April 18, 2019
Gen 22: 1-18; Ex 12: 1-14; Prov. 9: 1-6. 10-11; Cor 11: 23-26; Jn 13: 1-15
Beloved in Christ,
We are gathered together for a solemn memorial of the Paschal Feast, in which, in a mysterious but tangible manner, the Lord Jesus communicates the total gift of Himself to us, gives us the gift of His life, makes us sharers in His Resurrection. In this celebration, He removes His garments, wears servant’s clothes, kneels at our feet and begins to wash them. It is not merely a good work, a demonstration of humility. The apostle Paul tells there is a great mystery in these gestures, a sublime reality: the stripping of the Eternal Word of His glory to assume the weakness of our imperfect humanity and raise it to the heights of the divine life: “he did not regard equality with God something to be grasped, but emptied himself… found in appearance as a man… humbled himself, becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross” (Phil 2:6.7.8).
We do not need a particularly sensitive heart or a remarkably strong capacity for imagination to be deeply moved, almost scandalized by so much love, by a love that goes to the end, without hesitation.
This year, with all of you, I would like to rediscover the astonishment, almost the scandal vis-a-vis Christ, Who, in the water for the washing of feet, in the bread and wine for the Eucharist, and in entrusting His grace to our priestly ministry, He delivers Himself into our hands and lets Himself be nailed to the cross for our sin.
In this celebration, along with you, I would like to sit next to Peter and ask him: “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?” (Jn 13: 6).
This is not sentimental fiction or superficial devotion. If we are honest with ourselves, we must recognize that Peter’s initial spontaneous misunderstanding, which goes so far as rejection, is also ours.
“What I am doing, you do not understand now” (13:7). This “now” continues for us. We live in times where the fear of the other, the rejection of fraternity, the return to an individualistic conception of life and also of faith characterize our daily life. With Peter, we labor under the illusion that, to live or survive, we must find space for ourselves not to make room for others; that the affirmation of our identity comes before the relationship with those around us. Sometimes, even for us priests, the ministry is confused with the exercise of power, even abuse, as we have too sadly seen in these times, rather than with service to people’s lives. More than serving the Gospel, we may use the Gospel for ourselves and our interests. We have been asked to lose our lives for Christ, and perhaps, sometimes, we have preferred to lose Christ to preserve our life.
“Unless I wash you, you will have no inheritance with me” (13:8). Being with Christ, finding true life, passes through grace and the challenge of fraternity, or rather friendship. On the last night of His life, the Lord Jesus does not merely give us a good example but shows us the logic of real life. To live is to open up, to bend down, to give oneself to the other. If we want to save this world of ours, we need to move from fear to trust, from the ideology of borders, from a rejection of others, from the enemy to the culture of relationship. To lean, therefore, towards the other, but also to lift him up, in a perspective of friendship and love. The Master, today, reminds us of this.
Here in the Holy Land, in our Diocese, we feel the Jesus’ invitation, which defines our way of being the church to be particularly relevant, in this part of our world: being a fraternity according to the model of Christ. Jesus shows us the face of God: “He who has seen me has seen the Father” (Jn 14: 9). In Him, we are children of one Father, and therefore we feel and want to build our relationships as brothers: among people of different nations, cultures, and religions. Without Christ, our projects will not have consistency and perspective. And we are not speaking here of a generic Christ, but of that Master who on the eve of His Passion washes the feet of His disciples. From that gesture, the Christian learns the meaning of fraternity.
Being Christians, being priests, being men and women of Pascha means sharing with Christ the art of giving oneself, of opening oneself, of bending down before the other without bowing to partisan interests. Christian love is not a passing feeling, but a divine command to go out of self to the other, on a journey with no returning to self. That is our true Paschal exodus: emerging from our individualistic prisons, from slavery to our fears, from our selfish inhibitions, towards the authentic promised land of encounter, of the hospitality of gift. The other, the one who is different, is not a threat, but an invitation to love, an opportunity to serve, an occasion of witness.
“You will understand later” (13.7). The “later” referred to by Jesus is the hour of the Paschal Cross, the time when the Resurrection will reveal the fruitfulness of a life spent, almost wasted through love. Here, in this holy and evocative celebration, we are in the “later” of Jesus. The light and grace of His Pasch which has already happened once and for all envelop us. We are the ones who believed in love, who have already delivered our lives to the Crucified and Risen Christ, conformed to Him in faith and sacraments. And yet, we also experience the fatigue of the “later” of history, in which Easter awaits its fulfillment. We will then always have to learn again, with and thanks to Peter, the wisdom of the Cross.
We must first accept the gesture of Christ. We do not become brothers if we do not recognize common fatherhood, if we do not accept the family to which we belong. I feel therefore the need to invite all of us to look upwards to God the Father of all. I believe we should all listen to the Word of Christ who calls us friends.
I am convinced that our belonging to the Church cannot be reduced to an identity issue but must become a community passion, a project of communion, a fraternal life. For this, we need a contemplative gaze that knows how to go beyond differences, hatred, parochialism to grasp the unique vocation, the same baptism, the common destiny. We all have to pray more and, with Peter, let ourselves be persuaded by the Lord to wash our feet as He did his. We all must celebrate better with faith and devotion the mysteries that this liturgy puts back in our hands, through the sign of the Chrism and the holy oils. We must let ourselves be welcomed by Him, accept to be served by Him and only “later” will we be able to bend down before others. If we do not want our witness to be reduced to philanthropy, we must renew every day our faith, grateful to Him and His Easter victory. Indeed, the true service that saves is the fruit of faith, a surprised response to a gift received, in which our gratitude corresponds to His gratuitousness. We are and remain “second” to Him, we come “after” Him.
Then, we must be converted to the thinking of Christ. In this locality, where Peter’s Paschal adventure began, we will first have to recognize our little faith, our effort to accept the logic of Christ and decide for Him. Today, for us priests, the renewal of priestly promises and, during the Easter Vigil for everyone renewing baptismal promises can be our return to Christ. Simon Peter said to Him, “Lord, not only my feet but also my hands and my head!” (13.9). With Peter, we can go from lack of understanding to enthusiastic acceptance, to become in our weakness, each according to his condition and vocation, a cause and visible foundation of communion and fraternity.
+ Pierbattista Pizzaballa
To see the photos of the Maundy Thursday Mass, please click here.