John 13:1-15, Evening Mass of the Lord’s Supper
In normal times, the celebration of Holy Thursday (Maundy Thursday) would have churches all over the country decorating the sanctuary of the church as early as the night before, arranging flowers and assembling an altar of repose, where the blessed sacrament will be placed for a night of adoration after the Holy Thursday liturgical service. On the ready would be twelve chairs for the washing of the feet, when the priest celebrant, emulating our Lord’s washing of the disciples’ feet at the last supper, would also wash the feet of twelve members of the congregation, sometimes to their embarrassment. After Holy Thursday, no mass will be celebrated again in the Church until the Easter Vigil celebrates and proclaims the Resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ.
Little known, but quite significant, on Holy Thursday morning, a “Chrism Mass” is also celebrated where bishops and priests come together at their local Cathedrals to celebrate the institution of the priesthood. At this mass, the bishop blesses the “Oil of Chrism” that will be used for Baptism, Confirmation, and Anointing of the sick or dying.
This year of the coronavirus, we are asked to observe “social distancing;” we won’t be able to do our usual activities. We are even locked out of the church. We will only get to watch the ancient ritual of the washing of the feet, join the procession of the blessed sacrament from the barren sanctuary of the church to an altar of repose. We are invited to adore the Blessed Sacrament throughout the night, just like the disciples stayed up with the Lord during His agony in the garden before His betrayal by Judas. But all this, only virtually.
Just how significant is this washing of the feet? For our Lord it is everything that he had always wanted to teach his disciples and us. “The greatest among you should serve others.” (Matthew 23:11) Serving does not indicate a lowly status or station in life. It does not or should not convey class division. Jesus washes feet; his Father and He are one, so the Father too washes feet. And until we learn to wash each other’s feet, we will never belong to the Son and to the Father.
For our Lord, the washing of the other’s feet is a sign of service. No conditions are attached to this service. There is no counting the cost. To sink to the floor to wash the feet of the other is to acknowledge, neither difference nor equality, but dignity, the dignity of every person. ”I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you.” (John 15:15)
It is not difficult to conjure up images of service during this time of the pandemic. Risking their lives, nurses, doctors, medical technicians and attendants tend to their patients with care. They wash them (literally) to ease their discomfort caused by a rising temperature. Whispering words of comfort, they encourage their patients to hang on and fight the invisible enemy. And very often, they’re the only comforting presence near a dying patient’s bed.
Service, even of the menial kind, does not demean. Service does not make us less of a human being. As Jesus expressed clearly, a leader must serve; he or she must not hesitate to go down on his or her knees to reach the other’s foot. You can do this too, Jesus seems to be telling us. And indeed we can. This time of the pandemic, this is what the front liners are doing – (the cynical among us might say, they’re just doing what they’re paid to do!– but risking their lives and welfare, recognizing the dignity of those they’re helping to breathe more easily or warm their shivering bodies, surely this goes beyond the call of duty?)
There is every and any way to serve others, to raise the dignity of our fellow human beings during these difficult times. There’s this good nurse who, after she has completed her shift at the hospital, buys food to give to those sleeping in sidewalks on her way home. There are those good souls who, even if locked in their homes manage to make things needed by those who brave the fronts, kind-hearted people who put together relief bags to give to those whose means of living has been disrupted by the lockdown. And surely, those who pray for the afflicted, for the situation to get better, they too serve?
Unlike washing of the feet, setting up a table for a guest to dine with us, is part of the Filipino’s tradition. Anyone who comes to our homes while we are enjoying a meal is invited and always welcome to share the food on the table. An invitation to eat is almost as casual as the greeting “Kamusta ka?” (How are you?).
This time of the coronavirus, it is easy to tap into this well-known hospitality. Suddenly, various institutions open their doors to welcome those among the front liners who need a shower, a bed and food. Establishments offer their large spaces to be converted into ready to serve hospitals. One would wish such display of hospitality were the case even outside this time of the pandemic.
We have here the same invitation that Jesus made to his disciples. An invitation to share a meal. An invitation to belong. An invitation to be part of a bigger scheme than we already belong to. An invitation to make all of humanity part of our family. As our Lord himself modeled for all his disciples to see, to be part of this family is to be part of a culture of serving others. The host makes quick glances at you while you’re eating to make sure you have enough to eat. The host seems to know what you need even before you can think about it. Disconcerting sometimes, as Peter and the disciples certainly felt when Jesus offered to wash their feet, but you can’t have a part of me if you refuse, he sternly told Peter. They did not comprehend what was happening.
Service like this cannot be commanded. They go beyond the call of duty. They spring from that profound human appetite called LOVE. That same love that our Lord suffered in the garden of gethsemane, the love that looked compassionately at his friends waiting the night with him, but who were too tired to keep awake. This is the love that begged his Father if it were possible to take the cup away from Him, but which in the end, surrendered His will to the Father’s will. Jesus loves us. He and the Father are one. The Father loves us too.
It is thus with our Lord’s love that we love. When we will the other’s desire to live and live comfortably, there is love. When we will the other’s well-being and happiness, there too is love. When we will the other’s will to survive this crisis and come out of it wiser and more equipped to face what life will give him, there is love. This is the same will that moved our Lord to serve his disciples and wash their feet. This is the same will that offered his life on the cross that we might be saved. “Father, not my will but yours be done.” In the end, he united his will with his Father’s nd there can be no greater love!
Our celebration of our Lord’s Last Supper this year should mean so much more to us who are suffering this terrible crisis. We are called to serve and not to count the cost, and there’s so much around us these days where we can realize this call.
Let me end with Pope Francis’ call for service and love this Holy Week. In his Palm Sunday message, Pope Francis recalls that our Lord “descended into the abyss of our most bitter sufferings, culminating in betrayal and abandonment.” Our Lord’s message to us: “Do not be afraid, you are not alone. I experienced all your desolation in order to be ever close to you.” Pope Francis adds that “the tragedy we are experiencing summons us to take seriously the things that are serious, and not to be caught up in those that matter less; to rediscover that life is of no use if not used to serve others. For life is measured by love.” God saved us by serving us, Pope Francis reminds us. “We often think we are the ones who serve God,” but it is really God “who freely chose to serve us, for he loved us first.”
And in a special video message for this Holy Week, Pope Francis reiterates the same lesson of service and love. “It is a difficult time for everyone. For many, very difficult,” he acknowledges. “Let us try, if we can, to make the best use of this time: let us be generous; let us help those in need in our neighbourhood; let us look out for the loneliest people, perhaps by telephone or social networks; let us pray to the Lord for those who are in difficulty…. Even if we are isolated, thought and spirit can go far with the creativity of love. This is what we need today: the creativity of love. This is what is needed today: the CREATIVITY of love.”
*image from the Internet