot of a juvenile prisoner on Holy Thursday.
So, the question tonight is this: are we willing to take off our outer garment?  Are we willing to lay down our own Mantles? For us it may not be a Mantle of Privilege, it might instead be a Mantle of pride or jealousy, anger or selfishness, laziness or greed.  Whatever our Mantle is, can we lay it down and replace it with the Apron of Service? Because when we take off our outer garments then all things are possible for us – in and through God.  Someone said, “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.”

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.  Reflect Christ through your own humble, simple acts of service to one another.   Put on the Apron of Service and follow the example that Jesus has given us; the example that St. Francis followed; the example that Pope Francis now witnesses to; the example that we are all called to follow.

My friends Jesus is real!  Let us be filled once again with the Real and Abiding Presence of Christ here tonight and let us become his Real and Abiding 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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