Holy Thursday – 2016
Homily by Abbot Peter McCarthy: 3-24-2016
“On the tenth of this month every one of your families must procure for itself, a lamb, one apiece for each household… 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.” Exodus 12
My brothers & sisters,
This afternoon we remember, together with the whole Church throughout the world, Jesus’ celebration of the great ritual memorial Feast of Passover on the night before he died. These high, holy days, the most sacred days of our liturgical year, begin with the memory of a Banquet – a memorial feast – built around an ancient story that defines a people.
The story centers on a relationship that tells the Jewish people essentially who they are as a people.
Our Holy Thursday Gospel also centers on a banquet – it too is a ritual feast – The Lord’s Supper – and it too tells a story that defines a people.
Now between these two great banquets – these two defining memorial feasts – 1) The Central Passover Feast of the Hebrew scriptures 2) The Central Eucharistic Supper of the New Testament; there is another meal, yes, yet another feast & story so important to the early Christian communities that all four of our Gospels describe it in detail.
It too is a Memorial Feast that was built around a story that defines what it means to be a follower of Jesus – to be in communion with Him. I want to reflect very briefly on this “in-between” Banquet story because it illumines both of the great defining Ritual Meals we remember this afternoon.
For Matthew, Mark, & John it is referred to as “The anointing of Jesus at Bethany” and it literally begins their Passion Narratives. For Luke, the story is related earlier in the Gospel and the setting is “At the House of a wealthy Pharisee”. All the accounts agree on the main points: one evening Jesus was at dinner; the dinner was a public banquet; at a certain point a woman (with a bad reputation) enters carrying an alabaster jar of very expensive ointment; she breaks this precious jar & pours all the ointment out onto Jesus, her tears washing his bare feet & drying them with her hair.
Just imagine at a formal dinner party this raw expression of intense emotion and love – so unselfconscious AND right in front of everyone!! Would not anyone of us here feel very awkward? But Jesus will have none of our squeamishness. “Leave her alone! She has done a good thing for which she will always be remembered” And then Jesus says a very strange thing. “She has just anointed me for my death.” What did Jesus mean by these words?
I want to suggest that there was the deepest joy & most intimate love in these words of Jesus “She has just anointed me for my death” Because Jesus experienced “the model”, “the pattern” of his own life/death in the actions of this sinful woman. She was accompanying Him in his love; in His life, and in His Passover.
John begins his Gospel this afternoon with the statement “Jesus loved his own in the world and he loved them to the end” Now that word “Telos” for John is meant to convey a total gift of all one’s heart … that word describes the precious alabaster jar and the priceless oil it contains … and Jesus hands it over & allows it to be broken & pours it out over each one of us … and so Paul chants to the Corinthians today “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…” Now as a raw expression of intense emotion & love this is infinitely deeper & wider & more inclusive than the loving actions of the sinful woman. And just in case we tend to play down the intense personal love and radical inclusivity of Jesus’ Passion, John relates to us in very minute & concrete detail … “So, during the Supper, fully aware that he had come from God and was returning to God … Jesus 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…”
I am reminded of Pope Benedict’s commentary on this gospel scene “When the Lord of the world comes & takes the slave’s task of foot washing – which is an illustration of the way he washes our feet all through our lives – we have a totally different picture. God doesn’t want to trample on us, but kneels down before us so as to exalt us. The mystery of the greatness of God is seen precisely in the fact that he can be small…” Perhaps another way to say this as we enter these three Holiest Days of Jesus’ Passover … the mystery of the greatness of God is the fact that he can be so totally & lovingly present to each one of us.
Jesus knows we each carry around with us a precious alabaster jar of very expensive ointment & we literally guard it with our lives! It is our longing desire; it is our potential for extravagant, unconditional love with which Jesus anointed us in His own Passover. It is so costly we fear to break it open and waste it on the dysfunctional, unattractive, unappreciative, undeserving people that we sit at the table with in our community, our family, in our Church.
The answer to this fear of loving, of truly giving ourselves away, lies in Jesus’ final words to us in this gospel before plunging Himself completely into His Passion. “Do you realize what I have done for you? You call me teacher & master and rightly so, for indeed I am. If I, therefore, the master & 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 for one another.”
+ Abbot Peter