Holy Thursday 2011

Most Reverend Paul D. Etienne

 This evening, in this Mass of the Lord’s Supper, the Church recalls how Jesus celebrates the Passover with his disciples, bringing the Passover Meal to its ultimate purpose and meaning.  In the days leading up to this Passover, Jesus spoke in unflinching terms regarding his identity as the promised Messiah, the One sent from the Father, that He is God, the Son of God.  During the events of this Sacred Meal, Jesus gives clarity to the work of the Father, at work in Him. 

 Jesus is the Eternal High Priest, who comes to atone for the sins of the nation, the sins of the history of humanity.  He acts through the weakness of our humanity, to give us the strength of God.  He comes as the Eternal High Priest to restore us to a rightful relationship with God.  As Eternal High Priest, in the context of this Sacred Meal, Jesus gives the Church the dual gifts of Priesthood, and Eucharist.               

 During this dramatic evening, which will end in Jesus’ arrest and betrayal, Jesus entrusts His mission to His disciples.  He entrusts the Eucharist to them by telling them: Do this in memory of me.  He further entrusts His priestly ministry to them by washing their feet.  This simple gesture carries a profound significance, and is certainly more than a mere physical washing. 

 To me, as one whose formative years were the ‘60’s and ‘70’s, to say that this example of Jesus was simply an instruction to us to “love one another”, always leaves me wanting for more.  Such a simple interpretation of this profound act of Jesus seems too shallow; it does not seem to capture the full significance of his life and ministry.  Perhaps because our worldly notion of love has become so trivialized, so self-serving, this ill-conceived notion of love could never capture the true nature of love being offered in the person of Jesus.

 So, what is this true nature of love being lived in the person of Jesus?  What is the original nature of love which is the true standard of love for our human existence?  During the Lord’s Supper, something significant is being offered.  We are invited to receive a precious gift.  What is it?  We get a few clues from the gospel this evening.  Listen again to what is in Jesus’ heart and mind as he takes up the towel to wash his disciples’ feet:  Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God… (13:3) then, later, when Peter refused to allow Jesus to wash his feet, we hear Jesus’ response: Unless I wash you, you will have no inheritance with me.  (John 13:8)  What do these words of Jesus tell us of the desire of his heart?  What is being offered in this act of service?

 Jesus is keenly aware of his relationship with the Father.  As the Son of God, the desire and love in his heart is infinite.  His desire is the will of the Father, which is that we be made holy, so as to be fully capable of entering into his divine love.  The Father, to whom everything belongs, has entrusted everything to the Son, thus we can say that the fullness resides in the Son.  (Colossians 1: 19)  This “inheritance of Jesus” is the Father.

 Of this “inheritance” St. Paul in the letter to the Ephesians tells us: In Christ we have also obtained an inheritance, (Eph. 1: 11).  In Christ we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace that he lavished on us.  (Eph. 1:7)

Pope Benedict XVI in his latest book, Jesus of Nazareth, Part Two, tells us Jesus, in the washing of the feet, once again needed to “purify” his own disciples of their misconceptions of the power of God (Pope Benedict XVI; Jesus of Nazareth, Part Two, p. 70), a power revealed in humility and service.  He had to purify their misconceived notions of love, a love that is all about making a gift of self, rather than seeking self.  It is a love discovered in self-abandonment, of giving one’s self entirely to God in order to discover what one is truly made of.  We, too, need such purification if we are to truly understand Jesus and the mystery we celebrate in these very days of his life, passion, death and resurrection.

St. Catherine of Siena uses a different language to express a similar point:  “Learn from Gentle First Truth to bear each other’s shortcomings.  He chose to make Himself the least, and humbly bore all our sins and shortcomings, and this is what I want you to do.”  (Noffke, Letters, Vol II, p. 91)  Jesus not only bore the shortcomings of every person when he became sin for us, when he took the sins of the world to the cross for our redemption.  He also bore with the shortcomings of his disciples, and trusted that even in their humanity, they could continue, in his name, the work of the Church which he came to initiate.  He continues to have the same confidence in us today, that despite our own weaknesses, even our ineptitude, in His name, we can continue the work of His Church today.

 The gift being offered by Jesus, a gift which requires a proper disposition on our part, if we are to receive it, is the very life and love of the Father.  The gift specifically being offered to the disciples in the washing of the feet is a share in the Eternal priesthood of Jesus Christ.  This is the priesthood through which Jesus continues to offer himself for the salvation of the world in the Eucharist.  This is the context of this evening, this is the context and eternal significance of the Passover Meal. 

This Holy Thursday, we remember that Jesus gives the fullest meaning to the Passover as he becomes the sacrificial lamb, whose blood is given to mark the lips of believers, whose flesh is eaten to give Life for the journey of faith in our return to the Father.  Another quote from St. Catherine poetically describes the precious gift of Jesus as the sacrificial lamb:  “Oh boundless fire of love!  You have given us your flesh as food and your blood as drink!  You are the Lamb roasted in the fire of blazing charity.”   (Noffke, Letters, Vol II, p. 96)

This Holy Meal is the new and eternal covenant which incorporates us into the Divine Life and Love shared between the Father and the Son in the unity of the Holy Spirit.  As I told a group recently, this work of Jesus is to restore the lost art of humanity to its highest and original form.  Through the life and death of Jesus, through the sacraments of the Church, the Father is at work, transforming all of humanity, one person at a time, to our original beauty, our original purpose…life and communion with God.