Homily for the Thursday of the Lord’s Supper
Readings: Exodus 12:1-8, 11-14; Psalm 115 (116): 12-13, 15-18; 1 Corinthians 11:23-26; John 13:1-15
1 April 2021
We began our liturgy this evening giving thanks for small mercies and large mercies. It is a glorious autumn evening here in Melbourne. Last year, we could not gather for such liturgical celebrations. This evening, we are out of lockdown. This evening, even our choir is permitted to appear unmasked. We give thanks that we can gather to celebrate the supper of the Lord.
Tonight’s Gospel from the Gospel of John is the washing of the feet. Unlike Matthew, Mark and Luke, John does not describe the institution of the Eucharist with Jesus sharing the bread and wine with his disciples, blessing those elements as his body and blood. Instead, Jesus removes his outer garment, takes a towel, wraps it around his waist, and washes the disciples’ feet, then wiping them with the towel he was wearing. In the words of this evening’s communion hymn, service too is sacrament.
Jesus cleans the feet of all those at table, including Simon Peter who will deny him before the night is out and Judas who will betray him unto death. Jesus knows that not all are clean. Nonetheless he washes the feet of them all.
In his poem Passover, Peter Steele describes the motley crew:
Upstairs, a man who’s broken silence to say
that he loves them, meaning the braggart, meaning
the one with death up his sleeve, meaning the brooder,
the sulphurous brothers, the pincer of taxes
and those with a good conceit of themselves. He’s told them
and now they begin to believe.
There is a baptismal motif in Jesus washing of the disciples feet; there is also an indication of priestly ministry.
Until this papacy, whenever this splendid ritual was performed at the Vatican, the Pope would wash the feet of 12 carefully selected men, usually priests. Their feet were already very clean indeed. When Pope Francis became Pope, he moved this ritual beyond Saint Peter’s Basilica to places like prisons and homeless shelters. He started washing all manner of feet, all of them dirty. Some of those he washed were men; some were women. Some were old; some were young. Some were Christians; some were not. In fact, some were even Muslim. In 2016, Pope Francis instructed the Vatican dicastery responsible for liturgy to amend the rules: no longer was there an instruction that only the feet of men could be washed.
Jesus came proclaiming, “If I then the Lord and master have washed your feet, you should wash each other’s feet. I have given you an example so that you may copy what I have done to you.”
On 11 March 2021, the Archbishop wrote to all the priests in the archdiocese saying, “Questions have been received into my Office around particular liturgical areas. It should be noted that during the Evening Mass for the Lord’s Supper, the washing of the feet (which is already optional) is to be omitted.” Now some of you may think that this next observation of mine is Jesuitical, legalistic thinking. In accordance with the archbishop’s directive, I as the celebrating priest, will omit to wash the feet of the faithful this evening.
But I do not think that exhausts our liturgical possibilities. Nor do I think it exhausts the scope of what Jesus was commanding us to do. We must of course abide by all COVD-19 instructions. This evening we have invited 6 couples to come forward for the washing of the feet. They are husbands and wives, brothers and sisters.
Given all that has been discussed in our media, outside our parliaments, and inside our coffee shops, we thought it most appropriate this evening that the men wash the feet of the women as an indication of our respect, reverence and service of each other. Service too is sacrament.
Last night, we celebrated a splendid dinner for the 85th birthday of our scholar in residence Father Bill Uren. I don’t think he would mind my recounting his expression of gratitude that with his present indisposition on crutches, he has been helped by a number of people in college to put on his shoes and socks of a morning and to remove them in the evening. Service too is sacrament.
This evening, we will celebrate the priesthood of all believers. We are a priestly people. The words of Jesus at the Last Supper that you should wash each other’s feet are not reserved only to those whose hands have been anointed at priestly ordination.
Tonight, we keep watch together and we commit ourselves to serving each other, copying the example of Jesus at table with all manner of people including the betrayer whose mind had already been infected to do him in.
Fr Frank Brennan SJ is the Rector of Newman College, Melbourne, the Distinguished Fellow of the P M Glynn Institute, Australian Catholic University, and the former CEO of Catholic Social Services Australia (CSSA).