Lowering Ourselves in Memory of Jesus

Homily – Holy Thursday Mass of the Lord’s Supper
By Most Rev. Salvatore Cordileone
Archbishop of San Francisco
April 2, 2015

In his Apostolic Letter on the Holy Rosary, Rosarium Virginis Mariae, St. John Paul II gave us a new set of mysteries in which we meditate on scenes from the public life of our Lord, occurring between the Joyful and the Sorrowful mysteries, what he named the “mysteries of light.”  He said that “[e]ach of these mysteries is a revelation of the Kingdom now present in the very person of Jesus” (n. 21). 

In Memory of Jesus
Our Mass this evening marks the fifth of those mysteries, the Institution of the Eucharist, in which, St. John Paul says, “Christ offers his body and blood as food under the signs of bread and wine, and testifies ‘to the end’ his love for humanity (Jn 13:1), for whose salvation he will offer himself in sacrifice” (n. 21).

We recall during this Easter Triduum all that Christ did for us, those historical events by which he won for us our salvation.  But, historically speaking, that was long ago and far away.  Which is why Christ offers himself under a sign – the signs of bread and wine – precisely so that the grace of those saving events can be communicated to his people throughout history, to us, here and now.  Thus, what happened then and there do not remain mere historical events, but mysteries of salvation reaching us here and now.

In the second reading for Mass this evening, we heard the well-known passage from St. Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians, in which he describes the scene of what Jesus did at the meal he shared with his disciples the night before he died.  These words are very familiar to us, as they are repeated at every Mass.  The Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke also recount this scene at the Last Supper.

Interestingly, in St. John’s Gospel – in the passage we just heard proclaimed – we find a different account of what Jesus did.  St. John does not recount for us the gestures of Jesus with the bread and the wine, and the words he pronounced over them, with the commandment, “Do this in memory of me.”  Instead, he describes how Jesus bows down to perform the most menial of tasks, belonging only to slaves, of washing the feet of his disciples, and then says, “as I have done for you, you should also do.”

“As I have done for you, you should also do”: this is St. John’s version of “do this in memory of me.”  According to St. John, Jesus tells us that this is the model he gave us to follow, the model of lowering ourselves to serve others.  By doing this in memory of him, that is, as he has modeled it for us, he becomes present: a living Eucharist.  In that sense, doing for others as he has done for us goes far beyond just remembering what he did for us; that saving mystery which he came to fulfill for us, giving his life to the end, becomes present to us here and now.

God’s Mercy
Notice that Jesus made no exceptions; no one had to prove himself worthy – he even washed the feet of the one he knew would betray him.  This is significant: our Lord was betrayed by a friend, a disciple he himself chose, a disciple who fell into this trap perhaps because he had become corrupted by his love of money in the position he held as the treasurer for the twelve.

It is interesting to compare and contrast the reaction of Judas to that of Peter.  Judas had already placed himself outside the band of the twelve; he doesn’t fit in, he’s not really one of them anymore, and leaves early in order to make the deal by which he would hand his Master over to those who would kill him.  And then, he even places himself beyond God’s mercy.  Rather than trusting in God’s mercy, he rejects God and, in a gesture of despair and defiance, takes his own life.

Peter, on the other hand, never does anything halfway.  Notice how at first he objects: no, Lord, no, no, this is just not right – “You will never wash my feet.”  Perhaps the others, too, did not understand the symbolic meaning of what Jesus was doing, but Peter seemed to have the knack of saying what was on everyone else’s mind but no one wanted to say.  So Jesus straightens him out, explaining that this is necessary for him to share in his inheritance.  And what is his reaction?  True to form: “Master, then not only my feet, but my hands and head as well.”  In his great love for his Master, Peter knew no limitation; and yet, a little later, in a moment of weakness, he would deny him.  But he would repent of this sin; Peter, as impetuous as he was, recognized his own sinfulness and his unworthiness to be his Master’s disciple.  In contrast to Judas, Peter did place himself at the mercy of God, and because of that God could then work great things through him, to the point that he would give his life for his Master in the same way that his Master did for him.

Our Lord left us an example, he gave us a model of how to live, not because he needed it but because we do.  It is by bringing ourselves low that we dispose ourselves to receiving God’s mercy.  It is our pride and self-centeredness that keep us from fully knowing God’s mercy.  But by lowering ourselves through prayer and repentance, we are then capable of lowering ourselves in service to others after the model of Jesus, that is, not for any ulterior motive or personal gain or praise of others, but simply out of love.  Then we become both recipients of God’s mercy and forgiveness, and messengers of that mercy and forgiveness to others.

In his first Holy Thursday homily that he delivered in the prison for minors in Rome two years ago, Pope Francis also made reference to the model Jesus set for us in washing his disciples’ feet, one which makes his mercy and tenderness present every time we repeat it.  His final words in that homily are ones we would do well to keep in mind not just in this celebration in which we reenact it, but in every opportunity we have to serve:

Now we will perform this ceremony of washing feet, and let us think, let each one of us think: ‘Am I really willing, willing to serve, to help others?’  Let us think about this, just this.  And let us think that this sign is a caress of Jesus, which Jesus gives, because this is the real reason why Jesus came: to serve, to help us.