We began our Lenten journey with the first public words of Jesus. When we were marked on our foreheads with ashes, many of us heard the Lord call us to conversion, saying “Repent and believe in the Gospel.” Over Lent, despite our efforts, most of us have not fully done so. Perhaps we still cling to sinful tendencies, or we are still attached to the things of this world, or we still harbor within us some fear of giving up everything and following Our Lord to Calvary, to die with Him as St. Thomas invited us to a couple weeks ago. We cannot do it on our own, we need help. Humanity has failed to respond to Christ's call to holiness, and today the Lord Jesus leaves his disciples with His last words and last actions before the Good Shepherd freely lays down His life for the sheep.
The entire Bible has led us to this point in the story. The centuries of human history converge on the mysteries we recount these few days. The story of the Bible is the story of mankind's need for redemption – this is why we call it “salvation history.” We need a Savior. We are in a mess and can't get ourselves out. This sin must be dealt with.
Thanks be to God for His infinite creativity: As Pope Benedict describes in Jesus of Nazareth Part II, (p 121) Time and again, God asks for our love and waits for mankind's response. When he receives a “no,” he generously find a way to open up a new path of love for us. “He responds to Adam's no with a new overture toward man. He responds to Babel's no with a fresh initiative in history – the choice of Abraham. When the Israelites ask for a king, it is initially out of spite toward God, who prefers to reign directly over his people. Yet in the promise to David he transforms this spite into a path leading directly to Christ, David's Son.
So also with Christ, we can see a sort of transition suggested in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke: After generations have continually failed to adequately respond to the call to “repent and believe in the Gospel,” the Lord opens for us another way for healing and restoration in taking our sins upon Himself and mounting the Cross as expiation for our sins.
This is the great humility of Christ that we see played out before us today in one symbolic action. What the Letter to the Philippians says in its great Christological hymn – namely that unlike Adam, who had tried to grasp divinity for himself, Christ moves in the opposite direction, coming down from his divinity into humanity, taking the form of a slave and becoming obedient even to death on a cross – all of this is rendered visible in a single gesture. Jesus represents the whole of his saving ministry here: He divests himself of his divine splendor (symbolized in the outer garments he removes); he as it were, kneels down before us; he washes and dries our soiled feet, in order to make us fit to sit at table for God's wedding feast. (Jesus 56) He takes our dirt unto himself by this act of washing.
What we hear in the Gospel today breaks our normal sense of the way things are meant to be: the master is the servant. This echoes back to what we just recalled on Sunday, where the King and Messiah was welcomed with songs of “Hosanna to the Son of David!,” yet while he himself was riding on a donkey, the humblest of animals. These are the paradoxes that prepare us for the greater mysteries to come: a God who dies for us, who loves His own to the end; a king who rules from a tree, who reigns by giving Himself for others; a Lord who returns to us alive, still bearing the wounds of his execution. And finally, as we recall from Saint Paul's account today, a God whose humility does not stop at becoming man, nor at embracing death, nor at the shame of the cross, but even to come to us under the form of bread and wine as the perpetual memorial of his sacrifice.
The Eucharist is the great gift of Christ that recalls forever His suffering and death, and thus it relies on the actual gift that Christ makes for us tomorrow. Without the Cross, the Eucharist wouldn't make any sense. Let us imagine the scene again: Jesus knew that he was about to die. He knew that he would not be able to eat the Passover again. Fully aware of this, he invited his disciples to a Last Supper of a very special kind, that constituted his farewell; during the meal he gives them something absolutely new: he gives Himself as the true lamb and thereby institutes his Passover as the replacement of the Jewish symbol that foretold Him. (Jesus 113) Thus Christ becomes Himself the New Temple that offers the New Worship in Spirit and Truth that alone makes the Father well-pleased. This new memorial at the Last Supper is the only way that Jesus is able to help us make sense of His Passion and death: without the Eucharist, the cross is a mere execution without any discernible point to it. Yet together, Jesus is able to transform the senselessness of death into the height of beauty: self-giving love. Now death, which was once the destruction of love, becomes now the means of verifying and establishing it, of its enduring constancy given forever in the Blessed Sacrament. (God is Near us, 29-30).
This is truly love to the end. And it is here, in this Blessed Sacrament, that we, the Church, are made capable of such love ourselves. Because the Cross, which the Eucharist brings to our very souls, does not work only on a vertical level: winning our salvation by expiation from our sins, and reuniting us with God. The horizontal dimension is also present: the Cross is the source of all Charity because it is the perfect act of Charity – Jesus giving Himself to us to be with us always, until the end of the ages.
And when He gives the Eucharist to us at the Last Supper, when He washes our feet, He gives us a New Commandment along with it - we are to love as He has loved us: “as I have done for you, you should also do.” This is ultimately impossible for us on a human level: because of Original Sin, we are corrupt beyond our own powers. However, with God's grace, we are able to have pure hearts. Through the saving bath of baptism into the Paschal Mystery of Christ, we are made dead to sin and alive in Christ Jesus, we are washed clean and our hearts are capable of being pure.
In this sanctification that makes the Church by uniting it to Christ through Holy Communion, we are given this great mission to love each other and bring that move to the world: “By this will all men know that you are my disciples, if you have love one another.” This is why the Eucharist is called the Sacrament of Charity. Because while it calls us to perfect love in this new commandment, it also gives us the grace to do it by uniting us with Christ. It depends on our “I” being absorbed into his - “it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.” Gal. 2:20. (Jesus 64) Only because of this are we able of making this love as real as getting down and washing feet as a slave.
Neither are we allowed to keep this to ourselves in some sort of eternal sleepover hug-fest of sentimentality. No, we must bring the Gospel to others: “an authentically eucharistic Church is a missionary Church.” … We cannot approach the eucharistic table without being drawn into the mission which, beginning in the very heart of God, is meant to reach all people. Missionary outreach is thus an essential part of the eucharistic form of the Christian life. (Sacramentum Caritatis #84)
This command to love and to invite others into this gift of Divine Love is meant for us all, but especially in the priest. Please pray for your priests daily (even as our Pope Francis has constantly urged us to pray for him) so that we may faithfully administer God's love to you and to all in our parish, Catholic or otherwise.
Lastly, do not forget that you are all priests through your Baptism, called to offer spiritual sacrifices to the Father. Called to expiate sins in the vertical dimension of the Cross, as well as exemplify the Charity of Christ on the horizontal level in your homes, workplaces, and local communities. May Our Eucharistic Lord, who left us this perfect example tonight, enable us in this great Sacrament of Charity to do so all of our days.