a maundy thursday homily. st. christopher's. april 21, 2011.
It's a solemn day, but I'm a little distracted. So many sandals. I can't look at you out there without thinking of a verse from Isaiah 52: "How beautiful on the mountain are the feet of the messenger who brings good news, the good news of peace and salvation, the good news that the God of Israel reigns." In case I haven't told you lately, can I just say you have beautiful feet? Feet made to carry the Good News of God.
Today the Church observes the day called Maundy Thursday, or commandment Thursday, after we untangle the Latin. Commandment Thursday, the first of the three great days of Holy Week. The three days that signal the heart of what everything else has led up to until now: Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Easter Vigil and Easter, all Good News.
The three-fold, three-day mystery of Jesus Christ for us.
Tonight we enter the mystery.
Commandment Thursday. Jesus, at the table with his closest friends, sharing the meal he has longed deeply to share. Taking, breaking, bread, drinking wine, symbols of redemption – the provision of God and the night on which God delivered the Israelites from slavery in Egypt – but this time, in Jesus’s hands, something other. Something more. “This is my body. This is my blood. For you and for many. For the forgiveness of sins.
“Do this in remembrance of me.”
“Do this.” That’s where Commandment Thursday comes in. We pay attention on this night to what Jesus commands his friends to do around this table. “Do this,” he says. Jesus at this table giving his disciples the commandments that are to shape their lives from this moment on. These are the pillars on which his friends are to understand their life together and its meaning after he leaves them. This is Jesus entrusting to the would-be Church the most cherished moments of his story.
And what exactly is it that Jesus commands them to do?
The bread and the cup. Holy Communion. In Matthew, Mark, and Luke’s gospels, this command stands alone.
But in John’s gospel, the one we just read, Jesus interrupts this meal, the Last Supper, with another commandment: taking off his robe, bending down, he washes their feet and commands them that “you also are to wash one another’s feet.” Another commandment. Then he adds, “If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them.” And finally, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.”
"Do this." Thus Commandment Thursday. "Do this." The day the Church remembers the night on which we receive the commandments of Christ. The things we are to do in the days after his death.
I don’t know if you feel it, but there’s an uneasy tension at this point in the evening. Even as we hear the things we’re commanded to do, and probably breathe a sigh of relief that the list seems fairly manageable (that is, it’s a short list – eat this bread, love one another), even so we can’t escape the feeling that the simplicity of this night nonetheless holds a dark secret.
Or maybe that we in ourselves hold a dark, mocking secret.
And the secret is that we receive the things God commands us to do on the same night we’ll betray him.
Like the disciples, we say, “Surely not I, Lord?” But by the end of this night, all are deserters, unable to keep even the simplest command, “Stay awake, don’t fall asleep.”
On a night when we know the truth of who we are like this, who am I to say what I will or will not do with God’s commands?
The day of commandments is also the day of betrayal; rejection; my total failure.
Commandments can’t be the whole of the story. At least not if our hope is in how well we will keep them.
No, there’s something else at work here. Though we may not see it all the way until acts 2 and 3 of the three-act mystery, it’s already present here, in act 1, here, Maundy Thursday, as he lifts up the bread, as he washes the feet, even of the one who will send him to the cross; it’s simply present in him, the beating heart of the mystery, and forgiveness is the heart of the mystery.
So forgiveness is also the beating heart of the Church.
Pope Benedict XVI says that this is why Jesus made Peter the head of the Church: not so that one man might wield power over many– no, he argues that that would be to forget the particular role of Peter on this night; Peter, not as leader, but Peter as deserter, Peter, all-talk and no-walk and bitter tears at the ending, what he thought was the ending; "no, I don’t know that man." No, Pope Benedict says that Peter was not made the head of the Church so that the Church might be ruled by the might of one man, but so that the Church – and especially her leaders – would never forget her need of forgiveness. Peter, the emblem of Christ’s tender forgiveness. We are never not in need of forgiveness.
This is my blood, for you and for many, for the forgiveness of sins.
If the cup is forgiveness, and we are commanded to drink it, you are, in a sense, commanded to let go of your inability to keep the commandments. Or at least entrust your inabilities to the tender compassion of the God who washes feet. Be reconciled to God. Taste the forgiveness of God.
For how else are we made able to wordlessly, silently, stoop down and wash each other’s feet, if not as those forgiven by God?
This day begins as commandment and bends toward forgiveness so that it can finally be about him, who is our forgiveness, and the love he has for his own. And he does love you, his own.
So, finally, tonight, it becomes impossible for me to pick up your foot and wash it as a token of my humility or my sincerity or my best good intentions, but only because I see how much He loves you.
Let us pray.
Merciful Lord, you revealed your glory by humbly serving the one who would betray you. Shower us with your mercy, Lord, and grow us up to be merciful.1