Homily of the 29th March 2018
Exodus 12: 1 – 8, 11 – 14; I Corinthians 11: 23 – 26; John 13: 1 – 15
If I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.
As in years past, I have been trying to help us enter through the door of the great Paschal Mystery and into the saving death and resurrection of the Son of God by following one particular theme throughout the week. As I said on Palm Sunday, this year I am focusing on Jesus’ kingship: what it means to say that Jesus is our King, what his Kingship is all about. On Palm Sunday we were overwhelmed by Jesus’ humility. His humbleness in his choice of a throne (the cross), humbleness in his choice of his means of transportation (a donkey and not a stallion), humbleness in the way he exercised his power (through love and forgiveness, not through weapons of war).
And today’s liturgy, what does it add to our understanding of Jesus’ Kingship? For me what has stood out is its completeness, how Jesus, precisely as King, gives himself totally. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end, that is, to the final completion of his mission, ‘til there was no more for him to do. Jesus’ Kingship is not about what he can get, about what honor and glory and riches he can receive, but about what he can give. And to show this in a symbolic way, he takes off his robe, kneels down and begins to do the menial chore of washing the disciples’ feet. At the end he will say: If I your Lord, your King, have washed your feet, you can see that my Kingship is not about me, about what I can accumulate, but about others, about what I can give.
What a strange way to be a King! To wash our feet rather than to be washed. To give himself completely to us, holding nothing back, all the way to the bitter end. Like Peter, we cry out, “Never, Lord, never will you wash my feet.” And just like to Peter, Jesus responds emphatically to us, “Unless I wash your feet, you have no part with me.” Isn’t that what we most crave, isn’t that the desire in our deepest heart: to have a part with Jesus? Like James and John, the sons of Zebedee, we want to sit on thrones next to King Jesus. And Jesus tells us, that to have part with him, to sit with him, there is only one way. It is the way of the cross, the way of self-emptying. It is to give ourselves to others, holding nothing back.
The words of Saint Teresa come to mind: “Lord, if this is the way you treat your friends, no wonder you have so few of them.” Everything within us rebels against such a Kingship. And yet that is precisely the Kingship which Jesus embraces. And not only embraces, but makes it his great command, his mandatum (the traditional name for the foot washing), his last will and testament: wash one another’s feet, serve one another without counting the cost.
Let’s approach this from another angle. Have you ever noticed that there is no institution of the Eucharist in John’s Gospel? All the synoptics have it. But John doesn’t. Does he have something in its place? Yes, the washing of the feet. This is John’s way of showing us what the Eucharist is all about. On Tuesday, I was privileged to minister communion to several hundred people at the Chrism Mass at the cathedral alongside the Bishop. I thought the line would never end. And such a privilege never fails to bring tears to my eyes. The poor, the rich, the blind, the intelligent, all walked up to receive our Lord, our King. As I ministered to each one, the underlying reality kept coming back to me: Jesus gives himself to all, totally, completely, to the utmost end. Jesus refuses no one. Jesus is there for everyone. John shows us that the Eucharist and the washing of the feet are one, because the Eucharist in its deepest reality is the call to be one with Jesus, and like him to be vulnerable and to give ourselves wholly for one another with no distinctions.
Holy Thursday, with its celebration of the institution of the Eucharist and the washing of the feet, brings Jesus’ Kingship front and center as Jesus’ complete and total gift of himself to us. Such a Kingship is a mandatum as well, a command to go and do likewise. No longer in symbol, but in reality. To be there for one another when things are clicking along just fine, and to be there for one another when there is anger or hurt or disagreement or even enmity. Jesus never said it would be easy to turn the cheek, and so he has gone before us to show us the way. He asks of us nothing more than he gave of himself. Indeed, today’s Eucharist is the very source of our strength and ability to do the mandatum and to fulfill Jesus‘ command. Let us approach the altar today to receive this grace and so to have a part with Jesus, to proclaim him as our King, the King of total and complete gift in love.
And let the Church say: Amen!