"In verbo veritatis" (2 Cor 6:7)

April 17, 2014

Holy Thursday

Filed under: Homilies — Tags: , , — komonchak @ 10:15 am

Holy Thursday – March 30, 1972 – Seminary

We celebrate in these holy days the death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ. The passage of the Lord from death to life is the memory, and these rites are the act of remembering, that make us the people of a new covenant, a holy nation, God’s chosen people, proclaiming the mighty deeds of him who called us out of darkness into his own marvellous light. We recall the events in which Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified, was made both Lord and Messiah, and in discovering our Lord, we discover ourselves as the Church.

As the New Testament readings for this service make clear, we attend upon the founding of the Church, the giving and the revelation-in-the-giving of what makes the Church the Church. For we hear in these readings of the service of the Lord. In the Gospel, we see Jesus, Teacher and Lord, rise from table and stoop to the service of his disciples. Peter protests, for as yet he does not understand; death and resurrection will make it clear what Jesus does. But when he persists in his protest, he is answered by the word of the Lord: “Unless I wash you, you will have no part with me.” As so often, Peter stands for the disciples, uncomprehending, still having to make their own transition from the way men think to the way God thinks, having now to accept their Lord in the form of a slave.

We are Peter, and we are not differently placed. And neither do we have part with Christ–we are not his Church–except we permit him to wash our feet, which means unless we accept him as never more our Teacher and Lord than in his lowly service as a slave. Letting him wash our feet involves the whole Gospel-revolution that is faith, accepting his word which makes us clean. All the splendid symbols of John’s Gospel–light and darkness, freedom and bondage, life and death, truth and falsehood–all of them are concentrated in this simple gesture, and the whole question of our being in the light, and free, and alive, and walking in the truth turns upon our letting the Lord be in our midst as the servant of all.

It is no other lesson we learn from the reading from Paul: the Lord offers us bread, but it is his Body which is for us; he offers us a cup which is the new covenant in his Blood. It is a meal that creates a fellowship, but the bread we break and the cup we bless give fellowship in a broken body and out-poured blood; it is a death we remember until he come: such is the memory and hope that make us one in Christ Jesus.

But such faith is not all that makes us the Church. For the Lord’s service is not something to which we may look back in detached fashion: the Lord’s service is not really received except as a demand upon us. “If I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. I have given you an example: you are to do as I have done for you.” It is the new commandment he has given us, that we love one another as he has loved us. He is not Lord for us, for we are not his disciples, unless we understand ourselves as servants, too. We are to serve one another, not only as he served us, but because he served us, because we are the creatures of his service, alive with no other life than that which comes from his death, having no other glory than that of his cross.

That, too, is the lesson of the bread we break and the cup we bless: because there is one loaf, we, many as we are, are one body, the Lord’s body. And part of that duty of discerning the Lord’s body that Paul said is necessary if we are not to eat and drink condemnation upon our selves, is discerning ourselves, one another, the Church, as the Lord’s body, not members of him without being members of one another, the pain of one the pain of all, the joy of one everyone’s joy, anyone’s need everyone’s need.

These are not new truths for us; and if we neglect them, we may not even claim Peter’s excuse, for the death and resurrection are behind us. Still, we find ourselves having again to acknowledge how imperfect and fragile is our life in Christ. As imperfect, it calls always for the same repentance that gave it rise; and as precarious, it has always to be founded anew in the same faith that first permitted the Lord to cleanse us by his word. It is such repentance and faith that we are about this night and these days. This night is not different from all other nights except for such repentance and faith; and the Lord’s death and resurrection remain events of another time and place except as the mysteries of our own repentant and trusting hearts. Let us permit the rhythm of these days to become the rhythm of our repentance and faith, dying with him who was handed over for our sins, rising with him who was raised for our justification.


Holy Thursday-April 11, 1974-Seminary

The account of the Washing of the Feet seems to contain two different but related interpretations of the event. The first draws our attention to Christ, the second focuses rather on the Church of his disciples. If the first therefore is basic, the second is not less important, for great events are not great if they have no consequences or implications. The first interpretation of the foot-washing is found right in the description of it, especially in the dialogue between Jesus and Peter. We may again be grateful for Peter, for here as often elsewhere he stands as the seemingly eager, but really uncomprehending disciple–for someone like us, then–who may seek to follow after Jesus but keeps running up against incredible truths and impossible demands.

“Lord, are you going to wash my feet?” is Peter’s protesting question; and it is met with Jesus’ simple reply that there is mystery here, which it will take his death and resurrection and especially the gift of the Spirit to unlock. Peter, of course, has no patience for mystery: “You shall never wash my feet!” but this time his proud humility is met by a terrifyingly direct word of Jesus: “If I do not wash you, you will have no share in my heritage.” And Peter is immediately swept up into a newly enthusiastic faith, “Then not only my feet, but my hands and head as well.”

Obviously, there is more than the washing of feet going on here–not to be washed by Jesus is to lose one’s part in his heritage. We suddenly see that we are in the presence of another “sign,” and understand that we have here John’s symbol of the self-emptying of Christ in slavery even to the point of death. Jesus divests himself of his own clothing for that of a slave, bows to a slave’s task and carries it out in humility. We see finally that it is his death which he is symbolizing, and our washing in his blood. Nothing less than this is the truth of this scene; and so Peter’s protest is now more than an overzealous humility–it is the protest of sinful man, who in his pride will not be washed in the blood shed by the One who loved him to the end.

Peter’s protest reflects the vision of this world, and so the scene develops the contrast between the ways and thoughts of man and those of God–“If I do not wash you, you will not share in my heritage.” There was no other way for Jesus to gain his inheritance, and no other way for man to have a part with him. Peter, and in him we ourselves, must leave behind the world’s view of things, of God, of man, and of the ways of God with man, if we are to accept Jesus; and we delude ourselves if we believe that we have any relationship with him that does not begin with and remain always centered upon the fact that we have been washed clean in his blood.

In this light we can now understand the second interpretation, given when Jesus speaks of what he has done. In the language of the scholars, his instruction is an example of the imperatives of the Christian life arising out of the indicative of Christ’s act. “If I washed your feet, I who am your Teacher and Lord, then you must wash each other’s feet.” Washed in the blood of their Teacher’s sacrifice, how can his disciples not sacrifice themselves for one another? Not to serve one another is to admit to having another Teacher and Lord than Jesus Christ; to be any other kind of community is not to be his Church. And that, of course, is why so much of our celebration–especially in our representation of the footwashing–will concentrate on the great commandment of love. For this is the simple and immediate implication of having been loved to the end by Jesus Christ: “Love one another, as I have loved you.”

As the Church, we always stand somewhere between the two moments described by these two interpretations–between the confession of what God has done in Jesus Christ and the living out of its implications in our lives. The question is very simple: Favored, shall we favor? Forgiven, shall we forgive? Served, shall we serve?

It is particularly appropriate for such questions to arise tonight and in this particular assembly. For this is the night on which in the early Church penitents were reconciled; and this is an assembly in a seminary, and there are no persons to whom these words of Jesus are more directly addressed than to priests and seminarians.

For we either already exercise or soon will exercise roles that will place us over and against the Church as her servants, representatives of Christ for her sake. And we should not delude ourselves into thinking that the temptations that come with leadership will not fall upon us, or that we shall in general any more successfully resist them than have done or do others. This simple act of Jesus, and the many other Gospel texts about his service, most surely teach that the root of the corruption of authority into self-righteous or self-indulgent authoritarianism is forgetfulness of one’s own situation before God as a sinner before whom Christ did not hesitate to take the part of a servant.

The proud humility of Peter has not gone out of the Church nor out of us, and once at least it might be well for us to shift the focus of our reflections on the priesthood, traditionally associated with this night, from the institution of the Eucharist to the washing of the feet. The first can be understood and abused as “power,” the second cannot be; and it might be well to begin with the latter, for there should be no other teachers in the Church except those who have learned the truth of things, not only at the feet of Jesus, but by seeing Jesus at their own feet, their Teacher and Lord a slave before them.

It is the celebration of this mystery of love that we are about in these next days. Let us admit that there is a good deal of Peter in us still, protesting the thought of a suffering, servant-Messiah, because of the inescapable conclusion that the disciple is not greater than the Teacher. And let us realize that what is at stake is the ultimate truth of things–how God stands to man, how man to God, how evil is to be met and conquered, how I am to give shape and meaning to my life. So entering into the sacred mystery, we may expect at last to understand what otherwise must be rejected–that in death lies life, in self-forgetting self-finding, and in the figure of an impotent slave the Lord and Teacher of all.


Holy Thursday–March 27, 1975–C.N.R.

With this celebration we enter upon the holiest days of the Church’s year, days in which we concentrate upon that center around which our whole Christian life must revolve, the passion, death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ. This is true of the drama of the three days taken together; it is also true of each of the three celebrations: in each we are brought into the one great and central mystery.

We may begin our reflections this evening by considering the obedience to which we are called by the Lord. Twice we hear his command: “Do this…in remembrance of me.” “As I have done, so you must do.” We are to remember him by breaking the bread and by serving one another in imitation of his washing the disciples’ feet. This is, to uses Paul’s phrase the great “obedience of faith.”

It is, first of all, faith itself as obedience. We may not, with Peter’s proud humility, refuse the ministrations of our Servant-Lord. There is only one source from which we may draw salvation–the slave-service of the Lord–which was symbolized by the footwashing, was realized in the broken Body and outpoured Blood of the Cross, and is again symbolized and realized in this and every Eucharist. If we do not let him serve us, we have no part in his heritage.

And we must then let this obedient faith define our world and our selves. The meaning of the Lord’s words and deeds is not properly grasped if we see it as part of a sacral universe and understand it as the origins of a new rite or the empowerment of a new sacred caste. Peter’s protest symbolizes the challenge of faith, the decisive scandal of finding truth in injustice, holiness in unholiness, the sacred in the ultimate profanity which is death. The sacral vision of the world is overturned, as we see death and life and grace concentrate upon the cross, as we see the Holy One of God complete his incarnation in that most ordinary and natural but most devastating of human events, death itself. You cannot enter more deeply into the basic stuff of human existence than by dying, and Christ’s having made even death holy is the ultimate tribute to his saving, rescuing power.

And this world-defining faith, concentrated in this and in every Eucharist, must then become the spring of that new obedience of our new selves by which we struggle to unpack our faith into the deeds and words of our everyday life. Whenever we gather here, he is in our midst. Each time, he speaks to us in his word and in his remembered victory. Each time, he gives to his disciples the Bread of Life and the Cup of Salvation. Each time, he gives us his new commands: “Do this in memory of me.” “What I have done, you must do.” And in us, found and rejoiced and strengthened by his presence in our midst again and still as One who serves, he can become present still and again in the world, if we are obedient disciples of such a Lord, not discarding the world as a profanity, but embodying once again the scandal of a love of God which cannot be separated from the love of neighbor.

Such is the obddience and the faith in which we must be gathered here today, in the next days, and also in every assembling in Christ’s name. Old truths and familiar, yes; a new commandment become very old to us. But perhaps some day, perhaps this day, they can be heard again as new, because newly desired, newly welcomed, newly obeyed. “The Lord is waiting to show us his favor, and he yearns to have pity on us” (Is 30:18). We have only to let him.


Holy Thursday Liturgy–April 14, 1976–Seminary

In this house we celebrate this Liturgy from two standpoints. We gather, of course, as the Church, as the community of believers; but we also are an assembly of those who are devoted to the ordained ministry of the Church. In a seminary, I suppose, it is natural to consider the Holy Thursday Liturgy especially under this second aspect; and from one theological understanding of the ministry and its origins, speak of the Last Supper as the “institution” of the “priesthood.” For that purpose, attention tends to focus on the first of the two dramatic moments recalled in our readings, Christ’s giving of his Body and Blood with the enabling command to “do this in remembrance of me.” But I want to start from the other scene, for the insight it can give us into the twofold nature of our gathering and the relation which must exist between our being the Church and our being an assembly of ministers.

When I was in theology, I remember seeing an ordination-invitation with a rather modern, somewhat abstract, ink-sketched representation of two figures. One was seated, the other kneeling at his feet, and it was natural to take it for an illustration of an ordination, Christ or a bishop sitting, about to lay hands on an Apostle or an ordinand kneeling in front of him. But above the two figures were written the words, Exemplum dedi vobis, “I have given you an example”–and a moment’s thought made it clear that the figures were indeed those of Christ and a disciple, only it was not the one seated who represented Christ, but the one who was bent over, washing the other’s feet. Some people who saw it were puzzled and even annoyed at the choice of this scene for an ordination, but I think it said something extremely important about both Church and ministry.

The point of this evening’s service, of course, is that we must put ourselves into that scene. And we must first put ourselves into that scene as the figure who is seated, at whose feet the Lord Jesus is stooped in service. There is perhaps something of Peter in us all, which will protest at the thought, no doubt out of the loftiest of religious motives. But to us, Jesus will say what he said to Peter, “If I do not wash your feet, you will have no share in my heritage.” And then, like Peter, we must immediately let go our presuppositions, silence our protests, and accept the humble service of the Lord.

This dialogue reveals that the foot-washing is much more than an ethical example; it is a dramatic representation of what Jesus was about in his whole ministry, but especially in his death and resurrection. Peter’s protest and ours, then, is the protest of proud man–it is not genuine humility; it is sinful mankind’s last protest against this shocking Good News; it is the protest of the Greeks’ wisdom and of the Jews’ power–“You shall never wash my feet!” Peter, perhaps, was half-way there–perhaps we are too–but Jesus demanded that he come all the way, to see wisdom in folly and power in weakness, the Lord and Teacher of all in the naked servant at his feet. The foot-washing symbolizes the washing away of our guilt, our cleansing unto holiness, the bath of regeneration in which we are washed clean in the blood of the Lamb. And no one is a Christian except by permitting the Lord to be Lord in his own terms, by accepting his service; so that if we are to enter that scene, we must be the one sitting or reclining while the greater one performs his lowly service.

It should not be necessary to insist upon the importance of the idea: we have no share in Christ’s heritage without submitting to redemption by his cross. And this, of course, is what we are celebrating in these days–not merely an ethical example, nor the death of the first and greatest of martyrs, nor an unfortunate fate quickly repaired by God. We are discovering and celebrating the truth of things and their deepest meaning, the truth about ourselves and our deepest roots. We are witnesses at the reconstitution and redefinition of reality, as words like “first,” and “greatest,” and “power,” and “wisdom,” and “life,” and “death,” melt away as in a crucible and emerge wholly different, purified of their dross, fitted for God’s use. That is also what is supposed to be happening to us, too, during this week. We are ourselves supposed to undergo that purification, be shocked out of our pious expectations, and suffer the humiliation of being served by the Lord of all things.

And is that not also the first and primary truth of the other Last Supper scene we witness tonight? The Lord hands us bread, only it is his Body “which is for us;” he gives us wine to drink, only it is “the new covenant in his Blood.” In a first sense, it is not something else, called the Eucharist he gives us, much less the “power” to “confect” it; it is himself and his service, the broken Body and the outpoured Blood. And his first command to us is “Take and eat; take and drink.” And we have no right to think about places in his Kingdom if we are not ready to answer his question, “Can you drink the cup which I must drink?” The Lord offers us his Passover, his transitus, from this world to the Father: he is offering us the mystery of these days, and there is no other passage to his Father than the road he walked. “The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ?” The passion, death and resurrection of Christ are our only food and drink, and unless we eat and drink them in faith and love, we have no life in us.

Only when we have obeyed these first commands, only when we have eaten and drunk what the Lord offers us, only when we have let him wash us in his blood, only then can we properly obey those other commands: “Do this in remembrance of me; what I have done, you also must do.” The relation between these two moments of obedience is immediate and intrinsic; or at least it is if we do not immediately fall back into that world of language and action which has been transmuted by the Cross. And this, we must admit, is a great temptation. No Christian, I presume, has the nerve to say that he has come in order to be served rather than to serve, or that he is among us as the Lord. But words come cheaply to our lips, tyrants have spoken of themselves as “servants,” and rhetoric can camouflage reality. The only secure rescue from such travesty is to keep in mind both sets of commands we receive from the Lord: “Do this in remembrance of me.” Do what? Do what I have done; give your body and your blood; freely you have received, freely give.” “What I have done, you also must do?” Do what? Wash one another’s feet; lay down your lives for one another; love one another as I have loved you.

For no one is it more important to keep in mind this connection between the moments of our obedience than for ministers of the Lord and of his Church. We are the ones who must proclaim his words and “do in remembrance of him” the things that will call him to mind and bring his people into his presence that he may wash their feet and give them his Body and Blood to eat and drink. And it is a false start for a spirituality, a theology, a psychology of such ministry to start off with the word “power.” There is no power in the Church today but the Lord’s, and that is a strength perfected in what we consider weakness; there is no wisdom in the Church but the folly of the Cross. And we betray the one who ought rightly to be our Lord and Teacher–in fact we claim another Teacher and Lord–if the truth about our lives and their power is not the folly of the Cross and the weakness and humility of a servant at the Church’s feet. Whenever, then, we are to preach, whenever we are to preside-over the Eucharist, whenever we are to serve, we must remember that to us also is the Word of the Cross addressed, that we too must eat and drink from the bitter cup of the Lord’s passion, that we first must in all astonishment and disorientation find the Lord bending at our feet.

Let us, then, during these days put ourselves into that scene. In both moments we shall then be faithful in our ministry to the one who is among us as he who serves. In one moment, we shall find ourselves being served by the Lord and Teacher of all–and what room for pride is there here? And in the second moment, we shall find ourselves now bent low, before God’s people, bringing them the enormous riches of our redemption as Christ did, in weakness and in folly.

Holy Thursday–April 7, 1977–CNR

When I was in the seminary, I remember that one day a classmate received an invitation to an ordination. On its cover there was a line drawing in a rather modern, abstract style. Two figures were represented, one seated, the other bowed low over his feet. Given the occasion, it was natural to think that the one seated represented Christ or a bishop, the other an apostle or an ordinand. But above the figures were written the words, Exemplum dedi vobis, and a moment’s thought made it clear that the figures represented the exact opposite: the seated figure was the apostle, and the figure bowed low in service was the Lord Jesus. It gave a start to realize this meaning, and some there wondered whether it was an appropriate image for an ordination-card. Their question and the general surprise communicate something of the challenge which we all ought to experience at hearing the Gospel which has just been read.

Only John’s Gospel records this scene; but there is a Last Supper saying of Jesus in the Gospel of St. Luke which exactly expresses its meaning. “Which is the greater,” Jesus asks, “one who sits at table, or one who serves? Is it not the one who sits at table? But I am among you as one who serves.” The Lord and Teacher of all is among us as our servant, stooped low to wash our feet. We may protest as Peter did, “Lord, you will never wash my feet!” but we will always hear those terrible words of Jesus in reply, “Unless I wash you, you will have no share in my heritage.” The Lord will not come among us except as the one who serves.

The very harshness of Jesus’ reply to Peter indicates the significance of Christ’s act of service. It is one of the great “signs” that mark the Fourth Gospel, inviting us beyond what our eyes can see to what only faith can discern. When Christ stoops to the service of his disciples and washes their feet, he performs the “sign” of the one great act of service of us all: the taking up of a slave’s role and the washing of mankind in his own blood. No one can be his disciple, claim a share in his heritage, unless he accepts that revolutionary service, recognizes the Lord and Teacher of all in the crucified One, and accepts the forgiveness of his sins in Christ’s blood.

That concentrated “sign” of Christ’s sacrificial service is also given to us in the other Last Supper scene that is recalled for us this evening–when Jesus took bread and wine and gave them to his disciples as his Body given over and as his Blood poured out in forgiveness. It is not bread and wine which we receive from his hands; it is his own self, surrendered for us, taking away our sins, and bringing us true and lasting life before God. And every time we eat that bread and drink that wine, we proclaim that death and share in his resurrection and await his return. As the foot-washing, so the Eucharist is a sign, concentrating in simple human gesture the service by which Jesus became Lord and Messiah and we became his people.

But in each of these Last Supper scenes, the description of the gesture of Jesus is followed by the command which he lays upon us. “If I, who am your Lord and Teacher, washed your feet, you must wash one another’s feet.” “Do this in remembrance of me.” Those are not commands addressed only to the apostles and to those who succeed to their ministry; nor are they commands only to repeat with literal exactness what he himself did at the Last Supper. They are commands that those who have received the service of the Lord become the servants of others. If at this and every Eucharist, we are present as those who sit at table and Christ is present among us as the one who serves, then when we rise from receiving this service, it must be so that we may take Christ’s place at the feet of one another, being among and for them what Christ is among and for us, as ones who serve.

That inescapable link between Christ’s service as our salvation and our service as our obedience to Christ may perhaps provide a theme for our celebration of the holy days we now enter. We are not to approach them as observers at a sacred tableau. We are to enter the tableau ourselves, receiving in repentance and joyful faith the humble service of our Lord. And such must be our repentance and faith, that the celebrations cease to be a tableau at all, however beautifully and strikingly celebrated. What in these days is concentrated in word and gesture, in song and light, has to be unlocked and has to spread itself out now not in ritual gesture and word, light and song, but in humble and self-forgetting deeds and words in our everyday worlds, among those with whom we find it so difficult to be present as one who serves. If we can reach such repentance and faith and love, then the service of Christ will truly once again be realized among us, as, washed clean, we enter into that service which is the glorious heritage he offers us.


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