Most Reverend Vincent Long Van Nguyen OFM Conv DD STL, Bishop of Parramatta
Homily for the Evening Mass of the Lord’s Supper 2019 at St Patrick’s Cathedral, Parramatta
18 April 2019
My dear friends,
Pope Francis has a way to shock not just Catholics but the whole world. Just last week, while receiving in audience the leaders from Sudan, he unexpectedly knelt down and kissed their feet. With this dramatic gesture, he pleaded with them to build peace in their war-torn country.
Every year since his election, he celebrates Mass with the prisoners and performs the feet washing ceremony in a Roman prison. The image of the Pope washing and kissing the feet of the inmates, both male and female, shatters centuries of Catholic tradition in which this privilege was reserved only to 12 carefully chosen men.
It seems to Pope Francis that honouring the memory of Jesus is not just about a literal observance. It is putting into practice the Master’s radical call to be a servant and to serve others even at the cost of one’s own interest, privilege and power.
This was fundamentally what Jesus did at the Last Supper, which we celebrate and re-enact tonight. He showed his disciples what it meant to be his follower. The foot washing gesture illustrates dramatically the depth of Christian discipleship.
It challenges everything the disciples knew about the relational structures that defined their religion, society and family. It subverts their sense of greatness, power and leadership.
When Jesus took on the role of the slave by washing their feet, the disciples reacted with shock and disbelief. Peter even protested because it turned upside down his known and secure world.
What Jesus did broke decisively with the models of humanity then and now. He did away with power and control, ambition and success, self-sufficiency and self-interest.
He provided a new way of living and relating which is rooted in self-giving, vulnerability and powerlessness. The greatest has to become the smallest; the powerful has to become the powerless; and the leader has to become the servant. This is the heart of Christian discipleship.
This is also the heart of the Christian Eucharist. In the Last Supper, Jesus transforms the Jewish Passover meal. Those who partake in it celebrate not just an exodus from Egypt to the land of promise. They celebrate and enact a new kind of exodus.
They are – as St Augustine put it – “to become fully what they have received”. That is, to become what we eat, to be another Christ for others, to be Eucharistic in our self-giving love, in our reaching out and in our embrace of all people in the manner Jesus showed us.
My dear friends,
Tonight’s celebration highlights for us what it means to be a disciple and what it means to be the Body of Christ. In the world which is deeply suspicious of institutional religions, only the true measure of discipleship counts.
We need to be purified of all that is the antithesis of the Gospel spirit.
The way of the empire is all about conquest, subjugation and control. The way of Jesus’ kingdom flies in the face of ambition, upward mobility, power and glory. In effect, he teaches us that Christian discipleship is about the willingness to suffer with others, to be vulnerable with the vulnerable, to be last with the least, to be powerless with those without power.
Maundy Thursday is also traditionally regarded as the birthday of the ministerial priesthood, which is modelled on the ministry of self-less service of Christ.
We, ministers and priests in the Church, are called in a special way to mediate, to make present the selfless, life-giving ministry of Jesus.
But all of us who celebrate the New Passover, the Last Supper, the sacrificial death and resurrection of Christ are called to give ourselves in service to each other and to the world.
“This is my body” and “this is my blood which is to be poured out for many”. To eat His flesh and to drink His blood is to participate in his life-giving death and resurrection.
It is to be Christ’s presence in the world and that isn’t always easy because there may be a price to pay. It is also a profound statement of solidarity with all who suffer throughout the world. This is not something we do alone, isolated from one another, but as a community, in solidarity with Christ and with our brothers and sisters who form His body on earth.
So, let us become more fully what we already are: Christ’s body broken for others and His blood poured out for many. Let us embrace Jesus’ radical and subversive call to abandon the culture of power in favour of wholesome relational discipleship.
In the post-Royal Commission society, we must learn to persuade others by our observance of the ethics of the Kingdom where the culture of humility, mutuality, compassion and benevolence replaces that of power, status and privilege.
Let us pray that, we may learn to influence, albeit from a position of weakness, vulnerability and smallness, the world around us by our authentic witness to the Gospel.
May we learn to strengthen one another with the strength and love of Christ.