It must have been a night somewhat like tonight. Friends of Jesus were gathered with him – with all kinds of feelings: expectancy, puzzlement, mystery with penetrating thoughts and questions. Political pressure was building! Jesus knew his hour had come. Jesus’ friends knew something was about to happen. The impact of what Jesus said and did that night took on profound meaning.
The familiar ritual of the Passover meal began. Would Jesus announce his plan for victory? What are his thoughts? What does Jesus say to them and us this night? One thing we know for sure: He loved his own in the world, and he loved them to the end! Is there anything left unsaid? What words could Jesus speak to help them and us remember all he’d said and done– to help us get the meaning of his life– and the meaning of his death?
Tonight, perhaps a parable in action would help us always remember. So, during that meal – Jesus stands up, takes a towel, and ties it around his waist. He takes a basin of water and begins to wash their feet, – and wipe them with a towel: all of them, even the one who would betray him. Then, Jesus says: As I have done to you, so you also should do for one another. There, we have it!
Jesus brought that healing power of God’s love to everyone in need, stayed close to the marginalized, lived with the smell of the sheep – because that’s what self-emptying love demanded. In God’s reign all are loved and welcome. This is what this night is about. This is what our life is about. As I have done to you, so you also should do for one another.
It’s not just about the symbolic washing of clean feet in our Holy Thursday liturgies, which do take us out of our circles of safety. It is self-emptying love – like we are seeing today in this pandemic – in the doctors, nurses, bus drivers, grocery stores, cleaners, mask makers and so many others responding to the call to “wash feet”. In the midst of grave danger, people are there, willing to help, even walking them to death. Although we might not be out there, we also cannot turn our hearts from what God is asking us to do, tending to what is in front of each of us – what does our neighbor need? We are all in this together! We are on this journey of life, walking along side, yet distancing, as never before.
Times like this help us realize that maybe sometimes we’ve taken Jesus’ action, and made a church that resembles us, our culture with its power, divisions, discrimination, lack of forgiveness. Our God is a God who kneels and washes smelly bare feet, and says: Unless I wash you, you have no part with me. In this time of crisis, we are strengthened to pour out our lives, become Body of Christ for others by doing whatever we can with hearts of love. We are the Body of Christ living in the world now.
Just how much will this cost us? Jesus loved his own in the world, and he loved them to the end. Jesus could not change the course of following his compassionate nature of self-emptying love. Jesus had set his heart, fixed his eyes for the journey to Jerusalem! Today we are seeing the cost of self-giving hearts: in the medical professionals, those demanding more ventilators & masks, in all those first responders, all facing untold challenges. They are there! They cannot change the course of following their compassionate nature of self-emptying love! No matter how exhausted, they cannot “not respond”. And, look at those around us. We see everyone doing their part with generous hearts – Sisters – our staff! We are united as Body of Christ!
Jesus was able to face the darkness. By following in his steps, we will be able to face any darkness…any inequality…any injustice against immigrants and migrants. This grace runs through our veins. Our hearts will be too full of love to not respond with compassionate love. The spirit of Jesus is the leaven that allows us to respond, to be broken – to be a united and open-hearted people who can come through any challenge and emerge stronger. Jesus leaves us a lesson that we must never forget! With death comes resurrection – Jesus’ and ours.
Note: This content was preached by Sister Janet Brown OP on Holy Thursday at Dominican Chapel/Marywood in Grand Rapids, Michigan on April 9, 2020.