My mother, God rest her soul, was a registered nurse.
And the people in the neighborhood knew it.
They knew she would not hesitate to come to their homes when needed.
Be it an injury like a severe burn, a child with a high fever,
shortness of breath and chest pains, bandages to be changed,
even stitches needing to be removed.
The knock on the door or telephone call
might come in the middle of the night; mom was up and out the door.
On a different level but with regard to human needs none-the-less
a question emerges out of tonight’s celebration:
how many of us receive a knock on our door when a neighbor needs spiritual care?
Do our neighbors call us, even in the wee hours of the night,
because they know we are Catholic, because they know we are willing to help
with our support, our prayers, our presence, our care and kindness,
when some spiritual crisis, some spiritual need, arises in their home:
a suicidal son or daughter, an accident or tragedy, a sudden death, overwhelming loneliness?
Do they know us as people who receive such requests with genuine concern and interest?
Or have we shown ourselves as people who hesitate, are reluctant to offer spiritual assistance,
or keep to ourselves to the degree that our neighbors don’t know us at all?
Now I will be the first to admit:
I cannot do every good thing that comes to my attention.
I cannot meet every spiritual need brought to my door.
But then neither do I want to be known or remembered
as a man with an uncaring heart.
We gather on this Holy Thursday night,
we participate in this Mass of the Lord’s Super,
to acknowledge and celebrate a great mystery of our faith:
Jesus Christ, Son of God, Mighty Savior,
Lord of lords and King of kings, the Eternal Word, the Bread of Life,
bowed down before his disciples;
got on his knees before each of his human followers….and washed their feet.
What man or woman
recognized by public opinion to have power and authority and affluence,
would throw a banquet for employees,
for the people who clean their house and care for their lawn,
for the pizza delivery person and the garbage collector….
and in the midst of the meal, with photographers and news crews present,
bow down, kneel before each guest, and wash his/her feet?
….Not as a publicity stunt, mind you,
but as a means of providing an example of how power and authority
don’t have to lead to corruption and an uncaring heart
but can be of service to cultivating and promoting the dignity of humanity.
I have never thrown such a banquet nor have I ever been invited to one.
Such a symbol is unique to the Christian tradition.
And I would be so bold to say….unique to the Catholic Church.
On international television at this very moment
cameras are capturing footage of Catholic clergy washing feet;
announcers are explaining the significance of the act
but probably not very well.
(As a side note, we should always remain wary
about gaining insight into our Catholic practices
by way of the public media.)
This great act, this gesture of humble service re-enacted, commemorated on Holy Thursday,
I believe has become lost to history….
including, to some degree, our Catholic history.
It is unfortunate that in this church, (and I hope someone here can correct me),
in any Catholic church I can think of,
there is no statue, no picture, no wood or stone carving,
no symbolic depiction of Jesus washing the disciple's feet.
There is no concrete reminder of this event.
Nothing put before us to inspire or challenge,
nothing to bring this lesson back into our consciousness,
to remind us of the value, the urgency, the need to be cautious and attentive:
even for the most religious, the most spiritual of people
power and authority can become a source of sin, division, wickedness.
How many of us have a picture of Jesus washing the disciple's feet in our homes?
I believe we have lost faith
in the transforming power of this particular action of Jesus.
What brings me to this conclusion?
Who of us are eager to get our feet washed on Holy Thursday night?
Maybe we believe our feet are in no need of washing.
We’ve forgotten so quickly…these are the feet that have stumbled,
these are the feet that have wandered away from God,
these are the feet that have been caught in the devil’s snares,
these are the feet that have taken us places we should not have gone.
Once they are washed clean, however,
these are the feet that will bring us back to the Lord.
Think for a moment, in the history of salvation,
besides what happened at the Last Super,
from the time of Adam and Eve to the present day
God has never washed human feet. Never!
So our Holy Thursday account of God’s activity in our world is either insignificant
or so important, its efficacy, it’s value, cannot be measured.
Imagine the message we would communicate to our children if once a year
in our homes, we washed their feet via a religious ritual similar to what we do here tonight.
And tell them "one day I want you to do this for your children.”
Imagine, at every wedding in this church
as part of the service, the groom washes the feet of the bride
and the bride washes the feet of the groom.
Imagine, at Confirmation, the bishop washes the feet of several confirmandi.
Imagine, every time a new associate priest is assigned to the parish,
the pastor, at a Sunday Mass, washes his feet,
as a symbol of receiving him into the parish.
Imagine, at every 8th grade graduation ceremony here at St. Agnes,
the feet of each student is washed by a priest
with the reminder: “never forget to do this to and for others.”
Jesus spent three years instructing his disciples,
nurturing their faith, correcting their misunderstandings,
preparing them to continue his mission.
And as he nears the end of his time on this earth,
as he is only hours from laying down his life,
in a most unique way he instructs them, teaches them:
“the faith I have given you is not yours.
It is given to you for the sake of the salvation of others.
It is given to you so that others may find their way to God.”
In and through this act Jesus gets their attention
and communicates to them a vital concern:
“Do not underestimate the negative influence of having power and authority.
These always pose a danger to faith.
They feed the human temptation to lord in over others,
to take advantage of the privilege of position,
to misuse what God has entrusted to your care, for personal gain,
to intensify the intoxicating feeling of self-importance.
Power and authority feed the human temptation
to inflate your own ego by exaggerating, by boasting about your accomplishments;
feed the human temptation to refuse and avoid dialogue with others
lest you be shown the fallacies, the errors, of your opinions and conclusions.
The proud will be scattered
and the mighty will be cast down.
Earthly glory is its own reward.”
Then Jesus commands them: “do for others what I have done for you.”
Power and authority are not solutions, they are not an ends to be sought.
They are a means to an end…..offered to the church in grace; given as a help for our salvation.
The washing of the feet is part of God’s message to us and to the world.
There is no miracle here. Maybe that’s why it does little to stir the human heart to greater faith.
Do not fail to appreciate its importance.
It is a command from the Lord that demands our obedience.
What if I told you “only those who have their feet washed, and in turn wash the feet of others,
will go to heaven”?
If you think this might be a scare tactic, I encourage you to think again.
When Peter refused Jesus’ offer Jesus said to him, and this is a direct quote:
“Unless I wash you, you will have no inheritance with me.”
Everything Jesus does and says is of consequence to people of faith.
What Jesus does for his disciples is more than a simple act of kindness.
It is part of the mystery of our faith.
This is one of the ways of God, a manifestation of his saving help.
It unites us to Christ, and is one of the ways we remain in him.
It is a way for us to participate in his work.
What is Jesus’ work? to save us from sin; to save us from the enemy.
This enemy lurks within our own hearts, minds, souls:
the enemy of pride, of self-promotion, of conceit and vanity;
the enemy is the impulse to “strut our stuff”
be it our body, our accomplishments, our fortune, our talents, our knowledge,
our station, our fame, our personality.
Obeying this command of Jesus helps us leave our sins behind,
helps us to spiritually reorient our lives
away from idolatry to the self
and toward true and humble worship of the God who washes feet.
If the cross is the greatest scandal for non-believers
God washing human feet isn’t far behind.
As believers in Jesus Christ, as Catholics, there is something for us here....
some new insight into the living of our lives,
some new source of grace to inspire us to rise above our daily routines.
Somehow, someway, this act reflects the glory of God shining on the earth.
If we ever dare to pray “teach me, O Lord”…..this is an answer to that prayer.
This is gold, part of the precious treasure we ought to pursue.
Through and in this act we sacrifice our pride on the altar of humility.
On Easter Sunday, after we renew our baptismal vows
and are sprinkled with the Easter Water
we might want to pray,
“as you wash my heart and my mind, O Lord, with the water of new life, wash my feet as well”
recognizing that when it comes to faith, there is an unwillingness in all of us
that needs to be confronted and overcome.
The task of living out our faith, of living as Catholics, is a spiritual task.
As such it requires spiritual guidance.
The meaning of our lives is spiritual, not physical, not worldly.
It is about spiritual preparedness.
The washing of the feet has little if any physical or worldly significance.
We wash our feet (hopefully) every time we bathe.
The washing of the feet is a matter of great spiritual necessity.
Something in our soul needs to be awakened,
something about the reality of our presence in this world
something about the reality of our faith in Jesus Christ
and something about the reality of power and authority.
To claim “I have no power or authority” is bogus.
It’s a cop out
and it shows ignorance of the power and authority of faith.
If you believe in Jesus Christ, you have power
and you have authority.
Don’t squander it. Don’t misuse it.
And for God’s sake, don’t hide it or keep it to yourself.
It has been given to you for the sake of the salvation of others.
It is my hope and my prayer
that your neighbors will knock on your door,
yes, even at wee hours of the night,
because they have a spiritual crisis
and they know that you, as a Catholic, as a follower of Jesus Christ,
will help them with a willing and caring heart.
As Catholics, as we live out our faith,
let us be a blessing, not a burden,
to our world and to our neighbor.
My mother, God rest her soul, was a registered nurse.