A. For nearly 18 years, I worked on a daily basis with James Cardinal Hickey, formerly the Archbishop of Washington. After he retired and I was serving as Bishop of Bridgeport, I regularly visited the Cardinal, my mentor and my friend. We had conversed and dined together on countless occasions but as his health declined, one particular dinner we shared was different. The Cardinal was clearly failing and he knew it. I could tell he wanted to speak to me one last time from his heart about the things that mattered most to him – most especially the mission of the Church, but also my ministry as a bishop. I very quickly realized that this was a kind of farewell meal. In the remaining years of his life, I continued to visit the Cardinal but this would be the last time we spoke in such depth.
B. On this Holy Thursday night, in and through the Church’s liturgy, we look in on the Last Supper, the final meal before Jesus’ Passion and Death. In a certain sense, we have been given “a seat at the table” as Jesus speaks words of farewell to his closest followers, the Apostles. The Lord does not have time for trivialities or for small talk. The hour of his Passion and Death, the hour of the world’s redemption, has arrived. Having instructed the Apostles throughout his public ministry, Jesus now wants to set for them a pattern of life and worship that the Apostles and all the Lord’s disciples are to follow until he comes again.
II. The Liturgy of the Word
A. The Lord begins, one might say, with the Liturgy of the Word in which He reminds the Apostles of all that he taught them. He speaks of his oneness with the Father and his saving will and his readiness to fulfill the mission of mercy for which the Father sent him into the world. By his Death on the Cross, Jesus will show us the face of the Father’s mercy – “the length and breadth, the height and depth” of the Father’s self-giving love, revealed fully in Jesus’ gift of self for us and for a sinful humanity. Jesus invited them to enter into the depth of his love, the love he shared with God the Father from all eternity and showed them how they might share that love with one another.
B. Jesus did this by kneeling down and washing their feet. His gesture was, of course, one of hospitality and service yet it was more. Jesus, Lord and Master, knelt before them as one who serves, as one ‘who did not cling to his divinity but rather emptied himself and took the form of a slave.’ Jesus was surely giving his apostles an example to follow. If they would follow in his footsteps they must be like him, as one who serves the needs of others, especially the poor and vulnerable. But he was doing more than providing a good example. Jesus knelt before them as the source of a new life and power by which the apostles would be purified of all forms of egoism and self-centeredness. No one held captive by disordered love of self can reproduce Jesus’ self-giving love, that love which alone makes us fit for the upper room of heaven.
C. So tonight, despite my unworthiness, I will imitate the Lord’s gesture of self-giving love by the ritual washing of feet. In doing so, I will not be trying to re-create history but rather to draw from the wellspring of the Church’s liturgy the deep truth about God’s self-giving love that Jesus imparted to his disciples in those final hours before his Passion and Death. As this rite unfolds, look beyond me and those who participate in this rite and see instead the Savior who humbly seeks to purify our hearts, to “consecrate them in the truth”, so that we can love others ‘as he has first loved us.’ As Pope Francis reminds us, we are to wash the feet of others, especially the poor, by practicing the corporal and spiritual works of mercy – feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, consoling the sorrowful, sharing the faith. This is a sign that the new life of Christ’s love has taken hold in us.
III. The Liturgy of the Eucharist
A. After sharing words of spirit and life, Jesus returns to the table for what we might call “the liturgy of the Eucharist.” It is no ordinary meal that he shares with his Apostles. Rather, it is the Passover of the Lord. In this evening’s reading from St. Paul’s 1st Letter to the Corinthians, we have one of the earliest accounts of the Eucharist based on what the Lord Jesus actually said and did at the Last Supper. Aware that he would lay down his life on the Cross and be raised up again, Jesus broke the bread and gave it to his disciples, saying – “This is my body that is for you….” The morsel of bread Jesus hands to each of his Apostles is no longer bread but Jesus’ gift of himself, the gift he is about to offer on the gibbet of the Cross. So too with the wine, the cup which he shares with the Apostles: it is no longer wine but rather his own blood, that blood which, unlike the blood of goats and heifers in the Old Law, cleanses from sin, the blood of the New Covenant, a covenant in which God’s law of love is inscribed not on tablets of stone but rather on the hearts of his followers, if you will ‘the law of self-giving love’ that is at heart of who Jesus really is.
B. Jesus did this in anticipation of his Death and Resurrection but asked his Apostles to continue doing what he did even after he died on the Cross, rose from the dead, and ascended into heaven. “Do this,” Jesus said, “in remembrance of me” – which, in the original language Jesus used means more than remembering – but rather has the sense of reenacting, actually repeating what the Lord himself had done.
IV. The Pattern of Our Worship
A. By sharing his word in the farewell discourse, by enacting that word in the washing of the feet, and then encapsulating his gift of self on the Cross by the transformation of bread and wine, Jesus set the pattern for our worship and for our Christian lives. At every Mass, as the Scriptures are proclaimed, Christ speaks to us the words of spirit and life, words of love, meant to penetrate and change our hearts. At every Mass, we are invited to enter into the One Sacrifice of Christ, offered for us and for our salvation on the hill of Calvary. And having welcomed the Word and having received the Body and Blood of Christ, we are invited, urged, and even expected to go forth from Mass filled with the strength of Jesus’ death and resurrection, made capable of loving our neighbor as Jesus has first loved us and ready to serve the needs of others rather than our own needs.
B. In every era of the Church, there looms the temptation to think we can go it alone. How often have you heard, “I don’t need to go to church. I’m basically a good person.” As we allow the Lord to wash our feet, to purify our hearts, and to speak to us the words of everlasting life, let us resolve to accept his invitation to sit with him at table as he pours out his life for us anew in the gift and mystery of the Eucharist and feeds us with his own Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity. May we never treat this gift with indifference but only with the greatest reverence, knowing that it is the true source of that self-giving love we’ve been called to share with all those around us, but especially those who are poor and defenseless. The word Eucharist means “Thanksgiving” so on this Holy Thursday night may we, above all, have hearts that are filled with thanks and praise for such a wonderful gift as the Eucharist, the Mass – and may we spend time after Mass with the Lord in the Blessed Sacrament reserved, deepening our love for him who loves us more than we can ever ask or imagine.
C. May God bless us and keep us always in His love!