Tonight we enter what are for Christians our high holy days. With the beginning of Mass this evening Lent ended and we entered the shortest season of the liturgical year, the sacred Triduum. It’s important up front to point out that tonight at the end of Mass there will be no dismissal. Tomorrow, when we gather again to observe Good Friday by venerating the Cross, that cruel instrument of torture that our Lord Jesus Christ turned into the Tree of Life, there won’t be any opening rites- no greeting, no penitential rite, and certainly no Gloria- we will begin by praying the collect for Good Friday.
At the end of our Good Friday liturgy, again, there will be no dismissal. In fact, we won’t be dismissed until the end of the great Paschal Vigil, the Mother of all Masses, on Saturday evening. What does this mean? It means that from then until now we remain in liturgy, praying about, pondering and seeking to enter more deeply into the great Paschal mystery of Christ’s death and resurrection. Jesus is the true Lamb of God whose blood saves us from sin and death. His passing over from life to death is the true Passover, as is indicated in St. John’s account of the Last Supper, which was a Passover meal the Lord shared with his disciples before his passion.
At the end of Mass this evening, like Jesus' first disciples, we will leave the table and accompany Jesus out. Unlike those disciples, however, we do so in the awareness of his resurrection, which makes it solemn but joyful.
In St. John’s account of the Last Supper, Jesus washing the feet of his disciples is the institution narrative. In other words, St. John’s Gospel does not contain an account of our Lord taking bread and wine, breaking the bread, blessing the cup and then giving them to his disciples as his body and his blood. We find those accounts of the Last Supper in the synoptic Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke- those are the accounts to which St. Paul refers in our reading from 1 Corinthians, which was likely written some twenty years before any of the canonical Gospels.
Jesus told Peter, “Unless I wash you, you will have no inheritance with me.” As with Peter, by the power of the Holy Spirit, Jesus washes us in the bath of baptism, which is baptism into himself, the living water. Because we were bathed in baptism, we are, by the grace of God, “clean all over” but we need our feet washed from trudging our way through life. Undaunted, Jesus humbly washes our feet over and again. How does he wash our feet? By forgiving us in the sacrament of penance, which is an extension of baptism. He washes our feet by making himself small for us and vulnerable to us in the Eucharist. It is by humbling himself and becoming small for us that he shows us his greatness and his great love for us. How can you refuse so kind an offer?
For these sacraments we need priests. In addition to celebrating our Lord’s institution of the Eucharist, which is the sacramentum caritatis, the sacrament of love, tonight we also celebrate the institution of the priesthood. When celebrating the Eucharist and the sacrament of penance, a priest acts in persona Christi captis, in the person of Christ the head. By contrast, the assembly at Mass or the penitent in confession acts in persona Christi corporis, in the person of Christ the body. A body without a head, or a head without a body, is dead. In case you’re wondering, a deacon acts in persona Christi servi, in the person of Christ the servant, serving body and head.
It’s important for us to grasp what we’re doing over these next three days, vitally important. It can never be a matter of going through the motions, of empty ritualism. We need to be open so our hearts can not only be touched, but so our hearts can be changed by being broken and healed by God's love. God is love (1 John 4:8.16) because God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. God delivered Israel from Egypt out of love, not just for Israel, but all humanity in fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham that through his seed all peoples of the earth would be blessed (Gen 12:2-3). Christ washed the feet of his disciples and urged them to do the same for each other out of love; Christ gave the world priests to serve his holy people by providing for them the bread of life, the cup salvation, and forgiveness of sins.
Tonight, acting in persona Christi captis, Fr. René will wash the feet of people from the parish who represent all those he is called to serve, performing for them and the rest of the community the humblest act of service. The sacrament of orders is about selfless service, not power. By washing the feet of 12 members of St. Olaf Parish, like Christ, he exhorts us to go forth and serve others out of love for God and neighbor.
My dear friends, tonight is all about love, divine love, which, as the old hymn tells us, excels all love. Without divine love there would be no love. Let me summarize with a quote from the late Dominican theologian Fr. Herbert McCabe:
The gospels … insist upon two antithetical truths which express the tragedy of the human condition: the first is that if you do not love you will not be alive; the second is that if you do love you will be killed. If you cannot love you remain self-enclosed and sterile, unable to create a future for yourself or others, unable to live. If, however, you do effectively love you will be a threat to the structures of domination upon which our human society rests and you will be killed… (Herbert McCabe, OP, God Still Matters)This is why in our Psalm this evening we heard the words, “Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his faithful ones.” You see, the way to resurrection is through the Cross, not over it, around it, or underneath it, but through it. The Lord bids all who accept his kind offer - “Take up your cross and follow me” (Matt 16:24; Mark 8:34; Luke 9:23). Jesus’ passion and death show the truth of Fr. McCabe’s pronouncement. This sacred Triduum is about self-sacrificing love to the point of death or it is about nothing.