|da Vinci's Last Supper|
This was the last time that Jesus would have the opportunity to gather with His apostles before His crucifixion, and He knew it. He had some very important work to do and it had to happen then and there. He had two absolutely essential gifts for His fledgling Church. These gifts, which we call sacraments, were initiated that night.
First, the Sacrifice of the Mass – the Eucharist – was established when Jesus gave us the words of consecration that change ordinary bread and wine into His Body and Blood: “This is my Body which is for you” and “This cup is the New Covenant in my Blood.”
But the Mass and the Eucharist would not be possible without the sacrament of Holy Orders. At that same supper, Jesus gave the apostles and their successors the power to consecrate the bread and wine when He said, “Do this in remembrance of me.” He was teaching His apostles, who that night became the first bishops, how to celebrate the Sacrifice of the Mass.
Thus the Lord’s Supper that we commemorate today is a most important event in the history of our Church – two vital gifts, Eucharist and Holy Orders –were given to His Church and to us by Jesus.
But here’s an interesting fact about the Last Supper. The evangelist John, in his Gospel version of that all-important event, the version we heard tonight, chose not to focus on either the institution of the Eucharist or on Holy Orders. No, John was apparently so impressed by what Jesus did to His apostles that, instead, he told us the story about how Jesus washed their feet.
As many of you know, Ann and I spend about half of each year up on Cape Cod in Massachusetts. While we’re up north, Ann and I participate in three-day Catholic retreats at the local prison where I am a part-time Catholic chaplain. These retreats are called “Recs”, which stands for “Residents Encounter Christ.” Some of you may have lived a Cursillo weekend. Well, Recs are much like Cursillos, but slightly modified to meet the needs of the incarcerated men and women.
Before the celebration of Mass on Sunday of the retreat weekend, we ask for a dozen volunteers for the washing of the feet ceremony. There are usually two deacons on the retreat team and so we move from one resident to the next pouring water on their feet, drying them, and then most surprising of all, we kiss their feet. Even if they’ve seen it before it always takes them aback. These are men and women in jail for all kinds of serious crimes. Many of them think of themselves as garbage, unworthy of the love of others. In fact, some fully believe their own love isn’t worth anything to anybody else, including themselves. The washing of their feet and those of their fellow prisoners opens their eyes to a deeper meaning of the phrase, “Love thy neighbor.”
For us gathered here this afternoon, the washing of the feet is a profoundly important aspect of our celebration of Holy Thursday, when according to John’s Gospel, Jesus washed the feet of His apostles.
Again it’s interesting to note that John the Evangelist thought it was so significant an event that he chose to focus his description of the Last Supper on the washing of the feet rather than on the words of consecration that appear in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke. For this reason the readings for Holy Thursday include a selection from St. Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians in which he briefly tells the story of the Last Supper and includes those essential words.
Why was the washing of the feet so important to Jesus and His apostles 2,000 years ago, and why is it so important to us all these years later? It is important because it symbolizes the love of Jesus for His fellow human beings. Remember, although Jesus was full divine, He was also fully human. The washing of the feet symbolizes His love for us in the same way.
Tonight our pastor, Fr. Peter, will take the place of Jesus and some members of our congregation will symbolically take the place of the apostles. To those selected to participate in this ceremony, please be advised that your halos are issued only temporarily. You can’t take them home to show your friends and neighbors, so please keep your humility at the forefront…just kidding…
Our feet are the lowest part of our bodies, the part that most easily gets dirty, especially if we wear sandals or go barefooted. Thus, the washing of someone’s feet demonstrates a great act of humility, a great act of love, a symbol of what it means to love thy neighbor.
This is exactly the lesson Jesus was teaching His apostles. He told them that, after His Resurrection, they must carry on the tradition of love wherever they went. And the same lesson applies to us, especially in these days of economic crisis in our country and in our world.
Whether or not you are involved in the feet-washing ceremony, please realize that what is happening is indeed a reenactment of the very thing Jesus did for His apostles on the night before He was crucified. He considered it important enough to spend part of His precious remaining time to carry it out, and that’s why the Church has continued this Holy Thursday tradition over the centuries.
Its’ a beautiful little ceremony with such profound meaning, and it occurs only once a year. Let it be a reminder that to be a true follower of Christ, we must be humble enough to care for the needs of others, no matter how low we must bend in doing so. And we must carry out those acts with the same love that Jesus showed to His apostles and the unconditional love he has for each of us every day.
If we were invited to the royal wedding in London next week, we’d be sure to get there on time if not early. We would show the utmost respect to the royal family and all the dignitaries. We would follow all the proper protocols and would surely avoid leaving early. How can we do any less in the presence of Almighty God every time we enter this Church? He holds our destiny in the palm of His hand, and His real presence in the Eucharist is the greatest gift that any Father could give His beloved children. He gives us His very essence – His Body and Blood, His soul and divinity.
And we also need to show great respect for our priests. Remember this, without our priests, we’d have no sacraments, and without the sacraments, we’d have no Church, and without our Church, we’d be like abandoned children wandering through life aimlessly.
Each of our priests has been called to ministry by God Himself. It wasn’t by chance; it was divine providence. May God help us to use Holy Thursday this year as a reminder of the importance of the Eucharist – the real presence of Jesus – in our lives. And let us be reminded that without the gift of devoted priests, we would no longer be able to make Jesus a part of us and to make ourselves a part of Him through the Eucharist.
Please, pray for our priests, our bishops, and our holy father, and pray fervently for more good and holy vocations to the priesthood.
God bless you.