Dear brothers and sisters in Christ of the Archdiocese, and all who are joining us this evening.
At the start of tonight’s Gospel, St John relates: “Having loved his own in the world, he loved them to the end”... he loved them to the end.... Over the course of the next three days, what we are going to see what it means, that Jesus ‘loves us to the end’. Jesus’ dying and rising - the paschal mystery - is where we believe God speaks God’s own self to us most fully. Tonight we enter into this mystery, beginning with the last night of Jesus’ earthly life.
The first reading beautifully gives us a context by speaking of the origin of the Passover meal. God had formed a people, the Hebrew people, and now that people found themselves in trouble, found themselves slaves in the land of Egypt. And so God found a new way to speak to them: taking them by the hand and leading them out of slavery, and into freedom, into the promised land. Israel's memory of this event, the Exodus, was linked to a meal. The meal carries the memory.
Our Jewish brothers and sisters are celebrating the Passover over the same days that we are celebrating the paschal mystery, which is a special grace. Indeed the Rabbi in Regina sent me a note wishing us good celebrations. I will in turn send him a note with our good wishes. Yesterday in the New Yorker there was a delightful cartoon, showing an older Jewish couple celebrating the Passover. And the caption echoed a question asked during the passover celebration - a question traditionally asked by the youngest child capable of asking it - “Why is this night different from all other nights?” But amid the COVID crisis, the elderly Jewish couple, instead of being surrounded by their family, had the computer screen in front of them, and the screen showed 9 different families or persons, presumably their extended family, with presumably their youngest grandchild in one of the screens asking the question. We gather as we can....
The Passover meal was Israel's way of celebrating and reliving the Exodus. The main part of the meal was the Passover lamb, which was to be without blemish, a symbol of an innocent victim. The cry of the innocent lamb echoes the cry of the people of Israel in bondage, a cry that God hears.
The meal is dense with memory: memory of God hearing their cry, of liberation, of God walking with them through the desert, leading them into the promised land. The Passover speaks a language of love: God hearing and rescuing his people. By sharing in that meal, by eating the lamb and matzah and drinking the wine, Jewish people become profoundly linked to the history of their people and God’s powerful deeds on their behalf.
It is central for the Jewish community. And it is also for the Christian community, who believe that at a particular moment in history, God wanted to speak a still more intimate word to us, wanted to speak his very self to us. And the Word became flesh. This too was a new kind of language, a new way of God speaking to us.
In his life on earth, Jesus spoke to his hearers, his disciples, in many ways, communicating God's nearness, God's mercy, the life God desires for us. But it was the night before he died that Jesus found a deeper way of speaking to us still, a language meant to transcend time and place, meant to transform its hearers, and to bind them to him forever. And again it was associated with a meal.
It was the Passover Jesus and his disciples were celebrating. The bread he blessed, and the wine he lifted up in thanksgiving, were the bread and wine rich with the memory of God leading Israel to freedom and redemption. But here, Israel's language of remembering was transformed further still. The God who had plunged into the human condition now stands facing death. He takes his whole life in his hands, all the words and actions he had used to speak God's mercy, and says “this is my body, broken for you. This is my blood, poured out for you.”
His whole life comes together here. He draws it together in one unifying act, an act of complete and utter simplicity, and he gives it to his disciples. “Take and eat. Take and drink. I myself will be the lamb. Do this in memory of me.” It is a completely revealing completely giving moment. His gift to his disciples, and to the human race, is himself.
In this meal we engage in the sacred memory of what God did for us.... when we remember, it becomes real for us. When we gather to share this meal as Jesus told us when he said “do this in memory of me,” God is present to us. We touch the event which was salvation, the event where we see God's face. And we hear God asking us to share in his mission. To be bread broken and chalice poured out in the daily encounters and events of our lives.
Tonight we carry this memory and celebrate this meal in the context of a pandemic. Instead of being together in this physical space, we are joined in a different kind of communion. But it’s good to remind ourselves that when Jewish people gathered on the night of the Passover, they gathered each in their own homes. When Jesus gathered with his disciples to celebrate the Passover, they too gathered not in the Temple but in a home. Our God, who goes to any lengths to be with us, is not going to be held back because of physical distance. God is with us, in each of our homes; the Risen Lord himself is with each of you now.
Today’s rich celebration gives us one more word. On the last evening of his earthly life, the Lord gave us the gift of this meal, and then he gave us another gift, which is to be forever connected to that meal in our memories and in our lives. That other gift was given, spoken, through a dramatic gesture. He knelt before his disciples, one after the other, and washed their feet. Our feet speak of our humanity - a bit dirty and smelly, not very elegant, it doesn’t get much more earthy than our feet.
It is not only an act of service but an act of love for all that is human, an act of extraordinary tenderness. It is an act which subverts the disciples’ understanding of power, challenges their sensibilities. The one in authority becomes the servant. This is the posture of God before us. And it is in turn what God asks of us. While we cannot enact this footwashing tonight, it is in our homes, and our workspaces, and in the places of poverty and need and suffering in our midst, that we are to wash each other’s feet. It is a metaphor which speaks of what the medical community is doing for those who suffer, a metaphor for all acts of humble service, all acts of tenderness to those in need, all acts which turn power on its head and make authority a gift and blessing to others.
Tonight, sisters and brothers, Jesus says to us, do this (gesture of lifting the bread broken), do this (the cup poured out), do this (carry the water and basin) in memory of me....
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