Thursday, April 9, 2009

I Have Given You a Model to Follow

(Holy Thursday, Mass of the Lord's Supper)

Tonight, brothers and sisters, we encounter one of the great twists of the Sacred Scriptures. In St. John’s account of the Last Supper, we find no explicit account of the institution of the Eucharist. This is perhaps surprising because the Gospel of John is wholly permeated by the truth of Jesus’ identification with the Eucharistic food we receive in this sacrament. After all, it is in John that Jesus proclaims himself “the bread of life,” and proclaims to his astonished hearers that “unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life within you.”

So how come when St. John comes to the Last Supper, there is no explicit Eucharist, but this funny business about washing feet instead? Certainly John knew about the institution of the Eucharist; St. Paul, writing at least a generation before the Gospel of John, recounts the tradition quite clearly in the second reading we hear tonight. And yet, after all the build up of the famous “Bread of Life Discourse” in the Gospel of John, and the “hard saying” that we must eat Christ’s body and drink his blood if we are to have eternal life within us, we get this touching account of the washing of the feet instead of the explicit tradition of Jesus forever identifying himself with the bread and wine transubstantiated through his divine blessing.

John the Evangelist is writing perhaps sixty or seventy years after Jesus’ Passion and death. Our Christian faith was between its second and third generation. The celebration of the Eucharist and the reception of the eucharistized bread and wine were well established among Christians; this much is clear from the tradition we heard from Paul tonight. They knew that Jesus himself had become their saving Passover; just as the Hebrews were saved when the blood of the paschal sacrifice was seen on the doorposts of their houses, so Christians are saved by the blood of Christ on their lips.

So John, knowing that he doesn’t have to spell out a tradition that his readers would have already known well, offers another emphasis to help them understand more deeply what it is they were already doing. And it’s the same for us, brothers and sisters. We know the Eucharist very well; it is the center and source of our life as Catholic Christians. The Gospel we hear tonight invites us into a deeper reflection on what the Eucharist means for us and what it calls us too.

Jesus, in washing the feet of his disciples, takes the place of the servant among them. He who is teacher and Lord among them, puts himself humbly below his disciples—literally and spiritually—as one who washes and cleanses. The good news of tonight, brothers and sisters, is that in the blessed Eucharist and in the Holy Communion we receive, Jesus continues to do this humble ministry of washing us.

In the ancient world, when someone arrived from the dusty world to be seated at table for a supper, his feet had to be washed of the dirt and grime of the outside world. And so it is with us. Each time we come together for the Lord’s Supper in the Mass, we arrive with every part of our soul that touches the world just a little dusty and obscured by the sin and confusion of the world around us. But when we gather around this altar, Jesus again stoops down and places himself below us. He offers himself as our nourishment, and when we become one with him in the Holy Communion we receive he washes our feet once more. We receive his own divine life into our very bodies and we are cleansed of our sins, our anxieties, and our depressions, having our spiritual feet, the parts of us that touch the difficulties and problems of this world cleansed by the humble God who makes himself our servant.

So let us turn our attention again to this altar. Let us kneel in adoration before the Lord who kneels before us as a servant. And let us go forth from this place with renewed desire to imitate the sublime humility we receive. Let us renew our resolve to become humble servants of each other and of all who are weary or discouraged in this world. Let us become the Body of Christ we receive, the presence of Jesus that places himself at the feet of others so that he might cleanse and renew them.


LM said...

Wow. I wish my wife would read this or hear it. That is wonderful.

Don said...

Very good homily! I like your emphasis and the historical notes. I had not known all of that, but the washing of the feet is done each year at Mt. Irenaeus and this year I had the privilege of having mine washed. The emphasis in much of our society is on being "top dog" and this example of the King of Kings as the servant of all is an exemplar of what it means to be a follower of Christ. Lots of emphasis on piety which has its place to be sure in the church, but this act rises above all else.