In October 2001 at Nassau Coliseum I gave all of you this Gospel to be ours after the heart wrenching and life taking tragedy of 9/11. This night you and I are invited by the Lord himself to enter into the mystery and join him and his first disciples at the Last Supper which begins the New Order of life and love. All around us, then as now, our Jewish brothers and sisters are observing the Passover of the old law, a law we respect, a tradition that is genuine and valid so long as faithful Jews keep the practice of their ancestors.
What WE enter into is the New Covenant, the new promise, the new reality established by God’s only Son and sealed by His blood. This is God’s ultimate and definitive message given to us by Jesus Christ, His Son, the Word made flesh. This night he shows us by his words and action what he will accomplish the next day. What we are given by him this night, is authentic and real. It is entrusted to us for all time because of his death on the cross. Tonight’s gift is accomplished and sealed for all time by tomorrow’s sacrifice; the sacrifice that by death conquers sin and death, the sacrifice that crowns his gift of self so total it is offered “even to the end”.
“So, during Supper, fully aware that the Father had put everything in his power and that he had come from God and was returning to God, he rose from supper and took off his outer garments. He took a towel and tied it around his waist. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and dry them with his towel.”
Why did you do that Lord? What prompted this act of total humility? Why should you? Why would you? The answer is simple but profound, mysterious but filled with a message for us all: You loved your own and you loved them to the end! But what of Peter’s protest? Isn’t it one we all would make? “Master, are you going to wash my feet? You will never wash my feet!” You are Lord and Master. I want you to act like one!
Now he knows and we know: you want to make Peter CLEAN. You want to do this for all your disciples. Three times Jesus says this: he wants us clean. But what kind of being clean is this? We know that Jesus often does things and only later lets us see their true and deeper meaning; says things that come true in ways we never would have thought of and changed our lives in ways we never would have dreamed. In this central action Jesus is doing just that. He is washing the feet of his disciples first and foremost as an example. “If I, your Lord and Master, have washed your feet, you ought to wash one another’s feet…I have given you a model, as I have done for you, you are to do for on another.” The Son of Man has come to serve and not to be served.
But there is something more here! Yes, Jesus is our model. But the something more is the mystery of Jesus’ own person. He, the Son of God, became flesh and dwelt among us. He became one with us so that we could become one with Him. What is happening when he makes us truly clean? What does it mean to be clean within, within our hearts, within our minds, within our very beings? What cleans us is His Love! He is making us his by the cleansing power of Love. What makes us pure is that He, who is love, loves us into becoming like Him. He is the incarnate one, flesh and blood like you and me, soul and body like you and me but His whole being is LOVE ITSELF. And so he loves us into newness of life by letting his love pour out of himself and transform us, making us lovers of him and of one another, a gift that is beyond our being, a gift we can only accept by returning that love which is itself possible because He loved us first. The water may wash feet, Peter’s and ours. But His love washes our hearts, our souls, our minds, our whole being.
The next day that love accepts to become a lamb led to the slaughter, a lamb brought to the new altar of the new sacrifice. And on the new altar of the cross he will consummate his destiny and fulfill the very reason he came into the world: to die for love of us and to leave us the means to share his life by becoming incorporated into his love.
But this night before he goes to the altar of Calvary, Jesus himself establishes his Church, his way of continuing his love for the ages to come. Jesus is himself the ultimate sacrament, the great mystery of love offered forever by the Father’s love for us. He, the Son, now establishes his Church as the sacrament of his love for the world in which we live, for every generation and every people.
For this night he “took bread and, after he had given thanks, broke it and said, ‘this is my body for you. Do this in remembrance of me….This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you do it in remembrance of me.” He founds his Church be endowing it with the two essential gifts that alone can guarantee that His love, and not our own narrow loves, will continue to prevail in the world. He makes the Church by giving us the Eucharist and the Priesthood together. The community which is the Church, here and everywhere, can live her life with confidence and with faithfulness because this Church is a community based on communion with God which is made real and kept alive by the Eucharist and the ministerial priesthood. These are not something the early disciples made up. This is no one’s invention. This is not a sociological development or some group’s act of self preservation. These come from Him. They are given to us by Jesus as his most precious gift of love. Only the Son of God could have created this, because only the Son of God who is love in person could have brought such a gift into being.
“As often as you do this you do it in remembrance of me!” If we can proclaim his death, we also can proclaim his resurrection. And we do so by doing what he commanded us to do, the Eucharist, the gift of love through the acts of a community whose servant is a priest of the new covenant that is Jesus’ own life and love incarnate.
St. John Vianney called the Eucharist a “bath of love”. In this Eucharist, selfishness and sin, division and enmity, separation and hatred are all washed away by the only power that can accomplish this: Christ’s love poured out upon us. Every time he does that, every time he comes to us in the Eucharist we are made clean. We are made more like him. We model him. We are transformed by Him. We become Him. And so we are here this night because of Him to encounter Him, receive His love, share his life, become one with Him. He makes us His so that we can then help wash clean the hearts of others with his love.
And this very night he offers this, his last prayer about us to the Father:
Father, they are your gift to me. I wish that where I am they also may be with me, that they may see my glory that you gave me because you loved me before the foundation of the world…that the love with which you loved me may be in them and I in them.”