Bishop Glen John Provost
Bishop of Lake Charles
Homily for Holy Thursday
Thursday, April 9, 2009
Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception
“He rose from supper and took off his outer garments. He took a towel and tied it around his waist.” John 13:4
The washing of the feet of the disciples is an extraordinary event. It has often been interpreted as a gesture of service. “As I have done for you, you should also do” (John 13:15). As service, it is consistent with everything else Our Lord did to serve others. There is, of course, more to the washing of feet than the leaving of a good example. Its extraordinariness begins with its context.
The washing of the feet takes place “before the feast of Passover” (John 13:1). This would make it Thursday, the evening before the day of preparation. The washing of the feet is an act of preparation. Jesus is preparing to “lay down” His life. He has promised that this is what He will do. “I lay down my life in order to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down on my own. I have power to lay it down, and power to take it up again” (John 10:17-18). This is real power, not only to give up one’s life but “to take it up again.” The connection between this statement and the washing of the feet is heightened because the verb used for “to lay down” is the same verb used when Jesus removes his outer garments, τίθησιν (John 13:4). He is not merely taking off his outer garment. He is laying it down, as He will His life.
Jesus is taking on the role of a servant. For this reason many have seen a deep connection between the washing of the feet and the beautiful passage from Isaiah that will figure in our Holy Week liturgy. “If he gives his life as an offering for sin, he shall see his descendants in a long life, and the will of the Lord shall be accomplished through him” (Isaiah 53). In this sense, we are dealing not only with a work of service but also with a sharing of His mission with His disciples whose feet He washes.
This is implied in the exchange between Jesus and Peter. Peter says, “You will never wash my feet” (John 13:8). And Jesus answers him saying, “Unless I wash you, you will have no inheritance with me” (John 13:8). We are speaking of an inheritance. The washing of the feet is a lesson in humility, but it is an invitation to an inheritance. And what is that inheritance? The language of Jesus, “you will have no inheritance with me”, is a formula found in the Old Testament exclusively applied to the priest. When consecrating priests, God tells Moses to “wash them with water” (Exodus 29:4; see also Leviticus 8:6 and Numbers 8:6-7). Just as the host was expected to offer water and towels for a guest to wash his feet, so Jesus is welcoming the disciples into His service. That Jesus washes the feet himself, only points the more to His sharing with His disciples His personal mission, His own service. And what is His service? It is His priesthood. I do not think I express it too greatly. “I have given you a model to follow, so that as I have done for you, you should also do” (John 13:15). The model in question is His priesthood. He is soon to give His life as a ransom for the many. He is the ultimate servant, the sacrificial victim, fulfilling the Suffering Servant of Isaiah (Isaiah 52 and 53). The act of washing another’s feet points to the humiliating death that Jesus will endure for others. The disciples are to share in it as part of Jesus’ priestly inheritance.
In short, Jesus says to Peter, if you do not accept my washing your feet, you will reject the redemptive humiliation of the cross. In doing so, you will not share in my priesthood.
As humans, we must always be reminded of the reason Jesus came into the world. He came to offer a sacrifice for sin. In doing this Jesus acted as a priest. The difference is that in the sacrifice of Christ the Priest, He becomes the sacrifice. The priest and the sacrifice are one and the same. Thus, as priest, Jesus comes to suffer and to die. And there is more.
Just as Moses was commanded to wash Aaron and his sons, the first priests of the covenant, now Jesus washes the feet of the new priests of the New Covenant. It is a covenant sealed not with the blood of bulls. This New Covenant is sealed with the blood of the Lamb; “… through the blood of Jesus we have confidence of entrance into the sanctuary by the new and living way he opened for us through the veil, that is, his flesh, and … we have ‘a great priest over the house of God’” (Hebrews 10:20-21).
Through the humble and humiliating gesture of washing the feet, Jesus revealed the total giving of self that He would suffer on the cross. Then, He invited His disciples to share in that “service”, to be part of his priestly inheritance. Only in being a “servant”, giving his life totally, could the disciple imitate the Lord in every respect of His priesthood.
Holy Thursday night is all about Eucharist and Priesthood. Tonight is the birthday of the Priesthood and the Eucharist that perpetuates the miraculous mission of Jesus to redeem. Through them we are brought to share in the redeeming passion, death and resurrection of Our Lord. And so Jesus could pray this night before He died: “As you sent me into the world, so I sent them into the world. And I consecrate myself for them, so that they also may be consecrated in truth” (John 17:18-19).
Bishop Glen John Provost