HOLY THURSDAY 2013
We have just heard the oldest explanation of the Eucharist that has come down to us. The choice of Gospel today is very significant. The gospels, as we know, do not have just one theology of the Eucharist. The various communities in the early church each emphasized different things about the Eucharist. In John’s gospel, where the other gospels have the institution of the Eucharist at the last supper, he has Jesus washing the disciples’ feet. John, in placing the washing of the feet where the other evangelists put the words of institution, is reminding us that washing each other’s feet, service, is what the Eucharist is really all about. In the gospel of John, it is the foot-washing , that is the central action at the Last Supper.
Perhaps Jesus got his idea for this liturgy just six days earlier when he visited the home of Mary, Martha and Lazarus. They gave a dinner for him. Mary took a large quantity of expensive perfumed oil and anointed his feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. Let us reflect on this encounter. We look first at Mary. Mary had a passionate love for Christ which she struggled to communicate. A hug was not enough. Mary knew as others did that he had received death threats. She poured out her love foolishly and publicly. She risks the reprimand of Jesus; the embarrassment and ridicule of others.
The response of Jesus was remarkable. Can you put yourself in that place of Christ? Jesus was touched deeply by this liturgy of Mary. Rather than being self-conscious and embarrassed by such a display of affection, he allowed himself to be bathed in that love. She prophetically saw his imminent death and was preparing his body for death. Was it not this deep love that satisfied his heart; was it not her love that reminded him that all was well, that the Father too had bathed him in love: “You are my beloved son in whom I am well pleased!”? Was it not her excessive and transparent love that enabled him to set his face like flint and go to Jerusalemfor this Passover feast we witness tonight.
The power of this communion with Mary inspired Jesus to risk expressing his love foolishly beyond logic to his disciples and to you and me. Judas was right. This makes no sense. This action does not satisfy our reason. “Why was this perfume not sold and the money given to the poor?” Good question for the mind, but the heart speaks another language beyond reason. “The greatest among you must be the servant of all.” “Unless the grain of wheat falls on the ground and dies it remains but a single grain, but if it dies it bears much fruit.” The mind wants to calculate. The heart knows we must give all.
Jesus risked the reprimand of Peter, but knew the teaching was essential. When Jesus bent down to wash his disciples’ feet, Peter was aghast and cried, “You will never wash my feet!” However, in so speaking, Peter revealed the mentality that the Master never serves but is always served and obeyed. But Jesus says, “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.” Peter then accepts this expression of Christ’s love for him. “Not only my feet but my hands and head.” Peter would learn later that the head was not enough, but the heart must too be washed. The mind may say I will “die for you” but the heart is the place where fidelity and infidelity reside. “I do not know him!” “Peter do you love me, more than these others do?” I’m sure that the deeper washing of Peter came from his own tears when he wept in the presence of the Servant Girl and again when his Risen Lord embraced him and entrusted him to feed the sheep.
“Simon , Simon, listen! Satan has demanded to sift all of you like wheat, but I have prayed for you that your own faith may not fail; and you, when once you have turned back, strengthen your brothers.”
On this very night he was betrayed, St. Paultells us “when he had given thanks, he broke the bread and said, “This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” I reach beyond the mind that tells me to calculate, save myself “Come down from the cross if you are the Christ”. I act from the heart that speaks the truth that my only choice is to give all.
Today, during this “Year of Faith”, we remember the night when Jesus instituted not only the Eucharist but the priesthood as well. The priest is called to act in the person of Christ as teacher and pastor, called to imitate the good Shepherd whowould empty Himself in service to His people. Christ would give Himself completely to them. He would give them His Body and Blood. He would die on the cross for them. He would demonstrate to them that the Love of God had no limits. Nothing was too demanding. Love was all that matters. The meal of love, the Last Supper, began with a prophetic act demonstrating the love they and we all experience pouring down on us from the cross.
We are called to do what Jesus did. The Bishop yesterday in his sermon called each of us and especially the clergy to hear the call of Pope Francis to become a poor church and the church of the poor. We are called to offer our Bodies and our Blood for others. We are not just called to be nourished. We are called to nourish others. An essential element of the Eucharist is found in the mandate: Do unto others, what I have done for you. Maybe we do not literally go wash people’s feet, but we go serve the Lord and those around us in that humble manner; through that service we proclaim the dignity of the other.
If St Paulwanted to tell the Corinthians that the Eucharist is nothing but a symbol, then he chose very poor words. Yet, as we know, Paul is acknowledged as a master of language. St Paul's teaching on the Eucharist was certainly not lost to our fathers and mothers in the faith. Our Christian ancestors were convinced that the Eucharistic sacrifice of Jesus was, as one put it, "what God desired and we required."
Perhaps we should all reflect on the words of Padre Pio, "If we only knew how God regards this Sacrifice, we would risk our lives to be present at a single Mass."