Catholic Contextual urban Theology, Mimetic Theory, Contemplative Prayer. And other random ramblings.

Monday, 1 April 2013

Sermon Maundy Thursday 2013

Exodus 12: 1-4 [5-10] 11-14
1 Corinthians 11:23-26
John 13:1-17, 31b-35

Why is this night different from all other nights?
That question is asked at the Passover meal, the Seder, which was celebrated in Jewish homes throughout the world two nights ago. It is asked by the youngest child present. Why is this night different from all other nights?
And the oldest person present answers, bridging the generations, passing on the tradition. The different aspects of the Seder meal are pointed out, the things that make it special: unleavened bread, bitter herbs, the lamb bone recalling the sacrifices of old. The person answering explains the significance of these details, their meaning in the story of the Exodus, the liberation of God’s people from slavery in Egypt, long ago.
These things are said and done as a memorial. That doesn’t mean they are just a reminder of something that is now in the past, like a tombstone or a blue plaque. The Seder is a memorial which bridges the time between then and now, which makes the saving work of God in Israel’s past a present and effective reality for the people of Israel today. 
Christians understand that, or we should do. It is part of the heritage we have received. Christians are people from all races and nations who, through Jesus, have come to believe in God’s promises to Israel, and to share in Israel’s hope of salvation for all the world. We, too, can ask, why is this night different from all other nights?
This night also began in a meal, the Last Supper, when Jesus sat with his disciples and recalled the saving work of God in the Exodus from Egypt. But at the same time he was looking forward, to the new saving work of God, which was to be completed over the next three days in his own suffering, death and resurrection. The new saving work which was to encompass all the world, all times and places and people.
The writer HV Morton has described Jesus at the Last Supper as holding two historical threads in his hands and forming the link between them both. One is the Old Covenant, the Law and the Prophets, God’s promises to his people Israel. And the other is the New Covenant sealed with his blood, the Church of all nations, the community of the Eucharist, the mission and priesthood of the Apostles. There is both rupture and continuity between the old and the new, and Jesus holds both together.
And so Jesus gives a new memorial, the Eucharist, by which the new saving work of God will be made present and effective for all time. And he gives a new commandment, the commandment of love, and through washing his disciples’ feet shows what that means. 
The task of washing feet belonged to a slave or to the lowest servant. It was a job to be done by a person you didn’t notice.  Jesus shows his commandment of love by taking the place of the lowest and most marginalised. It is love shown through self-emptying service. It is love which shows us where the saving work of God is being achieved. Which is where we wouldn’t notice, if Jesus had not drawn our attention there by his subversive action. On the margins, among the vulnerable and the excluded and the despised.
It is John’s Gospel which gives us this account of Jesus washing his disciples’ feet. Curiously, there is no account of the institution of the Eucharist in John’s Gospel, although that gospel is full of Eucharistic teaching about Jesus being the bread of life, about needing to eat his flesh and drink his blood. 
But John tends to comment on great mysteries by telling of external signs. The Eucharist and the washing of feet can be seen as different aspects of the same mystery of self-emptying love. The washing of feet shows us, through external signs, the inner meaning of the Eucharist.
Christ “emptied himself”, says St Paul in Philippians, taking the form of a slave. He emptied himself by becoming human, and taking our nature upon him. He emptied himself in service to others and in the end to sharing our death upon the cross. He empties himself still in the Eucharist, humbling himself under the forms of bread and wine, the servants of our body’s need.
Because the Eucharist is God’s gift of his life to us in Jesus, it makes us like him. By feeding on Christ we are transformed into him, so that he lives in us in the world. The sacrament of self-emptying love makes us self-emptying, fills our hearts with the love of Jesus, with which to love the world. So the Eucharist impels us to the work of service, to the washing of feet. The Eucharist takes us to the margins, to the forgotten, the victimised, the excluded. 
This evening Pope Francis is celebrating this Mass of the Lord’s Supper, not in his Cathedral or in any other of the great churches of Rome, but in a prison, a juvenile prison on the outskirts of the city. There he will wash the feet of young offenders. Through his words and actions in such a short time Pope Francis has reminded his own church, and Christians of other churches, of the true priorities of the gospel: to go out from the centre to a life of risky, self-emptying, loving service, on the margins. Because that is where Christ is, and that is where Christ calls us to be, too.
God has chosen and called us into his church, into the community of the Eucharist, to fill us and empower us with his love. Through his gift of himself to us we are caught up in that love - and it is love on the move. It is love pouring into the world, reaching to the furthest places, seeking out all, calling all home to the Father’s heart. 
To live Eucharistically is not simply to come to Mass often, though we should. It is to live a life transformed by the Eucharist into self-emptying loving service. The Eucharist is the new memorial, the New Covenant in Christ’s blood. It makes present and effective God’s saving work in Jesus, in us, and through us in the world. 
Why is this night different from all other nights? Because tonight Jesus gave himself under the forms of bread and wine, so that the world might live.
Why is this night different from all other nights? Because tonight Jesus girded himself with the towel of a slave and washed his disciples’ feet, to give them the commandment of self-emptying love. 
Poured out in love, given in service, Jesus lives in his Church, present and effective for all time, to reach out and to save all the world. That is why this night is different from all other nights.

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