Receiving and Imitating Christ’s Extreme Love, Holy Thursday, April 17, 2014

Fr. Roger J. Landry
St. Bernadette Parish, Fall River, MA
Holy Thursday 2014
April 17, 2014
Ex 12:1-8.11-14, Ps 116, 1 Cor 11:23-26, Jn 13:1-15

To listen to an audio recording of tonight’s homily, please click below: 


The text that guided tonight’s homily was: 

Jesus’ Loving Us to the Extreme

Tonight we enter into the Sacred Triduum, a special word that means “three-days-in-one,” a sacred “trinity” of days in which to understand any part of Holy Thursday, Good Friday and the Easter Vigil, we need to grasp it in relation to the whole. And the real meaning behind all we enter into can be crisply summarized with the words with which St. John began tonight’s Gospel: “Jesus knew that his hour had come to pass from this world to the Father. Having loved his own in the world, he loved them to the end.” That expression synthesizes all that Jesus ever did, from his incarnation until the general resurrection. He loved us, as the Greek can perhaps better be translated, “to the extreme.” He loved us to his absolute limit, with all he had, holding nothing back. We see the greatest manifestations of that total self-giving love in this three-day-in-one period of intense prayer: how he expresses that love tonight during the Last Supper, how he displays it tomorrow on the Cross and how with joy he shows the triumph of love in his resurrection.

Resistance and Rejection to Christ’s Extreme Love

But that’s not the only reality we are called to ponder during this Triduum. There’s also the reality of human freedom and whether we are going to receive that love, whether we’re going to allow God to love us to the extreme, or whether we’re going to resist or reject that love. We see that resistance and rejection in today’s Holy Thursday Gospel. When Jesus comes to wash St. Peter’s feet, the fisherman’s first reaction was, “You will never wash my feet!” He didn’t want the Lord to love him in that profound way. But as soon as the Lord Jesus described that allowing him to be loved and served in that way is not optional, but essential to being his disciple, have no inheritance in him, and enter into his kingdom, Peter relented and said with words that were themselves an expression of extreme docility, “Master, then not only my feet, but my hands and head as well.”

While Peter relented, another one present at the Last Supper rejected the Lord’s love. Right after St. John described Jesus’ extreme love, he said, however, “The devil had already induced Judas, son of Simon the Iscariot, to hand him over.” Later in the Gospel, talking about the cleansing he was doing for them, he stated, “’Not all of you are clean’” because he knew who would betray him.” So as we enter into the Sacred Triduum, we’re called not merely to review what happened 2,000 years ago, but actually to respond with receptivity rather than with resistance or rejection. We know that on Good Friday some received his love and were found faithfully at the foot of the Cross, but scores of people rejected Jesus, choosing Barabbas over him. We know that when Jesus rose from the dead, some rejoiced, but many refused to believe until Jesus himself appeared to them, and some actually bribed guards to lie saying Jesus’ body didn’t rise but was stolen. Tonight we’re called to examine our response to the three “principal mysteries … commemorated in this Mass” that the Church requires priests to preach about: “namely, the institution of the Holy Eucharist and of the priestly Order, and the commandment of the Lord concerning fraternal charity.” So let’s focus on the Lord’s extreme love in each of these three ways and our receptivity, response, resistance or rejection to those total self-gifts. .

Extreme Love in Washing our Soles and our Souls

The first expression of extreme love was in washing his apostles’ feet.

Only a few days before, when Jesus was dining in the house of Martha, Mary and Lazarus, Mary anointed Jesus’ feet with 300 days worth of priceless aromatic nard and dried them with her hair. Even though Judas publicly criticized Mary’s “waste,” Jesus defended her. On another occasion when a woman washed his feet with her tears and dried them with her hair, Simon the Pharisee criticized Jesus for not recognizing the woman was a sinner. But Jesus said that she would be forgiven much because she have loved much and expressed that love for Jesus by that gesture of washing his feet, something that Simon himself didn’t do when Jesus entered because he didn’t love Jesus at all.

Washing another’s feet was the gesture of a slave. People at most wore simple sandals and along journeys on dirt roads they collected lots of dust on dry days, mud on wet days, and animal waste always. That Jesus himself would take on the form of a slave and do this service for his disciples shows all of us that there was nothing he wouldn’t do to serve us out of love and save us.

On Palm Sunday, St. Paul told us that even though Jesus was God, he didn’t deem equality with God something to be grasped — like Adam and Eve did, trying to become like God — but rather emptied himself, took on the form of a slave, humbling himself becoming obedient even to the point of death on a cross. Nowhere does Jesus show the appearance of a slave more than kneeling down before his creatures and washing their feet. His love for us is the basin in which he cleanses us.

St. Peter’s response to Jesus’ desire to wash him raises the question of our receptivity. Just as with Peter, in order to be part of Jesus we need to allow him to clean us. Peter, once he realized this, gave a total response of faith. We need to learn from him how to do the same and allow the Lord to wash us. Do we? On Sunday, after I had made a request for men to sign up to have their feet washed, I started asking some of the men as I was shaking their hands if they’d volunteer to have this done. You would have thought with some that, instead of volunteering this honor to them, I was asking them if they’d allow me to use a chain saw to cut off their feet. They didn’t want to have anything to do with Jesus’ doing this for them through his minister. We need to be docile in allowing the Lord to love us, but many times we’re ashamed of his extreme love. It embarrasses us. We don’t think we’re worthy of it. We care too much about human respect. We desire to be in control, to be in charge, to tell God what to do, rather than to become vulnerable before the Lord who makes himself vulnerable in order to love us all the way.

But there’s something more here, too. The early saints of the Church, when they looked at Jesus’ statement that once we’ve been washed only our feet need to be cleansed, said that this is far more than a call to mutual foot washing. It is meant to refer to the sacraments of baptism and reconciliation. In baptism, we’re thoroughly washed, but over the course of our journeying each day, our sandled or bare feet come into contact with the filth of the world and we need to allow Jesus to cleanse us. That’s what he does in the Sacrament of Reconciliation, where Jesus is continually on his knees at our feet and not only carries out the service of a slave but dies to take away our sins. We need to allow Jesus to clean not only the soles of our feet but our immortal souls. One of the reasons why Jesus performs this rite at the beginning of the Last Supper is to show us that before he gives his body and blood, he wants to cleanse us. Our first response of faith means allowing the Lord to cleanse us in this way. But do we? Sometimes we prefer to hold on to our dirt. We reject Jesus’ love. We don’t want to be loved or to love in return. Or we say that we’ll clean ourselves even though we need a spiritual power washing. This is one of the reasons why the Church, in renewing this gesture on Holy Thursday, insists that a priest, in the place of Christ, wash only the feet of males. If this were just a gesture of foot washing, if it were just a symbol of the call each of us has as a disciple to imitate Christ in humble service of others, then we could all get out water and buckets and make everyone’s toes sparkle. But this gesture is tied symbolically to the sacrament of confession that cleanses us of “dirt” since the “bathing” of baptism. For that reason, it’s tied intrinsically to the priesthood, which, because it acts in the person of Christ the bridegroom of the Church, is reserved to males. That’s why the Church allows for the washing of the feet of up to 12 males on Holy Thursday.

Our response also must involve what Jesus says at the end of the Gospel. He says, “Do you know what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord — and you are right, for that is what I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.” Jesus set an example of service for us to follow, to imitate his loving abasement in service of others, to be willing to do the “dirty work,” to not think we’re too good to do something that will help others, to bend down in order to lift others up. To be truly patient and understanding of their defects. To suffer for them, especially those whom the world doesn’t value. To pray for them as they persecute us. To love them when they make us their enemies. Jesus’s words on the Cross, “Father, forgive them!” St. Stephen’s, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.”

Extreme Love in Giving Us His Body and Blood to Feed Us

The second expression of extreme love to which we need to respond with great receptivity is the Lord’s gift of himself in the Holy Eucharist.

Jesus’ self-emptying out of love didn’t end with his taking the form of a slave and doing the work of a slave to cleanse us. He went so much further in taking on the form of our food and becoming our very nourishment. This was the fulfillment of the ancient Passover rite that we heard described in the first reading. Just like the ancient Jews, we need to eat the Lamb. We need to immerse ourselves in the Lord’s blood, applying it to the doorposts and lintels not of our houses but of our lives. God called his chosen people through Moses to make the Passover a “perpetual pilgrimage,” to leave our homes and come out to meet the Lord. This is what we do here at Mass.

It’s here that Jesus loves us to the extreme. In St. Luke’s version of the Last Supper, Jesus says, “I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you.” He was burning with a desire to give himself to us and for us before he would give himself unto death on our behalf on the Cross. Like all love, he desires union with the one he loves, and that’s what he seeks to bring about in the Holy Eucharist. He gives the total gift of himself to us, he says, “I love you to point of giving my life for you,” and he awaits our reply. He eagerly desires to feed us with himself. No other nourishment for our bodies and souls would satisfy his extreme love. It’s here that he says, in the present tense, “This is my body that is for you” and “This cup is the new covenant in my blood.” The Lord gives himself to us here, not just tonight but every Sunday, not just Sundays but every day. He responds to our hunger for God by seeking to feed us with the only adequate response to that hunger.

What’s our response to this gift? In the Responsorial Psalm, we prayed, “How shall I make a return to the Lord for all the goods he has done for me?” God wants us to take up the cup of salvation and call on the name of the Lord. This is our thanksgiving. He wants us not just to do just anything; he wants us to “do this” in memory of him.

The question for us is whether we receive that gift, or are resistant to it or reject it. Three years ago, Pope Benedict asked on this night, “Jesus desires us, he awaits us. But what about ourselves? Do we really desire him? Are we anxious to meet him? Do we desire to encounter him, to become one with him, to receive the gifts he offers us in the Holy Eucharist? Or are we indifferent, distracted, busy about other things?”

We know that in response to Jesus’ outpouring of love, many do resist. Some don’t come at all Some come without being cleansed. Others come without seeking a true communion of love with God and with others. Others outright reject Jesus’ gift of himself as if he couldn’t have loved us in this concrete way.

Others reject as if Jesus couldn’t have loved us that much or in that way. Tonight is a night in which we’re called to respond to his graces to order our whole life, first, on receiving this gift and then imitating it, offering our body and blood, our sweat, our tears, our heart, all we have and are, for others as Jesus has done for us and left us an example, instructing us to do this in his memory.

And we’re called to show our gratitude in a particular way through adoration, as we’ll have the chance to do after Mass tonight, to stay and watch with him so that we may learn from him how to say yes to God’s will above our own and be strengthened in our flesh to obey what we know he is calling us to in our spirit and deepest desires. Many of us are asleep, like Peter, James and John in the Garden, to the reality of his presence in the Eucharist. It’s a chance for us to change and to become more like him.

Extreme Love in Instituting the Priesthood

The third action of extreme love is his institution of the priesthood, which is meant to follow Christ’s example tonight even more closely.

So great was Jesus’ desire to continue to wash and purify us, so eager was his longing to give his body and blood for us to unite us in love with him that he did something even more amazing than humbly giving himself to us under the appearances of simple human food. He instituted the priesthood on frail men, sinful men, at times scandalous men in order to continue to be able to cleanse us and feed us until the end of time. Talk about emptying oneself and becoming a slave! He entrusts himself to his creatures! Tonight on Holy Thursday he instituted the priesthood, consecrating the apostles in the truth of his word in order to bring his healing and his presence to the whole world until the end of time, in order to do all that he did in memory of him.

Many people, including Catholics, do not approach the reality of the priesthood with eyes and hearts of faith. They look at the priesthood in general without any supernatural vision, seeing the priest as someone who just fills the role of presiding, or teaching, or coordinating the things in Church, or — worse — as a businessman or manager of ecclesiastical goods. Others look at priests the way Protestants do, as someone chosen by the community to lead them in a Bible study or try to inspire them in prayer and in charitable service.

But relatively few look at priests with genuinely Catholic faith, as someone chosen not by the community but by God, given a vocation despite all his weaknesses and sinfulness, to carry on the work entrusted to the apostles in the upper room. Peter, Andrew, James, John, Matthew, Simon, Jude and the other apostles weren’t anywhere close to the most talented people, the brightest, the best speakers, the best organizers, Jesus could have found. But he chose them and gave them his own power to continue his saving work.

So tonight, on this Holy Thursday, we should ask the Lord for a greater trust in what he did in establishing the priesthood to give us his mercy, to give us his body and blood, to baptize us at the beginning of our journey of faith, to prepare us to receive the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, to join our hands in marriage, to anoint us and get us ready for eternal life with God. We’re called to receive this gift for what it is, a gift from God, through which Jesus serves us in a very humble way. We’re called to be grateful for this gift. We’re called to do all we can to perpetuate this gift. 

When I speak across the country, I’m always asked what people can do to support their priests. First is to pray. Priests need prayers. Devil is after them more than any one else, for obvious reasons. The priesthood is a beautiful vocation but it is hard and priests need the grace of perseverance. Second is to thank priests and thank God for priests. Every sincere priest has strengths and weaknesses. His weaknesses are very apparent because he’s a public figure and people will regularly comment on them, sometimes without forgiveness. I remind them that priests get about 10 complaints for every compliment. To hear sincere compliments for the efforts priests make can prevent cynicism. People presume priests can read their minds if they’re grateful. They can’t. Third, to show up for what the priest sacrifices to give. Priests want to give of themselves for others. Every priest will die protecting with the seal what you confess to them. They’ll sacrifice themselves for you and your salvation. But one of the biggest crosses is when people don’t receive those gifts, when they treat as if re-runs on television are more important than an adult education opportunity, as if sports practice is more important than receiving God inside. The priest wants to share the treasure that God has given him, not to keep it to himself, but that requires our own openness. He wants to share the treasure of the faith, the treasure of the truth, the treasure of the Sacraments, the treasure of Christ’s own charity. Fourth is to pray for priestly vocations and to encourage vocations from among our family members and parish family members. If we’re grateful for Jesus’ lavish love that that will show in the way that we pray for that gift to be perpetuated.

Just as Jesus humbly love us to the end, so he calls priests to set the example for everyone in self-giving service, which is what they do by giving up the good of marriage, as Jesus did, give up the good of various material possessions, as Jesus did, and freely give up the gift of human freedom, just as Jesus did, in becoming obedient to the Father until death. Jesus calls his priests to act in person not just in the sacraments, but in life, setting forth an example that calls everyone to remember him. The priesthood is supposed to be a clarion example of Jesus’ extreme love for the Father and for others. .

Christ, having loved those who were his own in the world, loved them to the end. Tonight we come to thank him for that love, shown in his becoming a slave to purify us, to save us, and feed us, and to continue to sanctify us through the priesthood all the way until his second coming. Jesus has eagerly desired to eat this Passover with us tonight so that we might pass over with him into this mystery of extreme love, this sacrament of his own relationship with the Father.  Tonight we thank him for all the dirty work to save us, to cleanse us, to feed us, and to continue to sanctify us through the humility of the priesthood he established. And we ask him to help us in faith become true servants of our brothers and sisters, collaborating with him and the priests he has given us, faithfully to give our body, our blood, our heart, our lives for him and for them.

The readings for today’s Mass were: 

Reading 1
EX 12:1-8, 11-14

The LORD said to Moses and Aaron in the land of Egypt,
“This month shall stand at the head of your calendar;
you shall reckon it the first month of the year.
Tell the whole community of Israel:
On the tenth of this month every one of your families
must procure for itself a lamb, one apiece for each household.
If a family is too small for a whole lamb,
it shall join the nearest household in procuring one
and shall share in the lamb
in proportion to the number of persons who partake of it.
The lamb must be a year-old male and without blemish.
You may take it from either the sheep or the goats.
You shall keep it until the fourteenth day of this month,
and then, with the whole assembly of Israel present,
it shall be slaughtered during the evening twilight.
They shall take some of its blood
and apply it to the two doorposts and the lintel
of every house in which they partake of the lamb.
That same night they shall eat its roasted flesh
with unleavened bread and bitter herbs.

“This is how you are to eat it:
with your loins girt, sandals on your feet and your staff in hand,
you shall eat like those who are in flight.
It is the Passover of the LORD.
For on this same night I will go through Egypt,
striking down every firstborn of the land, both man and beast,
and executing judgment on all the gods of Egypt—I, the LORD!
But the blood will mark the houses where you are.
Seeing the blood, I will pass over you;
thus, when I strike the land of Egypt,
no destructive blow will come upon you.

“This day shall be a memorial feast for you,
which all your generations shall celebrate
with pilgrimage to the LORD, as a perpetual institution.”

Responsorial Psalm
PS 116:12-13, 15-16BC, 17-18

R/. (cf. 1 Cor 10:16) Our blessing-cup is a communion with the Blood of Christ.
How shall I make a return to the LORD
for all the good he has done for me?
The cup of salvation I will take up,
and I will call upon the name of the LORD.
R/. Our blessing-cup is a communion with the Blood of Christ.
Precious in the eyes of the LORD
is the death of his faithful ones.
I am your servant, the son of your handmaid;
you have loosed my bonds.
R/. Our blessing-cup is a communion with the Blood of Christ.
To you will I offer sacrifice of thanksgiving,
and I will call upon the name of the LORD.
My vows to the LORD I will pay
in the presence of all his people.
R/. Our blessing-cup is a communion with the Blood of Christ.

Reading 2
1 COR 11:23-26

Brothers and sisters:
I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you,
that the Lord Jesus, on the night he was handed over,
took bread, and, after he had given thanks,
broke it and said, “This is my body that is for you.
Do this in remembrance of me.”
In the same way also the cup, after supper, saying,
“This cup is the new covenant in my blood.
Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.”
For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup,
you proclaim the death of the Lord until he comes.

JN 13:1-15

Before the feast of Passover, Jesus knew that his hour had come
to pass from this world to the Father.
He loved his own in the world and he loved them to the end.
The devil had already induced Judas, son of Simon the Iscariot, to hand him over.
So, during supper,
fully aware that the Father had put everything into his power
and that he had come from God and was returning to God,
he rose from supper and took off his outer garments.
He took a towel and tied it around his waist.
Then he poured water into a basin
and began to wash the disciples’ feet
and dry them with the towel around his waist.
He came to Simon Peter, who said to him,
“Master, are you going to wash my feet?”
Jesus answered and said to him,
“What I am doing, you do not understand now,
but you will understand later.”
Peter said to him, “You will never wash my feet.”
Jesus answered him,
“Unless I wash you, you will have no inheritance with me.”
Simon Peter said to him,
“Master, then not only my feet, but my hands and head as well.”
Jesus said to him,
“Whoever has bathed has no need except to have his feet washed,
for he is clean all over;
so you are clean, but not all.”
For he knew who would betray him;
for this reason, he said, “Not all of you are clean.”

So when he had washed their feet
and put his garments back on and reclined at table again,
he said to them, “Do you realize what I have done for you?
You call me ‘teacher’ and ‘master,’ and rightly so, for indeed I am.
If I, therefore, the master and teacher, have washed your feet,
you ought to wash one another’s feet.
I have given you a model to follow,
so that as I have done for you, you should also do.”