HOLY THURSDAY April 18, 2019

Exodus 12: 1-8, 11-14; Psalm 116; 1Cor. 11: 23-26; John 13: 1-15

by Jude Siciliano, OP

Dear Preachers:

Jesus’ life is on the line. On this night he will be arrested, tortured and, by the next day, executed. He knows his end is coming; the signs of hostility by the religious and secular powers are quite obvious. So, what options would he have in the face of such threats and impending doom? He could run away to protect his life and plan to return later when things have calmed down. I wonder, as he looked around the table at his hapless disciples, if Jesus was tempted to wonder if all he was trying to accomplish was fruitless. Was it worth his sacrifice? If he decides to stay, as today’s gospel says he has, what one, lasting and life-altering thing could he do for them? Giving his life, his complete surrender of himself for them, would certainly show them how much God loved them. That sacrifice would come the next day. As for tonight, his last meal with them, what could he do to firmly impress on them the meaning of his life and their roles as his disciples?

At the table, the night before he died, Jesus performs a symbolic act that summarizes his whole life. He does what the lowest servant, or slave in the household, would do. He kneels and washes his disciples’ feet. His message is clear: he has not come to assume a place of power in the world, but to serve and give his life for all.

In one powerful ritual Jesus encapsulated his whole life’s message for his disciples. While they traveled with him the disciples had seen the loving ways Jesus accepted as his as his sisters and brothers, the sick, poor, the fragile and the outsider. If the disciples had taken to heart Jesus’ ways throughout his ministry, they would not have been shocked, as Peter was, by his washing their feet. After all, in one way or another, he was always bending to wash the feet of others.

In the humble act of washing their feet he gave them and us a powerful message of how we are to live our Christian lives. His question to those with him and to us as well is, "Do you realize what I have done for you?" Do we?

At this Eucharist we might give thanks for those light-bearing Christians whose lives have been deeply touched by Jesus’ example. They have given witness to "the towel and the basin" ministry of foot washing. Immediate names come to mind: Mother Teresa, Oscar Romero and Dorothy Day. I also have a postcard size photograph of Pope Francis on Holy Thursday at a youth detention center in Rome. The pope is kneeling before a teenage boy, kissing the feet he has just washed. Sitting nearby is a young woman watching the Pope, her hands covering her mouth in amazement at what the Pope is doing. (See a video by typing in your search engine: "Pope Francis washes the feet of prisoners.")

The sacramental foot washing is not just for prominent Christians in the world. It should not be a rare, or startling event. Each of us who comes to this table of the Lord this evening, is called to do what Jesus has done and teaches us to do.

It turns out that foot washing is not such a rare happening, reserved to a few prominent Christians. Have you noticed it being performed all around you? A father spends energy and countless hours tutoring and caring for his autistic son; members of the St. Vincent de Paul Society in our parish spend their free time every week gathering and giving food and clothing to the poor; hospice workers sit with the dying; teachers counsel troubled youth after school hours, etc. There are so many examples of people who have been deeply affected by Jesus’ life and example and have devoted themselves to service of the poor, sick, dying, children, aged, prisoners, refugees etc. Jesus always wanted to help the needy and distressed in his life and his example at the table before his death taught his disciples that they must do the same, if they are to be his followers.

"Foot-washing ministry" can be quite exhausting and even discouraging. It is a humble service that doesn’t always yield large and satisfying results. What will keep us at it when the signs of "success" aren’t evident? At these times we need to remember that God is the source of our calling. Through Jesus’ life, death and resurrection God’s Spirit empowers and encourages us to "keep on keeping on."

Around this table this evening we remember and celebrate what God has done for us in Jesus. The bread and cup we share fills us with wonder and gratitude to our God. Initially, like the disciples, we may not understand, or fully accept, Jesus’ example for us. But as we keep gathering, celebrating and remembering, the full meaning of his life and message will unfold within us.

Peter and those closest to Jesus may have wanted to do the right thing – be courageous and stand with him – but they could not. On their own they were neither brave nor strong enough. Could we do any better than they? On our own, – no. But on this night and each time we come to the Lord’s table we are strengthened by Word and Sacrament. He does it again for us, faltering and fearful disciples. He enables us to overcome our fears, hesitancy, prejudice, cowardice and sinfulness to more fully embrace our mission to wash the feet of Jesus’ least significant sisters and brothers. In the blessed and broken bread of his body and the blessed and communion cup of his blood, Jesus gives his whole self to us at this table.

When Jesus took bread and wine, blessed and gave them to his disciples he gave them the instruction, "Do this in remembrance of me." John further opens our imagination in his supper narrative to help us understand what "this" means. What are we to do in memory of him? Gather and share the Eucharistic meal he left us, for sure. But at the meal the "this" also includes being attentive to his word, doing what he taught us.

Around the table were broken and weak people, one of whom was a betrayer. We remember that God is with us amid human wreckage. The Eucharist keeps us connected to Christ and one another. We also remember that God is no stranger to pain and betrayal. But sin, brokenness and betrayal do not have the last word because we believe and hope in the resurrection. Until then, the shared bread and wine and the community sustain us and strengthen us to be disciples of "the towel and the basin."

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