In this beautiful homily for Holy Thursday, Year A, Father Hanly helps us understand the Last Supper and what “the hour has come” actually means.
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 Homily
Transcript of Homily
Here we have the loveliest gospel. It’s a very simple gospel. St John is a kind of a mystical writer in the sense that he makes everything sound very simple, and then when you start thinking of them and thinking of them and thinking of them, and you go all week thinking about them, you say, “My goodness, there’s more to his simplicity than my whole life.” But this is one of them and, of course, we are gathered here together to kind of reflect, not just on Jesus, but on John.
As you know, the hour has come. Whenever that it is mentioned in John, “The hour has come,” we think it means Jesus being arrested, being nailed to the cross, dying. But it isn’t. “The hour has come” means, for John, now is the time the whole world has been waiting for, for now begins the great mystery. And the great mystery is not death, the great mystery is life. And that is what Jesus begins.
And how is he going to convince his disciples why he came, or who he is, or what must be done, and what should we all do, and all these kind of endless questions?
And Jesus has one response. He gets up from the dinner. He has told them, “It is with great love that I have come together with you this evening.” And it’s true. Everything with Jesus is love. Then he takes off his garment and he goes over and fills a basin with water and he begins to wash the feet of his disciples.
This is lost to us, a little bit, until we realise that it was the great courtesy in the ancient days, when people walked around on the way to the house that they were invited, that they would be met at the door, not by the lord of the house but by a slave. A slave because no one else would ever do this among the Jewish people, to have one wash another’s feet. It was a great humiliation and the only one that would do this would be a slave.
Anyhow, they were met by slaves, and the slave would wash the feet of the visitor. And then the lord would come out and put perfume in his hair. What a lovely gesture, to make them feel that they were really welcomed into the house.
And in the house, there was going to be a feast. And the feast would be a celebration of their love for each other and caring for each other.
The only trouble was, when Jesus knelt down to wash their feet, it became very quiet, because they felt ashamed, not ashamed of themselves but ashamed for him. He, who was their Lord and master, is doing this. And they know that he’s not acting out a showpiece, because Jesus only dealt in the truth. And there he was, kneeling before them, washing their feet.
And, of course, he came to Peter. And Peter, who we all love for being a rather (inaudible) he’s going to die for Jesus and then he turns him down, denies him when he has the chance. He’s going to save the world for Jesus, but he always backs off, in a way. And he’s our first hope. So he’s a wonderful model for all of us to follow, meaning that no matter how bad you are, you can’t be worse than St Peter, who denies the one man he loved most in the world when the one man who needed him most needed him most, he turned his back on him.
And so St Peter says to Jesus, he says, “You’re not going to wash my feet.”
And then Jesus says these very strange words, he says, “If I cannot wash your feet, you can have nothing to do with me.”
Why would he say something like that?
He was saying, “If you do not let me wash your feet, you will never understand who I am, you will never understand why I came, you will never understand your own destiny. It is for this I must wash your feet here and now.” And then he says out loud, “If you do not let me wash your feet, you can have nothing to do with me.”
And, of course, the lovely St Peter says, “Not only my feet, but my head and my shoulders and my whole body.” Because there is one thing that Peter couldn’t imagine life to be: without Jesus.
What does it mean to wash feet? Was he play-acting? Was he playing to be a humble little man, impressing everybody?
No, he was telling us a great mystery. Because when we look at Jesus, we look at God. And that’s why he came. Son of God and Son of man. Son of God to bring the knowledge and love and understanding of God into human form so that we could grasp it.
And the great thing that he was trying to teach them was you either love or you don’t love, and, if you love, you wash feet.
It strikes you as strange. Of course it doesn’t. Look at a mother. A mother gives birth to a child and what is the first thing that happens to her? Totally and completely gives her whole life to a little baby who only cries, can’t even speak, not worth anything. But she must dedicate her whole next five, ten, fifteen, twenty years to reaching out to this child. Not as a mother who knows everything, but as someone who loves this little child, respects this little child and sees this little child is a mystery greater than she herself can understand.
When we live in this world, we either live in the history of the world or we’re not really living in this world. If we think that we can measure everything, that we can count everything, that we can do all these things without an aura of mystery that surrounds us…
Where we came from, we do not know. Where will we go? We do not know. What can we do? We do not know.
But the one thing we do know is we can love. And when we love, we come alive.
But here is the difference between the love that we hear about all day long, and the songs we sing all day long, and the love of Jesus. For Jesus, love means sacrifice, love means, not what you’re going to get, but it’s measured in what you’re going to give.
And that’s why a young mother knows this instantaneously. It is giving herself totally and completely that she begins to understand, not just the mystery of the world, but the mystery of God Himself.
For the bottom line is God is a giver and not a taker. He’s a lover and not forcing anything upon us. He respects us. He loves us. He understands us.
And that is why Jesus says to Peter, “Peter, if you don’t walk through this door of understanding that God is a giver, and you will only know Him when you’re giving not when you’re taking… Then and only then will you know who I am.”
For Jesus came to give himself totally and completely for our healing, our salvation, but, most of all, for understanding that God indeed is love.
There’s an old saying by the poet Peguy and it goes something like this,
“The dream you dream is my dream, says God.
The house you build is my house, says God.
And the love with which you love each other is my love, says God.”
This is the beginning of a wonderful mystery of Holy Week. It begins with this itinerant preacher who has nothing to give, understands and teaches us all that you have nothing to give. Your money is not important. Your ideas are not important. Giving talks like us giving talks are not important. The only thing important is that we are learning how to love and we are learning how to love the way Jesus knows we must learn if we are going to understand who we are and which way we’re going.
For it is love that is the secret of wisdom. And one who loves, understands truth. And one who loves, understands the meaning of things.
In today’s gospel, we begin three sacred days.
Tomorrow, we will see how far love will go. Is there anything that you cannot give? Jesus will die on a cross. But this is the thing that we also must remember: Jesus, the one who loves, is on the cross, and it was as if his Father said, “You must teach them how deeply they must love, how they can imitate their own Father.”
And it seems that everything happens to him, everything is taken away from him on the cross. His people run away, his disciples run away. People scorn him and speak ugly things of him, as if he was the worst person that ever lived instead of the best person who ever lived. And it comes down and there he is on the cross.
And his Father looks down with baited breath. And his Father must be weeping. The tears of God are very real to see his Son so treated and maltreated. And He should intervene but He doesn’t. He just stops and He waits.
And, finally, Jesus looks up and he says, “Why have you forsaken me?” And its the beginning of a prayer. And at the beginning of the prayer, he says to his Father, “Father, forgive them. They know not what they do.”
And then, all of a sudden, we realise that it is in the forgiveness of each other that we are healed and saved. And this is why his Father reaches down and lifts him up into a new life.
Two lessons, they’re on the pictures: the one behind you or in front of me, and the one behind me.
The one behind me is a love supper, a love feast, and Jesus is telling his disciples, “I will be with you all days to the end of time.” And he takes what’s in front of him, the bread, and he says, “Whenever you eat this bread, you will know it is my body. It is indeed I am with you. And whenever you drink this blood, you will know that I have poured my life out for you.”
And then the picture in the rear is Jesus washing the disciples’ feet. And, of course, this is the whole truth of life and it’s the whole truth of the message of God, which is: if we want to live, we must die to our selfishness and learn to love each other. And how do we love each other? By washing each other’s feet. Do you remember the words he said? “Unless you learn to wash each other’s feet, you’ll never know what true love really is.”
And so with great joy, we celebrate tonight this most happy Holy Thursday. We celebrate the fact that he comes to us in this very special way and will continue to come to us in this very special way as long as we need him.
And then we will begin to understand the great graciousness of God Himself, for God is a giver and when we learn to give, we touch God.
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This homily was delivered on 21st April 2011.
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