In this very beautiful and moving homily for Holy Thursday, Year B, Father Hanly talks about how precious each one of us is in the eyes of God.
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
Tonight we begin the Triduum, the three most important days in the liturgical year of the church.
Tonight we celebrate a more happy event.
It is the Passover, the Last Supper, and Jesus is gathered together with his disciples, and he is there to tell them how much he loves them, how much he cares for them, and also how he must leave them. And so the great joy of gathering around the great feast of the Passover is tinged with sorrow.
And then you would think at celebration of this mass of The Last Supper, that the gospel would be about the institution, about the institution of the Eucharist. And yet we have this very strange kind of beginning.
Jesus, having told his disciples how much longed to be with them, he takes off his outer garment and he goes to the outside, really, and he brings in the bowl with which the servants wash the feet of those who come to the banquet. You know they come a long distance and they’re all very important people and it’s a very important feast, but there has to be someone who’s going to wash their feet before they enter the household of the host. And this job is given to the lowest of the lowest slave.
And Jesus comes back with the water and he kneels down in front of each of them and he begins to wash their feet.
And he comes to St. Peter and a pin could drop through the whole dining hall. And Peter, as we know, is an impetuous man and he sees his Lord and master degrading himself in this way and he says to him, “You’re not going to wash my feet.”
And then Jesus says something even more strange. He says to them, he says, “Peter, if you do not let me wash your feet, you will never know who I am. You can have nothing, nothing to do with me, because you will never understand.”
And then Peter, as usual with his ups and downs, he cries out, “Not only, not only my feet, but my head and my shoulders and my arms and my whole self” because if there’s one thing that Peter knows, he does not want to lose the love he feels for this person who has changed his life.
And then Jesus proceeds, one after the other, washing their feet, drying their feet.
And finally he goes back, puts on his garment, and he says to them, “Do you know what I have done to you?”
And of course they don’t. And they’re quite silent.
He said, “You call me Lord and master, and that’s what I am. I am your Lord and I am your master, but I have washed your feet.” And then there is a great pause and he says, “I do this because you will never know who I am until you wash each other’s feet.”
This is the meaning of the Eucharist. This is the meaning of why he, the Son of God, came down to share our humanity, that we might share in an understanding of the great dignity that God has given us and the great gift that he continues to give us each day.
It seems like, from one point of view, that what Jesus is doing is playing a game or making a parable by what he does. How can the Son of God kneel down in front of these men who in a very, very short time will all run away from him when he needs them most. One will betray him, others will deny him three times, their leader. When he says to the little lady who says, “You’re one of them” he says, and he curses and he swears, “I have never known this man.” And Jesus knows that this is all going to happen.
Why and what does it mean? When he kneels down what does Jesus see?
He sees the humanity of all of them, and he loves them in a human way. But he also sees the presence of God. He knows that each one has been formed individually, particularly, out of the greatness and glory of God. And each one is worthy of respect because, not for what he is, but what he has become when God created him in His own image and His own likeness.
And what Jesus is really doing is telling the truth of who they really are. They are not, even in the most remote way, even near an understanding of the greatness of being the children, the sons and daughters, those made in the image of a loving Father.
And it is Jesus who pays homage at this time. And that’s why he says, “If you cannot see in me, and what I do here, and why I do it, you cannot be my disciple.” Because what he is saying is, a disciple, in response to the love of God, serves other people.
Do you remember when Jesus was in Jericho, Zacchaeus, the little tax collector, was running up and down trying to see Jesus who had come to town and he was very well known at the time, and he was such a small little fellow that the only thing he could do was climb a tree and look down at Jesus as he passed.
And it must have been quite funny because he was the richest man in town and the most hated man in town because he was a tax collector and everybody knew tax collectors were terribly dishonest and they took way high above the tax demanded by the Romans and demanded by the officials. And that’s how they made their money. And so he was scorned by everyone, but dressed to the nines.
And then Jesus looks up and he says to him, “Zacchaeus, come down, because today I’m going to be in your house.”
What did Jesus see in Zacchaeus, the renegade, the one who was not even allowed to pray in the temple? What did he see in Zacchaeus that he would dine with him?
Many years later, there’s an old saying that Zacchaeus, they said to Zacchaeus (by this time he was a disciple of Jesus) and they said to him, “Zacchaeus, what did you want to see when you climbed the tree?” And they expected him to say, “Well, I wanted to see Jesus,” and he said this, “I wanted to see what Jesus saw when he looked at Zacchaeus.”
It’s the same story. Each and every one of us, no matter what we have done, or how we behave, or what we do with the treasures that God gives us — use them well or use them poorly — we are indeed the precious children of God. And our dignity and our feeling and the great gifts that God gives us, we must first recognize in ourselves.
About a week ago, I was going through the sacristy looking for a candle and I wanted a special candle because we were having this ceremony tonight.
And I pulled out, with the help of Ah Keung, I pulled out this very filthy little candelabra. It was really dull. And I looked at it and I said, “Oh, this is a poor place to put a candle. I think this is no bargain.”
Anyhow, Ah Keung gave me a little bit of silver polish, so I went up to my room and I began to wipe the black away from it. And it took me three towels, and the towels were filthy, I just threw them in the garbage. And finally what emerged was this beautiful shining silver candelabra.
And I said to myself how like this is what Jesus was trying to tell his disciples. You’re not fishermen. You’re not just ordinary people. Because when I look at you, I see what you really are. I look to the depths of your heart. I know when you weep and I know when you laugh. And I know the storm about your life. I know the troubles you have and I know your ambitions.
And this is what not they must understand, he’s sending them out now to look at other people the way he looks at them.
The teaching, then, of tonight’s gospel is that we must, as Jesus once said to his disciples and to the people of his time, “You have eyes to see, but you’re blind; you have ears to hear, but you’re deaf; you have hearts to love, but you don’t.” And because of that, the great mystery in each other is lost.
What Jesus is saying to them is when you learn how to serve, you will learn how to live; and when you learn to love others, you will understand what love is; and when you learn to give happiness and joy to people, you will understand what it means to be happy and full of joy.
We have two pictures tonight to show you. The one behind is the Last Supper. The Last Supper is God Himself sharing his love with his disciples; it is Jesus now teaching them the secret of God.
The secret of God is in the back of the church and we see Jesus washing the feet of Peter.
And the lesson of course is this: Jesus washes feet, God washes feet, and until we learn to wash feet, to serve others, no conditions, no counting the cost, but to learn to serve others, then we will know that it is God who washes our feet and it is God’s Son who dies on a cross for us.
And the real meaning of it all is will we ever learn to love as Jesus loves, will we ever realize that we’re surrounded by the great mystery and love of God who is with us all our days.
And the way we understand it is by turning to each other and saying, “Let me help you, let me serve you, let me take care of you.”
This is the lesson of tonight, it’s the lesson of tomorrow, and it’s the lesson of new life, for Jesus says, “He who gives his life away, will have life in abundance.”
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This homily was delivered on 9th April 2009.
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