Another way to wash feet

…the Triduum liturgies…together form one complete story of the Paschal Mystery—the mystery of the Lord’s suffering, death and resurrection. These several events of the one mystery constitute our redemption, God’s claiming us back for himself.

Claiming back from what? Eternal death as the inevitable result of our sins. Claiming back from whom? There is a strong element of the tradition that would say the Devil, by whose influence and temptation we first sinned. But more deeply we are being redeemed from our own hopeless self-government, our inability to live the good life as we want to do, as we should do, as God has made us to do. We are being redeemed from ourselves. Redemption offers us the only sure hope of salvation, eternal life with God, which is what we were made for, and makes sense of the mystery of our existence…

The name of this Mass reminds us of a truth too often forgotten today. The Mass is more than a re-enactment of the Last Supper. Only tonight is that aspect really emphasized. The Mass is first and foremost, above all and essentially, a sacrifice. It is the memorial of Christ’s self-sacrifice, of his body and life, for us and our salvation, on the Cross. Tonight Christ bequeaths us his sacrificial body sacramentally, veiled in bread and wine. The ancient principle was that those who offered a sacrifice then received the fruits and benefit of the sacrifice by consuming some of what had been sacrificed, as a way of being united with the sacrifice. It is the same principle in the Mass: Christ calls us to offer with him his self-sacrifice, to be united with and in it by consuming what was sacrificed, his body and blood. By using bread and wine as the outer veil for the inner reality we are able to partake of Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross time after time, and again and again. The Mass, therefore, is a memorial of the Cross, not of itself.

But why did our Lord choose bread and wine as the veil for his body and blood? Both bread and wine are able to symbolize a multitude of people being unified, through suffering, to form a new creation. Bread is the new creation of many grains of wheat being ground and crushed in a mill and baked in a furnace. Wine is the new creation of many grapes being crushed underfoot and laid for some time in the coffin of the case in the dark tomb of the cellar. By Christ’s death and resurrection he makes a multitude of people, through his sacrificial body and blood veiled by what appears as bread and wine, into a new creation, into his body the Church, the community of salvation, made fit for heaven.

To enable all this, Christ did two other things in the upper room on that first Maundy Thursday. He ordained the first priests—the apostles—to be the ministers of this new but eternal sacrifice. He sets them apart to offer the new Passover sacrifice for the benefit of all disciples, whenever and wherever they may be. Secondly, he showed that the essence of this new sacrifice is that it is a self-sacrifice. We are not offering lambs anymore; we are co-offering Christ’s self-sacrifice. We do it in two vital and necessary ways: we offer the bread and wine to become Christ’s body and blood offered on the Cross—that is the sacramental way. But there is also what we might call an existential way, a daily-life way: by giving ourselves, sacrificing ourselves, in service of our neighbour, obeying the new commandment to love our neighbour as Christ loves us. 

That is what Christ’s washing of the apostles’ feet is all about. Christians share in Christ’s redemptive self-sacrifice both by the sacrament and by our way of life. Life and sacrament cannot be isolated and compartmentalized; they form a unity. That is why the Church warns those who are in unreconciled serious sin not to receive the Lord’s Body; they need to restore the communion between their living and their faith before they can ever contribute to or benefit from communion with the Lord in his Body.

So this Mass of the Lord’s Supper tonight is indeed a thanksgiving: giving thanks for the self-sacrifice of Christ for us on the Cross; giving thanks for allowing us to share in his saving sacrifice through the gift of the Eucharist; giving thanks for endowing the Church with priestly ministers to enable this sharing in the Eucharist till the end of time; and giving thanks that Christ has left us a simple, if rarely easy, way of living in unity with his sacrifice, by our acts of love.

[For various reasons] it was agreed in planning not to include the option of the washing of the feet this year. In its place, let us take a moment to identify those whose feet we need metaphorically to wash, those before whom we need to humble ourselves, those whose forgiveness we need to receive, those who need to receive our forgiveness, those for whom we need to do more by acts of love, self-sacrificial, painful but healing love. Let us in silence call them to mind, pray for them and resolve to find some way soon to “wash their feet.”

There was too little time today, and now I have too little energy, to write a reflection for today’s high feast. So, for your penance and to assist your increase in merit, I inflict upon you the bulk of the homily pretty much as I inflicted upon the parishioners of Scarisbrick tonight. If something in it helps you, Deo gratias.

A blessed Triduum to you all!

Detail of the Maundy chasuble at St Elizabeth’s, Scarisbrick.

Fathoming the Cross: the Reason for the Season

Have we greatly sinned?

In the series here of Missal Moments on the new Missal now in place for Roman-Rite (Ordinary Form) Catholics, so far the revised Confiteor has not been dealt with separately. At some of the talks I have given on it, and also at other times, some people have objected to the new version, with its “I have greatly sinned… through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault”. Of course, the new translation is merely reflecting the Latin original, which was lost in the previous Missal. These people, of course, then say they object to the Latin original. “My sins are no worse than most others, I am no Hitler. And while I may sometimes be at fault, it is hardly ‘most grievous’. This renewed emphasis on sin will just bring back the old, bad Catholic guilt complex”. This is a pretty accurate summary of what I have heard. So it was refreshing to see someone else notice this trend, see its subtle but dangerous error, and address it. Rather than repeat what John Jalsevac says, do go and read his article here. In sum, he talks about the self-description of the objectors as something akin to ‘I am basically a decent chap, not a grievous sinner. I am nowhere near as bad as the Hitlers of this world’. But Jalsevac spots the error in this thinking quite clearly:

The problem, of course, is that we are usually measuring ourselves against the wrong standard. Mostly we are measuring ourselves against the standard of our neighbour, which, in practice, mostly means that we are carefully analyzing and archiving our neighbour’s every fault and foible, and, with any time left, busily thinking up compelling excuses for all of our own. However, not only is any sense of superiority engendered by such a comparison almost universally wrong and based upon deceptive appearances, it is of practically no value. If the goal is for our souls become white, is there much point in saying, “Well, thank God my soul is marginally less black than that of the next fellow”? It may or may not be true that our soul is less black, but it is still black, and a long way from the white that it is supposed to be. If we want to be white, then, we need to compare ourselves against a standard of absolute white. In the moral life, this means that we must compare ourselves to a standard of perfect love. Most of us find this an extremely disturbing thought. Deep down most of us sincerely believe that the goal of life is just to be a little better than our neighbour, and to slip into heaven on the strength of a sort of divine Bell Curve. But we aren’t called simply to be better than our neighbour, we are called to become Godlike. We are called to be perfect, “as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

The Pharisee and the Publican

Ouch! He hits the nail square on the head. Many of us can easily fall into the mode of the pharisee who said to himself having spied the despised publican “I thank Thee, Lord, that I am not like other men” (Luke 18:11). But we are all too much like other people, and too little like God in whose image we are made and whose likeness we are called to manifest. Instead, Jalsevac argues, we need to recover both a proper sense of sin and a proper sense of the holiness to which we are called in our Baptism. We need to compare ourselves to Christ, not our neighbour, for Christ is the measure of true humanity. Jalsevac concludes by recalling the …

“… persistent, life-long, inner murmur of spite, jealousy, prurience, greed and self-complacence” that Lewis speaks of. This is something that, if you’re honest with yourself, you will find weaves its way in and out of your every thought and every action, continually perverting your every effort at living authentic love un-poisoned by the dross of self-serving. More often than not it reveals itself not in the thoughts we have or the things we do, but in the thoughts we don’t have, and the things we don’t do. Particularly in the fact that, despite being offered a million chances, we still haven’t begun to take God and his demands seriously, instead relegating God to the periphery of our lives, giving him a token nod from time to time, repeatedly rejecting His invitation to holiness for a fleeting and adulterous affair with his lesser creations. It seems to me that until we come to this realization – that we are, indeed, “grievous” sinners – we cannot even begin to live the spiritual life and make progress towards holiness.  And thus I am grateful for the new Mass translation for providing the regular reminder that, indeed, I am a wretch, and in enormous need of the gratuitous mercy of God.

And this brings us to the point that needs to be made regarding this sacred time of the Triduum, wherein the Paschal Mystery is commemorated, and wherein the Church becomes a witness to that divine drama which, though concluded in time, abides forever in eternity. [For it is only in the Church’s liturgy that God enables us to look on in Gethsamene’s garden, sit at table in the upper room, walk the Via Dolorosa behind Christ, stand silenced at Golgotha and dumbfounded at the empty tomb.] So as we make this liturgical journey we might ask, as has been asked before, why? Why this way to redeem us? Indeed, why redemption at all?

Why Redemption?

Taking the latter question first, the short answer is sin. It started with the sin of Adam and Eve, who initiated in humanity its persistent choice of self before God, self-will before God’s will. And so, ever after, “all have sinned and fall(en) short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). Humanity was powerless to extricate itself from its predicament, namely a slavery to self and so to sin, which could only end in death. Having forsaken God’s gifts, only God could restore them. As St Paul says:

Therefore, … sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned… [yet] if many died through one man’s trespass, much more have the grace of God and the free gift by the grace of that one man Jesus Christ abounded for many. [Romans 5:12,15]

The grace of God is that supreme gift of God to which we know have access through Christ. Grace is the gift of God’s own life, a gift which does not remove death from human destiny, but transforms it into something far greater than the life humanity enjoyed in its original paradise.

Crucifix, Douai Abbey Church

Why Redemption by the Cross?

Which brings us to God’s choice of this particular way to redeem us – sending his Son to die our death so that we might have His life. God, theoretically, could have waved his hand and made it “all right”. Yet to do so would have destroyed one of his greatest gifts to us, something that is essential to human nature: our free will. God has not made us to be his playthings; he has made us in his image in order to bear his likeness, and share in his life. Love overflows beyond itself to another; love shares itself with another; love gives itself to another. Love is a moving from self to another, for the sake of the other. Love requires freedom.

That does not mean that God needed us, of course. In His Trinity God is the perfect community of love, a love so perfect, pure and unsullied that the three Persons who share it are so intimately united as to be one. The Father loves the Son, and the Son the Father, and their mutual love is so perfect that it becomes a Person, the Holy Spirit. God does not need anyone else in order to love.

Which makes our creation all the more breathtaking. God created us not because he needed to, but because he wanted to. Humanity having chosen itself before him (how could we have done so!?), God did not abandon us to ourselves but seized the opportunity to show us the richness of the love we turned away from. In the Son, God empties Himself to the point of living our life, though he had no need to. That is self-sacrifice. In response the Son, being truly human though ever a divine person, offered his human life in our place to the Father, to pay the dues of death once and for all. That is self-sacrifice; that is love.

What Christ did in his human nature has changed all human nature forever. For he has made it capable of sharing the life of God, by sharing in his life, becoming one with him. This was something Adam and Eve were never offered. We share in Christ’s life and become like him in two ways, both of which are essential to the Paschal Mystery, and explain its purpose.

First, we share in Christ’s death, so that our human death might end in life. How? Through Baptism:

Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.

For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. For one who has died has been set free from sin. Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. For the death he died he died to sin, once for all, but the life he lives he lives to God. So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus. [Romans 6:3-11]

Sharing Christ’s death is the means for our sharing God’s life, and Baptism in faith is the means by which we are enabled to share in both. Baptism unites us to Christ in his Body, the Church, the community of faith.

Secondly, we share Christ’s life and become one with Christ in the Church, by using his gift of grace to do as he did. The disciple is not greater than the Master; as he has done, so must we. Christ in the suffering of his self-sacrifice left us an example, as St Peter says – “Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps” (1 Peter 2:21). All of Christ’s life has meaning for us, as it is the expression of the same self-sacrifice that we see at its zenith in the Paschal Mystery, the Passion and the Cross. In his forgiveness of others, and his turning the other cheek, he sacrificed his divine prerogative of justice and instead granted mercy. In his washing of the disciples’ feet, a slave’s work, he sacrificed his status as God’s Son that we might share in it ourselves. He treats humankind as we should treat Him! Finally, He laid down his life for us, that we might be his friends. But there is a catch, a necessary step in becoming his friends – we must do as He did:

Greater love has no one than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. (John 15:13)

You are if you do. We are one with Him if we do as He did. The self-sacrifice of the Cross is both our example, and the means by which we can follow that example. By living that love we become one with Love. That is why God chose the Incarnation, and the Cross which is its crown. The Paschal Mystery enables us to choose love, and so choose God, in freedom.

Rembrandt's Return of the Prodigal SonSo perhaps we do better not to minimise sin, which is the abuse of our freedom, the choice of self first. Every day we make a myriad of small choices for self and against others, and against God. Each time we do so we drift further away from Christ, who is the true measure of what it is to be human and to be a friend of God. We have greatly sinned, even if we do not feel it; especially Christians, who know better and whose guilt therefore is the greater. Let us empty ourselves of pride and acknowledge our sin, for the measure by which we repent is the measure by which we shall be forgiven. A niggardly repentance will bring the reward it deserves, in fact, the reward it asks for. Let us not minimise the redemption Christ has won for us.

Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows;
yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted.
But he was pierced for our transgressions;
he was crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace,
and with his wounds we are healed.
All we like sheep have gone astray;
we have turned—every one—to his own way;
and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all.
(Isaiah 53:4-6)

A blessed Triduum to all!