Fr. Seamus Campbell and Ecclesia Ministries of New York
As we enter the Sacred Triduum, the three holiest days of the Christian year, I begin and end this sermon with two short poems from one of the greatest saints who ever lived, my holy father – St. Francis of Assisi. These two short poems capture the essence of these three holy days and the essence of the entire Christian life in general.
God Would Kneel Down
I think God might be a little prejudiced.
For once He asked me to join Him on a walk through this world,
And we gazed into every heart on this earth,
And I noticed He lingered a bit longer before any face that was weeping,
And before any eyes that were laughing.
And sometimes when he passed a soul in worship,
God too would kneel down.
I have come to learn: God adores his creation. (repeat)
Life in Palestine in the time of Jesus was hard. The popular means of transport was, well, your own feet. People walked long distances on rough, dusty roads to go from Galilee to Jerusalem, for example. Travellers often arrived at their destinations with sore and aching feet. As a sign of hospitality, the host would see to it that his guests were given a warm foot bath and massage as a way of relieving their aches and pains. This was usually done by the house servants or slaves. (God too would kneel down and adore his creation).
This service of bathing and soothing the tired feet was also provided by the houses or inns found at strategic locations along the major roads and highways. Travelers worn out along the way could go into these rest houses and have food and a foot bath. Their energy thus restored they would then be able to continue and complete their long journey. That is how such rest houses along the way got the name “restaurants” – they restored strength to tired and exhausted travelers on the way. The disciples would have understood Jesus washing their feet in light of this cultural background. And for us it is a pointer to the meaning of the Eucharist we celebrate.
Understood in light of the washing of the feet, the Eucharist is a place of restoration for people on their way to their heavenly destination. The life of a Christian in the world is a pilgrimage, a long, hard journey. Along the way we get tired and worn out and we are tempted to give up and turn back. But Jesus has provided us with the Eucharist as a place where we can go in to bathe our aching feet and to be refreshed in body and soul for the journey that is still ahead. Yes, the church building, St. Luke’s, is a restaurant. When we give the body and blood of Jesus to a sick person we call it viaticum which means “provisions for the journey.” But the Eucharist is always viaticum: by receiving with faith the body, blood, soul, and divinity of Jesus Christ, our Lord and God, in holy communion we always derive strength to continue our upward journey toward God.
Peter was not very comfortable having Jesus wash his feet. Peter, who was somewhat of an activist, would have preferred to see himself doing the washing, washing the feet of Jesus and even the other disciples. Sometimes it is harder to remain passive and allow someone else to bathe us than it is to bathe someone else, as every toddler can tell you. But God kneels down and adores his creation and having our feet washed and washing the feet of others become two sides of the same coin we call the Christian life.
The first and most essential part is to let the Lord wash us and minister to us. As Jesus said to Peter, “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.” First, the Lord washes us clean so that we belong to him. Only then are we ready and qualified and empowered to wash the feet of our sisters and brothers. Only when we know in the depths of our herats through deep prayer, fasting, and frequent reception of communion that we are the unconditionally loved sons and daughters of God, do we have the strength to serve others properly.
The other side of the coin, which is equally important, is that after our feet have been washed by the Lord, after we have “communed” with him in prayer, fasting, and the Holy Eucharist, we must go and wash the feet of others in holy service – doing the little deeds of daily life with great love. Tonight, at the Last Supper, is captured the whole of the Christian life – our communion with the Lord through prayer, fasting, penance, and the Eucharist must always lead to holy service and holy service back to communion with the Lord in a never ending circle into our whole life becomes a prayer.
Jesus establishes a close link between him washing the disciples’ feet and the disciples washing the feet of others. If the Eucharist is the place where the Lord washes our feet, daily life is the place where we ought to wash the feet of others. Eucharist leads to life leads to Eucharist. True Eucharistic piety must lead to service of others. Jesus who broke the bread and offered the wine of the Eucharist also washed the feet of his disciples. We must follow Our Lord’s example both at the altar of the Eucharist (point to altar) and at the altar of life (point to the doors).
Commenting on both the altar of the Eucharist and the altar of life, Holy Father Francis wrote again:
I once spoke to my friend, an old squirrel, about the Sacraments –
He got soooo excited and ran into a hollow in his tree
And came back holding some acorns, an owl feather, and a ribbon he had found.
And I just smiled and said, “Yes, dear, you understand: EVERYTHING imparts his grace.”