Tonight, we enter what for Christians are our high holy days. The Mass of the Lord’s Supper marks the end of Lent and the beginning of the shortest season of the liturgical year: The Triduum. It is important to note that at the end of our Mass this evening there is no dismissal. As a result, when we gather tomorrow to commemorate the Lord’s Passion and to venerate His Holy Cross, there will be no opening rites – no greeting, no penitential rite and certainly no Gloria. We will begin simply, 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 are to remain in what we might call "a liturgical state-of-being," praying about, pondering and seeking to let Christ draw us more deeply into the Paschal mystery of His passion, 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 the Passover meal the Lord shared with his disciples before his passion. During this Passover meal, Christ instituted the Eucharist.
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 our procession solemn but joyful.
In St. John’s account of the Last Supper, Jesus washing the feet of his disciples is the Eucharistic 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” (John 13:8) As with Peter, by the power of the Holy Spirit, Jesus washed us in the bath of Baptism, which is Baptism into himself, the living water. Because we were bathed in Baptism, we are, by God's grace, “clean all over” (John 13:10). Nonetheless, our feet become dirty as we journey through life. Undaunted by our failures, shortcomings, and betrayals, Jesus humbly washes our feet over and over again. How does he wash our feet? By forgiving us in the Sacrament of Penance, which is an extension of Baptism. He also 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.
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. All of us together form what St Augustine dubbed the totus Christus - the total, or complete, Christ.
It’s important for us to grasp that what we’re doing over these next three days is vitally important. It can never be a matter of going through the motions, of empty ritualism. We need to be open and so allow our hearts not only to be touched but changed. God wants to change our hearts by healing them with His love. “God is love” (1 John 4:8.16) God can be love because God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Love requires at least a lover and a beloved. Because love is profuse, meaning love moves outward to draw others in, the love between the Father and the Son is personified in the Holy Spirit. With reference to our first reading, God delivered Israel from Egypt out of love, not just for Israel, but for all of humanity in fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham that through his descendants all peoples of the earth would be blessed (Gen 22:18). Christ washed the feet of his disciples and urged them to do the same for each other out of love, not out of obligation.
Tonight, Fr. René will wash the feet of people from our parish who represent all those he is called to serve, performing for them and, by extension, the rest of the community, the humblest act of service. The sacrament of orders, consisting of the offices of bishop, priest, and deacon, is about selfless service, not power.
My dear friends, tonight is all about love, divine love, which, as the old hymn tells us, excels all 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… (God Matters [New York: Continuum], 218)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. As a result, this sacred Triduum is about self-sacrificing love to the point of death or it is about nothing. Because the Triduum is about divine love, it is not about what we can or should do for God. It is about what the Father has done for us in Christ by the power of their Holy Spirit: “In this is love: not that we have loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as expiation for our sins” (1 John 4:10).