In this beautiful homily for Holy Thursday, Year C, Father Hanly shows us how the washing of the feet models the total emptying of anything except the willingness and the desire to reach out to others: to heal them, to care for them, to love them, to bring them out of the cold and into the warmth of God’s love.
Readings for Evening Mass of the Lord’s Supper
First Reading: Exodus 12:1-8, 11-14
Responsorial Psalm: Psalms 116:12-13, 15-16, 17-18
Second Reading: First Corinthians 11:23-26
Gospel: John 13:1-15
Recording of Gospel
Recording of Homily
Transcript of Homily
Holy Thursday, as you know, is a celebration of the Passover, when Moses led the children of Israel out of the deepest, darkest slavery of Egypt and into a new hope and the beginning of a new covenant and a new way of living.
He led them from slavery into freedom. And though the walk was very long, 40 years, and they suffered much and they experienced much, they became from a group of dissolute slaves to a community of people.
And so, from that day on, Moses told them that they each year should celebrate the feast of the Passover, celebrate it for what it really was: a covenant with God. They were saved from the final shame in Egypt when an angel passed over their houses and left them free from the terrible death that came upon the Egyptians because they would not allow God’s people to leave. And they were saved, as they say, by the blood of the lamb, for they had eaten a lamb in each home and took the blood and put it across the lintels as a sign that they would be protected by God Himself.
Today we come together, many, many centuries later, and yet we sing the songs to the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, who brings us freedom, who brings us a new way of looking at things, a new way of hoping for things, a new way, not an old way but a new way, that is born each morning in our hearts when we lift our minds and hearts to God, and a new way that we take to bed at night when we ask our Father to see us through the night.
We have become Christians because of the Jews. And, of course, as everyone knows, in order to become a good Christian, you must learn to become a good Jew, because the Jews are our roots, the Jews are the tree and we are the branches that Jesus the Jew has offered himself, that we, too, with the whole world, might understand that the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Moses, the God of Jesus, is the God of all peoples.
It’s very important, the little ritual that begins tonight’s reading, and it’s a strange ritual.
At the beginning of the feast, and especially the Passover, the host would wait at the door for his guests. And the guests would come in one by one and they had walked a long journey so their feet were dirty. And it was the custom for someone to wash their feet before they entered the house. And, of course, the one who got to do this job was the lowest person, a slave. And even among slaves there was a pecking order of responsibility and who was higher than the next and, of course, it was the lowest of the lowest slave that took on this responsibility.
And after that, the head of the house would pour ointment on the person who was one of the invited guests and it was a sign of his great respect and his great caring for the person and recognising that the person was very special and that they were happy to bring him into the house.
At the Last Supper, Jesus, without saying anything, the first thing he does is he gets up from the table, he takes off his outer garment, and then he begins to wash the feet of his disciples.
And so it is that Peter, of course, was very angry. Why? Because Peter knows what he is doing. He is taking the place of a slave. He’s taking the place of the lowest one in the whole company of people who came to celebrate the freedom of their passage from slavery into freedom.
And Peter just burst out and said, “You’re never going to wash my feet. I will not let you wash my feet. I will not let you put yourself on the level of a slave, for we know that you are the Son of God, you are the one we hoped for, you are the one who will deliver us from all slavery and give us a world of freedom that will never be taken from us.”
And Jesus looked at Peter and he said, “Peter, if you do not let me wash your feet, you will never know who I am, you will never know why I came, you will never know anything about God.”
And, of course, Peter, who loved Jesus more than he had loved any person in his whole life, he said, in a burst of enthusiasm: “Not only my feet, but my head and my shoulders, my whole body. Just do not even think that you would separate yourself from me.” And so it happened that Peter began to learn what it really was to become a Christian.
And we wonder why Jesus does this thing. Why this humiliation? Why this degradation, if you will. And then we know the mystery, the mystery that we know by heart: “God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son” and let the world do what the world would do to him to test one thing: how deep was his love.
For it’s all about love. It is about loving and caring and forgetting yourself. And at the heart of all Christianity is to forget yourself and reach out to other people. And this is the message that Jesus is telling.
Jesus doesn’t kneel as a slave, but he kneels as a man who respects the feet he washes. He’s not making a charade or a game. He knows that Peter and Paul and John and these humble little disciples, these are the people of God. He knows that these people, these men and women, were created and God does not create junk and garbage. God only creates lovely, wonderful, good people.
And that is the way God does it. And that is what God expects of us to do, to begin to respect each other, not because it’s nice to do it as a Christian, but Jesus washing the feet was saying to the men: “The first thing you have to do is recognise your own dignity. Your own dignity is not something that is given to you because of your small amount of intelligence and your small amount of gifts and because you’ve achieved something in an achieving world. Your dignity is given to you by God. You were created for all eternity to love, to learn how to love, to care, to reach out, and to, ultimately, touch God Himself.”
The washing of the feet is the beginning of when we say we enter a new life. A new life is a life with God Himself. He becomes the one that we walk with, the one that we greet each morning as we greet the day and the one that is the last one in our hearts when we go to sleep.
Dom Helder Camara was a bishop in South America for many years and he was a bit of mystic and he said, “The problem with human beings is that God is more humble than we are.” We are not humble at all. We have to have our way. We have to have this, we have to have that, and if we don’t get it we get very angry. And if we’re really angry, we gather together in large numbers and we start our wars. And our petty thoughts that turn to petty evil and petty evil turns to monstrosities, one after the other.
This is not God. God is humble. We have this sort of idea that we should stand up and be proud and all of these kind of things. God is humble, God is humble, God is humble, that is all Jesus tells us.
And what does God’s humility mean? Well, it certainly doesn’t mean He denies He’s God, perfect and all of these things. His humility is found in His relationship with us because we are weak and He comes, respects our freedom and lives with us. We are needy people and He comes and He accepts the fact that He will share our neediness.
God’s wonderful humility is that, instead of destroying us for not keeping the rules and regulations, He, Himself, He measures Himself like us. And so it is that we have the lovely Jesus who is our Saviour, and the lovely Jesus weeps as we weep, and suffers as we suffer, and dies as we all must die.
And he does these things why?
Because he wants us to know that this is the way God loves. God is a giver not a taker. God is someone who enters our life, not as one to overwhelm us, but to love us with a new kind of love, a self-sacrificing love.
Jesus will say to the people, “If you really believe, if you really care, you will give up everything and follow me.” What he means is that God, the humble God, should become the centre of our lives.
And so on Holy Thursday we approach the humble God looking down at the table, seeing the bread and thinking of himself and to himself, “How should I like to be remembered among these my people from now on until the end of the world?”
And he takes the humble bread and he breaks it and he says, “This is me. Take it. Eat it. For it is going to offered up as I am going to be offered up for all of you.”
And then he sees the wine and he takes the wine and he says, “This is me. This is my blood and it will be poured out for you. And now, when you come together, today, tomorrow, for the rest of time, when you come together, this is the way you will remember me, the one who gives his body and blood out of deep and lasting love for you, and that saves your life.”
And that is what the washing of the feet means. It is the total emptying of anything except the willingness and the desire to reach out to others: to heal them, to care for them, to love them, to bring them out of the cold and into the warmth of God’s love.
And that is what we celebrate tonight, for Jesus kneels before us and washes our feet. And what Jesus does, God does. And what God does is washes our feet.
Now this is the way of love, not in pride or wonder in building great things. It is in the simple service that we give to each other every day of our lives to whoever enters into them and whoever goes away.
And this is the meaning of Holy Thursday and this is why we gather here together. Because we know the way of Jesus is not the best way; the way of Jesus is the only way. We must learn to wash feet and we must learn that the best part of us is when we’re forgetting ourselves and reaching out in love to our brothers and sisters.
And now we will begin that simple ritual of the washing of the feet, and we ask you to sing the songs. Think deeply that it was Jesus who taught us that the ultimate humility is self-sacrificing love.
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This homily was delivered on 1st April 2010.
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