Holy Thursday – A

Readings: Ex 12:1-8, 11-14; Ps 116:12-13, 15-16bc, 17-18; 1 Cor 11:23-26; Jn 13:34; Jn 13:1-15

LOVE cannot remain by itself- it has no meaning.
LOVE has to be put into action and that action is SERVICE
– Mother Teresa-

Evening Mass of the Lord’s Supper

  • The Stole and the Towel is the title of a book, which sums up the message of the Italian bishop, Tony Bello, who died of cancer at the age of 58. On Maundy Thursday of 1993, while on his deathbed, he dictated a pastoral letter to the priests of his diocese. He called upon them to be bound by “the stole and the towel.” The stole symbolizes union with Christ in the Eucharist, and the towel symbolizes union with humanity by service. The priest is called upon to be united with the Lord in the Eucharist and with the people as their servant. Today we celebrate the institution of both the Eucharist and the Priesthood: the feast of “the stole and the towel,” the feast of love and service.
  • “Jesus Christ gave a lasting memorial”: One of his Catholic disciples asked the controversial god-man Osho Rajneesh about the difference between Buddha, the founder of Buddhism and Jesus Christ. He told a story to distinguish between Buddha and Christ. When Buddha was on his death bed, his disciple Anand asked him for a memorial and Buddha gave him a Jasmine flower. However, as the flower dried up, the memory of Buddha also dwindled. But Jesus Christ instituted a lasting memorial, without anybody’s asking for it, by offering his Body and Blood in the form of bread and wine and commanding his disciples to share his Divinity by repeating the ceremony. So Jesus continues to live in his followers while Buddha lives only in history books. On Holy Thursday, we are reflecting on the importance of the institution of the holy Eucharist and the ministerial priesthood. [Osho Rajneesh claimed himself to be another incarnation of God who attained “enlightenment” at 29 when he was a professor of hindu philosophy in Jabalpur University in India. He had thousands of followers for his controversial PHILOSOPHY based on hindu, Buddhist and Christian theology.]
  • Get inspired by the Eucharist: A few months before he died in 1979, Bishop Fulton Sheen gave a television interview. The reporter asked, “Your Excellency, you have inspired millions. Who inspired you? Was it the Pope? Bishop Sheen responded that it was not the Pope or a Cardinal or another Bishop or even a priest or nun. It was an eleven-year-old girl. He explained that when the Communists took over China in the late forties, they imprisoned a priest in his own rectory. Looking through the window, he saw the soldier enter the church and break open the tabernacle, scattering the Blessed Sacrament on the floor. The priest knew the exact number of hosts in the tabernacle: thirty-two. Unnoticed by the soldiers, a young girl had been praying in the back of the church and she hid when they came in. That night the girl returned and spent an hour in prayer. She then entered the sanctuary, knelt and bent over to take one of the hosts on her tongue. The girl came back each night, spent an hour in prayer and received Jesus by picking up a sacred host with her tongue. The thirty-second night, after consuming the final host, she made an accidental sound awakening a guarding soldier. He ran after her and when he caught her, he struck her with the rifle butt. The noise woke the priest -but too late. From his house he saw the girl die. Bishop Sheen said that when he heard about this, it inspired him so much that he made a promise that he would spend one hour each day before Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament. He always said that the power of his priesthood came from the Eucharist. -Get inspired by the Eucharist.
  • Reporters and city officials gathered at a Chicago railroad station one afternoon in 1953. The person they were meeting was the 1952 Nobel Peace Prize winner. A few moments after the train came to stop, a giant of a man -six foot four inches with bushy hair and a large mustache stepped from the train. Cameras flashed. City officials approached him with hands outstretched. Various people began telling him how honored they were to meet him. The man politely thanked them and then, looking over their heads, asked if he could be excused for a moment. He quickly walked through the crowd until he reached the side of an elderly black woman who was struggling with two heavy suitcases. He picked up the bags and with a smile escorted the woman to a bus. After helping her aboard, he wished her a safe journey. As he returned to the greeting party he apologized, “Sorry to have kept you waiting.” The man was Dr. Albert Schweitzer, the famous missionary doctor who had spent his life helping the poor in Africa. In response to Schweitzer’s action, one of the members of the reception committee said with great admiration to the reporter standing next to him, “That’s the first time I ever saw a sermon walking.” Our worship should lead us to become walking sermons. Today’s Gospel about the feet washed by Jesus may be called a washing sermon.
  • A man came to a priest and wanted to make fun of his Faith, so he asked, “How can bread and wine turn into the Body and Blood of Christ?”
    The Priest answered, “No problem. You yourself change food into your body and blood so why can’t Christ do the same?”
    But the man did not give up. He asked, “But how can the entire body of Christ be in such a small host?”
    “In the same way that the vast landscape before you can fit into your little eye.”
    But he still persisted, “How can the same Christ be present in all your Churches at the same time?”
    The priest then took a mirror and let the man look into it. Then he let the mirror fall to the ground and break and said to the skeptic. “There is only one of you and yet you can find your face reflected in each piece of that broken mirror at the same time.”

On Holy Thursday we celebrate three anniversaries:

1) the anniversary of the first holy Mass,

2) the anniversary of the institution of ministerial priesthood in order to perpetuate the holy Mass, convey God’s forgiveness to repentant sinners and preach the Good News of Salvation,

3) the anniversary of Jesus’ promulgation of his new commandment of love: “Love one another as I have loved you.”

Today we remember how Jesus transformed the Jewish Passover into the New Testament Passover. The Jewish Passover was, in fact, a joint celebration of two ancient thanksgiving celebrations. The descendants of Abel, who were shepherds, used to lead their sheep from the winter pastures to the summer pastures after the sacrificial offering of a lamb to God. They called this celebration the “Pass over.” On the other hand, the descendants of Cain, who were farmers, held a harvest festival called the Massoth in which they offered unleavened bread to God as an act of thanksgiving. The Passover feast of the Israelites (Exodus 12:26-37) was a harmonious combination of these two ancient feasts of thanksgiving, commanded by the Lord God to be celebrated yearly by all Israelites to thank God for the miraculous liberation of their ancestors from Egypt and their exodus from slavery to the Promised Land.

The First Reading is a description of the Jewish Passover Meal. It is a sacramental re-enactment of the meal taken by the Israelites before their flight across the Red Sea from Egypt. A flight from slavery to freedom and liberation. This, once a year commemoration, could be called the “Eucharist” of the Jews. Except that they celebrate it just once a year and not weekly or even daily, as we do. It is a sacred remembering of God’s great act to liberate them from slavery and the beginning of their long journey to the Promised Land. It is no coincidence that it was precisely during the celebration of this meal that Jesus instituted what we now call the Sacrament of the Eucharist. Here is the link between the hebrew and the Christian Covenants.

In the Second Reading, Paul recalls what Jesus did during that Last Supper, that Passover Meal. He took the bread at the table and said it was his Body. He took the cup of wine and said it was his Blood to be poured out for us. These actions were to be repeated by his followers in memory of the liberation brought about for us through his suffering, death and resurrection.

Three events are thus united into a new mystery:
– the Jewish Passover and Paschal Meal;
– the whole Paschal Mystery of Jesus: suffering, death and resurrection.
– the linking of the bread and wine and its communal eating with the sacrificial death and the resurrection of Jesus;

There is a new liberation, not just from physical slavery, but from every kind of slavery, especially that of sin and evil. There is now a new Pasch and a new Passover. There is a new Lamb, the Lamb of God. There is a new unleavened bread, the Bread that is the Body of the Risen Lord. The blood of the lamb is now replaced with the Blood of the Lamb, Jesus, who takes away the sin of the world.

In harmony with these readings, today’s Gospel describes how Jesus transformed the Jewish Passover into the Eucharistic celebration. First he washed his Apostles’ feet – a tender reminder of his undying affection for them; then he commanded them to do the same for each other. The incident reminds us that our vocation is to take care of one another as Jesus always takes care of us. Finally, he gave his Apostles his own Body and Blood under the appearances of bread and wine as food and drink, so that, as long as they lived, they’d never be without the comfort and strength of his presence. Thus, Jesus washed their feet, fed them and then went out to die.

Every year I also have to remind myself of the meaning of Maundy Thursday. It’s one of those churchy words that we use each year, “Maundy,” but its significance can be lost in the previous year’s facts and figures.

“Maundy” comes from the Latin word mandatum which means “commandment.” We call today “Maundy Thursday” because we read the scripture reading from John’s gospel in which Jesus gives his disciples a new commandment.

I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

This “new commandment” might not seem that new. “Isn’t God all about love from the very beginning?” But the love Jesus is speaking of here, the love Jesus is showing here isn’t your ordinary love. It’s a love that’s never been seen before.

It seems like the Easter season is especially a time for hallmark cards, Easter bunnies, and nice hopeful spring sayings. “April showers bring May flowers” we say. Or , as Robin Williams once said, “Spring is nature’s way of saying, ‘Let’s party!’”

The type of love Jesus is speaking of is intense and not to be found on a hallmark card anywhere. Love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.
The love Jesus shows tonight is love in the very face of the devil. John writes that “The devil had already put it into the heart of Judas son of Simon Iscariot to betray him.” That betrayal would soon lead to Jesus’ death on a cross. But Jesus washed the feet of each and every disciple, even Judas. The type of love Jesus showed was in spite of, or perhaps, because of the devil in Judas. Judas either wasn’t strong enough, or the devil was too strong for him, but Jesus didn’t seem phased a bit. Jesus knew what was up, but he washed Judas’ feet anyway.

But, some faithful Christians do speak of the devil, and do so in helpful ways for them. It’s important for some to call evil what it is, to give evil a name, to think of evil personified in Satan. For some of these folks the devil their lives is plain and simple–Satan might be a particular tendency to sin, or a disease or affliction, or something that draws them away from God. But no matter how one deals with the devil passages in scripture, it’s clear that Jesus is not afraid of the devil. Jesus washes Judas’ very feet. The type of love that Jesus shows is love in the face of the extreme evil, love in the faith of death itself.

In Jesus’ time, no host would wash his guest’s feet. Washing feet was a dirty task, a menial task perhaps for a slave, but usually something you just had to do yourself. If the host was nice, he’d set a bowl of water and towel out, but no free person would ever wash the feet of another free person.

But Jesus turns the table upside down. Jesus takes a towel and kneels down, washing feet dirty from the dusty roads of Palestine. Jesus takes on the task of a slave, but instead of showing weakness shows strength beyond measure. Love is like that. It’s measured not in power or prestige, but in acts of humility.

So when Jesus commands his disciples to love one another as he has loved them, when Jesus commands us to love other and he has loved us, the command is for love of a new level, love unknown before.

Craig Koester focuses on the surprising nature of Jesus’ acts writing “the directive to wash one another’s feet is a call to share the kind of love that startles and surprises. It is a call for love to show up when no one might expect it.” And so, we are called, to love even–or exactly when–it might catch folk off guard.

· maybe that means writing a letter to that old friend or family member you argued with
· maybe it means swallowing our pride and admitting we were wrong, that one time at least
· maybe it means accepting someone not because it’s easy, but because it’s what Jesus would have done.

Of course, we know what comes later in John’s gospel. We read the story last Sunday in Luke, Jesus taking his love even to the cross.

Some Christians are fond of saying, “God sent Jesus to die on the cross.” But, as Peter Storey likes to remind us, putting it that way robs Jesus of his humanity, it takes away Jesus’ capacity to choose and makes him only God’s pawn.

God didn’t send Jesus to die, God sent Jesus to love. And the very fact that Jesus lived out this love so well, got the authorities angry at him. Jesus showed the world a different way to love, a different way to live. And they couldn’t handle it. So they put him to death.

As a congregation, we are sent to carry on that love of Christ. We do so here, within these walls, but out of them as well. And the love Jesus’ commands is not a simple one-way love, but a love of mutuality, a love of community. Jesus tells all of his disciples to “love one another.” Jesus’ love is a mutual thing; a back-and-forth pick one another up when he’s down and then receive the same down the line kind of love.

The danger Jesus’ disciples were met with that night was that they could interpret Jesus’ new commandment too narrowly and only love one another there in that room as Jesus had loved them. The danger was that the disciples would love each other really well, but forget to spread the message to the ends of the earth.

That call confronts and challenges us still today. Do we show Christ’s surprising sacrificial love in ways that just toots our own horn, or do we spread the message beyond our walls of comfort?

Washing one another’s feet is nothing comfortable. And, perhaps even tougher, is having your own feet washed. Does our love have that edge to it, that uncomfortable but holy notion that we are living out Jesus’ commandment? Are we following the new commandment, that as Jesus says, “That everyone will know that we are disciples by our love?”

Jesus also commanded that we meet at this table, to remember him.
He knew that we would fall short, that our love would falter, so he gave us this meal for the journey.
Every time we eat the bread of life
every time we drink the cup of salvation,
we proclaim Christ’s death until he comes again.
So we celebrate Christ’s holy supper this night,
united with all those in the faith,
not because we are perfect, but because we are needy,
not because we love rightly, but because we are loved first by God,
not because we deserve God’s benefits, but because God chose us before we could even stumble.
So come, eat and drink, share the feast, for it is Christ who invites us in love. Amen.
The transformation of Jesus’ Passover into the holy Mass: The early Jewish Christians converted the Jewish “Sabbath Love Feast” of Fridays and Saturdays (the Sabbath), into the “Memorial Last Supper Meal” of Jesus on Sundays. The celebration consisted of praising and worshipping God by singing Psalms, reading the Old Testament Messianic prophecies and listening to the teachings of Jesus as explained by an Apostle or by an ordained minister. This was followed by an offertory procession, bringing to the altar the bread and wine to be consecrated and covered dishes (meals) brought by each family for a shared common meal after the Eucharistic celebration. Then the ordained minister said the “institution narrative” over the bread and wine, and all the participants received the consecrated Bread and Wine, the living Body and Blood of the crucified and risen Jesus. This ritual finally evolved into the present day holy Mass in various rites incorporating various cultural elements of worship and rituals.

In the Gospel of John, the focus on the Passover meal as described in the other gospels—including the dipping of bread and sharing of the cup—is replaced with a tender, yet stunningly disturbing, moment. Jesus stoops to a most humiliating task: washing the disciples’ feet (John 13.1-15).

Now we have a foot-washing service at our church, but I can guarantee you that we all come having washed our feet. We stand barefoot in the aisle as we come forward to sit and have another parishioner pour warm water over our feet and dry them with a towel. It’s all a little embarrassing, unless you have nicely pedicured toes, and we make it as symbolic and sterile as possible.

This, however, is not what was going on in this gospel story. We come to church with layers and layers between the dirty ground and us: socks, shoes, carpet, flooring, concrete. First-century Jews, however, traditionally wore open sandals, and the dust and gravel and filth of open streets used by animals and humans alike were the reality of feet. This is why hosts would always offer water for washing the feet when a guest arrived, and those who were rich enough to have a slave or servant had them do the dirty work.

Something was amiss in this gospel scene. No one had offered them water for washing, and none of the disciples offered. So Jesus stood up, took off his robe, wrapped a towel around his waist, and took a basin of water over to one of the disciples. He knelt and took the man’s feet firmly in his grasp, untied his sandals, and began to wash. The shock and silence as the men watched him do this are evident in all the white spaces of your Bible as you read these verses. Jesus? Washing feet?

Of course, it’s Peter who blurts out what all the others are thinking and feeling. Impossible! This is a nasty job fit only for the lowest. Our feet are caked with dirt and whatsoever-else-we-might-have-stepped-in; they stink; they’re cracked and calloused, and our toenails are broken and chipped, and our legs are hairy and scarred.

This is the problem with most forms of Christian spirituality. We like it spiritual. We like it mental and emotional, prayerful and pure. We like sweet words and holy feelings. We like leather Bibles and padded pews and Sunday morning worship. But the other parts of us—the hidden, icky parts of our bodies, souls, and minds—need to stay hidden. For everyone’s sake.

Look carefully at the painting by Ford Madox Brown. See the confusion on the faces of the disciples, the one in particular clasping hands over his head in complete befuddlement. Look at Peter’s grumpy face, scowling at the indecency of it all. “You will never wash my feet!” Or, as we might say it, “You’re above all that fleshly stuff, Lord. You’re all about saving my soul, and my feet have nothing to do with all that. Leave the nasty parts of me hidden, as they should be.

Jesus pays no attention. Instead he lovingly and thoroughly washes the grime away, quietly acknowledging that “you do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand.” Do we let him do what we don’t understand?

And then, “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.” Are we willing to let him get his hands dirty, let him take hold of the very lowest parts of us? He loves us down to our toes, down to the very smallest, darkest, smelliest corners of our existence.

There is no one whose toes Jesus does not love. Judas was there, and he doesn’t leave to betray Jesus until later in this chapter. This means that Jesus washed Judas’ feet too. Jesus “knew who was to betray him.” What did Jesus think as he took Judas’ feet in his hands and carefully cleaned them? What does he think as he gently kneels before you and asks you to let him wash you?

Fr. Gaspar Fernandes, OFM Cap.

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