Bishop Glen John Provost
Bishop of Lake Charles
Homily for Holy Thursday
Thursday, March 20, 2008
Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception
"Unless I wash you, you will have no inheritance with me." John 13:8
Poetry captures the moment. From the chanting of the Odyssey to recall the exploits of heroes to the address at Gettysburg, we look for the words to fit the occasion. As Holy Week began and the Church set its sight on this Night of the Lord¹s Last Supper, I remembered a poem I read many years ago by George Herbert (1593-1633), a contemporary of Shakespeare. Vaughan Williams, the great English composer, used the same words for his "Five Mystical Songs", and that is how I had come to first be acquainted with the poem. Its title is "Love Bade Me Welcome" and describes a guest at a banquet who feels unworthy to be there. "Love bade me welcome", the poem begins, "yet my soul drew back,/ Guilty of dust and sin." His host, however, thought differently.
Jesus had invited His apostles to supper. This was to be no ordinary meal. Many marvelous things were to happen. Jesus would give His Body and Blood as food and to insure the continuance of this gift He would give the priesthood by saying, "Do this in remembrance of me" (I Corinthians 11:24). This meal, this feast, we commonly call the Last Supper. Once I asked a child in second grade, when did Jesus give us the Eucharist. He answered, "At the first supper." Then, he realized that did not sound right and flinched. "No," I said. "You may be right." The meal was the last before Jesus died, but it was not the last meal. It was the first of many, many meals, all of them combined in one moment of Love¹s mystery. And while St. John in His Gospel does not record the Eucharistic institution, others do, and St. John invites us into the mystery with another action. The washing of the feet is an invitation of welcome into the mystery of Love.
When Jesus knelt at the feet of His apostles to wash them, our first impression is that this is a gesture of service, and so indeed it is. I cannot help but think that there is more, however. This meal, this "first supper", this celebration, is far too significant an event to see any one action as signifying only one thing. The key to understanding comes through the apostle to whom Jesus entrusted the keys of the kingdom.
When Jesus reaches Peter in the line of disciples, Peter says to Jesus, "You will never wash my feet" (John 13:8). Isn¹t Peter¹s response like that of the guest in the poem, "my soul drew back." The poem continues: "But quick-ey¹d Love, observing me grow slack/ From my first entrance in,/ Drew nearer to me." So, Jesus answers Peter, "What I am doing, you do not understand now, but you will understand later" (John 13:7). Then, Jesus adds, "Unless I wash you, you will have no inheritance with me" (John 13:8). We gain an insight into the meaning of the washing.
To understand the washing of the feet one must understand the ritual of hospitality for the Jews in the Mid-East at the time of Jesus. When a guest arrived at someone¹s house, the host was expected to offer water and towels for them to wash. Since no one wore socks, the feet were very dirty. The washing was not just practical but became synonymous with "welcome." The washing of the hands and the feet of a guest meant to say, "Welcome to my house. Welcome to where I live, my domain." In washing the feet of the apostles, Jesus is welcoming the apostles to His Kingdom.
Our reaction to this welcome can be like Peter¹s. We think ourselves unworthy. Well, indeed, he was not and neither are we, but then we encounter the host for whom not even unworthiness makes a difference, because the host is Love Himself. Even when we have every evidence in the world that we are loved, we still find it hard to believe. Yet, Love persists.
When in Herbert¹s reflection on this mystery in his poem, the host tells the guest that the host is waiting for no one else and that he is the one invited, the guest protests: "I the unkind, ungrateful? Ah, my dear,/ I cannot look on thee." The host is Love and rejects "no" for an answer. Instead Love does the unthinkable. Love extends its welcome. "Love took my hand, and smiling did reply,/ Who made the eyes but I?"
Does God suffer? Yes, because love suffers. When one loves someone else, then one gives something up of oneself. It is in the nature of the lover to give of himself to the other, and that takes the forgetting and giving of self. That is painful, and that is what Jesus did, at the first supper, on the Cross, and continually in the Eucharist. Here He extends a welcome. He takes our feet and washes them in an eternal gesture of welcome into His Kingdom. The welcome is to continue. It is to be extended. We are to offer the welcome to others in Christ¹s name, in His person, not in place of Him but representing Him, for the Church is Christ¹s Body. In so far as we are members of His Body, the Church, we are part of Him. And the Body invites to the Kingdom.
Even then, having scratched the surface of this eternal truth, we still can hardly believe our senses. We are so far from loving and from being loved. Only a persistent Lover could endure our lack of understanding. Only a true Lover could tolerate the way we do not trust Love. Only a patient Lover could prove His love by embracing our feet and washing them, take His Body and Blood and serve them to us as food, and welcome us into His Kingdom. "Truth Lord, but I have marr¹d them; let my shame/ Go where it doth deserve./ And know you not, says Love, who bore the blame?/ My dear, then I will serve./ You must sit down, says Love, and taste my meat./ So I did sit and eat."