Holy Thursday 2014
“Jesus, fully aware that he had come from God and was going to God, The Father who had handed everything over to him, rose from the table and took off his cloak … and began to wash his disciples feet…” John 13: 1ff.
The magnificence of Jesus’ gesture of humility and charity, after He just celebrated the First mass with disciples, cannot begin to be appreciated unless we first confess, with John’s unhesitating faith, that Jesus has come from God, that is, is God from God, and that he is about to return to God, that is, to the glory which has been his from all Eternity. Only when we confess that Jesus is Lord, Kyrios, only then can we begin to appreciate what he actually did when he washed the feet of his own disciples. Because they believed in Him, the apostles were stunned, and Peter is not to be quickly condemned for wanting to keep Jesus from performing this slavish service to him, a mere mortal, a sinful man, as he had once said to Jesus on the sea of Galilee when Jesus had produced the marvelous catch of fish.
Washing the feet of guests in this part of the world, at that time, was the work of the lowliest of servants, likely a slave, and yet here was the Lord of the Universe, the Anointed one of God, the Christ Himself voluntarily assuming this most menial of services for his own disciples. He was truly God, yet he had lowered himself to become a bit of dust in this world, and now he was lowering himself further to perform this work of profound charity with the greatest humility.
After this deeply moving gesture, Jesus explains to his chosen Apostles that they were to imitate him as servants of the Church he was creating. He had done this as their teacher and Lord, to teach them that even the Lord and Master serves in the kingdom of His Church without concern for His true dignity. Thus they, who would soon be teachers and rulers of the Christian community, must learn this lesson well, if they were truly to represent the Master who did not hesitate to wash their feet that evening after the first Eucharist.
The whole human history of Jesus the Lord is one of perfect charity undertaken in perfect humility. Indeed, there can be no perfection of charity, where there is no perfection of humility. Man’s first sin flowed from sinful pride and sin crushed man’s capacity for charity, for the divine kind of love that God had poured into his pristine soul at creation. The human person was made for this love, and he could not possess it until he once again was established in humility before God, and before creation. Jesus comes into the world to restore His creation by restoring the gift of charity and its twin gift of humility to those who would submit themselves to his reign by faith.
Our Savior’s life was one of pure charity and pure humility from the beginning, from his birth in the humility of Bethlehem, which manifested his great love for us, to the end, when he would humble himself unto death, death for our salvation, by the ignominy of the Cross. His life was a constant self-emptying, pure kenosis, as he had emptied himself of the normal manifestation of divine glory by the incarnation, by his subjection to man and the law, and by his saving death on Calvary. His humility enabled him to live for others always, for His Father, will, for his people, for the world, he had come to save from itself, and from the evil one. And this was the divine glory manifested in an utterly unsuspected and new way, in its perfect human form in the Incarnate Son of God.
It is no accident that this grand gesture of humility before his disciples directly follows the institution of the Eucharist, which is the Sacrament of charity. Charity and humility are found united in the Eucharist where Jesus gives us his body and blood as our very food for Eternal life, where he becomes present, yet hidden beneath the signs of the humble substances of bread and wine. No greater love than this, surely, to lay down ones life for one’s friends, or to give ones body and blood for their sins, and then for their spiritual nourishment. No greater love than the Eucharistic sacrifice , no greater humility than in the Eucharistic meal. First he fed them with the sacrament of charity, and then he taught them how this charity was to be expressed in humble service of their neighbor. As he had done for them, so must they for others.
It is no easy thing for us to conquer the pride that keeps us from the humble works of charity, the things not noticed by the crowd, or the things the crowd may misunderstand as weakness or servility. Only charity accomplishes the truly lasting good in this world, and only humility allows charity to reach into the humbles areas of life so they can be means of loving God and our neighbor. For instance, Charity alone enables the sisters of Mother Teresa to perform their works with humility, the work of serving without recompense, of taking care of God’s poorest for nothing more than love. Charity alone enables us to serve the poor with humility so as to preserve their dignity, to take care of the sick with humility so as to preserve their dignity. Charity and humility are the great safeguards of human dignity in the service of others.
The charity and humility of Christ come to their culmination on Good Friday on the Cross of Calvary. But on Holy Thursday Jesus wished to prepare his disciples for life after Good Friday, for life springing from the glory of Easter Sunday. And so he first gave them the perpetual memorial of his sacrifice in the great sacrament of His charity and humility. And then he taught them, by a splendid example, what they must do to make this greatest of sacraments a living reality in their daily lives – he washed their feet, and wiped them with the towel he had wrapped round himself. Then he simply said, “as I have done, so you must do.” And so we really can and must do what he has done for us, but we can only do it if we have recourse frequently and devotedly to Him in the Sacrament of His Charity.