Given at the Solemn Mass of the Lord's Supper at Westminster Cathedral on 24 March 2016.
This evening’s ceremony and the events it celebrates have a lovely homely feel to them. We are in the inner circle of Jesus’ friends. We are among those whom he trusts with his most precious gift and message. We are privileged to be here, privileged to have been given the gift of our Catholic faith.
This evening, and throughout Holy Week, Jesus is being lifted before us, held before us so that we can see him afresh and be formed afresh as his disciples. We remember his words: ‘As Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert, so must the Son of Man be lifted up so that all who believe in him may have eternal life’ (John 3.14).
This evening we see Jesus lifted up before us as the one who bends down to wash his disciples’ feet. This is an action which is so eloquent. It is, perhaps, the perfect Instagram. It says so much.
Today we can read it as a vivid picture of mercy in action. Jesus, we know, is the face of the Father’s mercy, the one who brings to us, to each one of us, the unending mercy of the Father. And here he shows us just what mercy in action looks like. This we can understand and imitate.
Here is the Lord and Master, reaching out to those in need, in need of recognition, of forgiveness, of encouragement. Here is an action of service offered without distinction, including the one who is to betray him, including those who will shortly abandon him. No one is outside this embrace.
This is a masterplan for all that we do, whether at home, at work, in our friendships or our public life. We are to do everything with a strong element of service running through it. Role, status, occupation, it doesn’t matter. Her Majesty the Queen gives us a great example of selfless service. Business runs best when it has a dimension of service at its core. Work tasks become more satisfying when we know there is an element of service in them. Pope Benedict spoke of this when he said that in all our enterprises there is an element of gratuity, something that is actually readily given, beyond the terms of a contract, beyond the minimum, something given because we are fellow human beings. This gratuity is what makes interactions worthwhile.
Here, Jesus, in this simple gesture, spells that out. Sheer selfishness does not pay and does not satisfy. The pathway of fulfilment is the way of service. This evening we try to grasp that again, with this simple gesture of the washing of the feet.
But another story has been told this evening, too. It weaves in and out of this washing of the feet. St Paul tells us the deeper meaning of all that is taking place within this circle of the friends of Jesus. He tells us that on this very same occasion, ‘the night before he was betrayed,’ Jesus took some bread, blest it and broke it and said: ‘This is my body which is for you.’ We also hear that he took a cup of wine and said, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this as a memorial of me.’
The washing of the feet and the giving of the Eucharist are inseparable, if each is to be fully understood. Our service, one to another, finds its source and inspiration in the act of total self-giving which is Jesus’ death on the Cross. And that death, and the triumph of his resurrection, is made constantly present to us in the Eucharist. For as St Paul has said, ‘Every time you eat this bread and drink this cup, you are proclaiming his death.’
The Lord lifted up before us for our imitation in the washing of the feet is the same Lord who comes to us, in his life-giving death and resurrection, in the Eucharist we celebrate and the Holy Communion we share. So we have to recognise that without practising the service Jesus shows us, we fail to fulfil the Eucharist we receive. Without our many works of service leading us to the Cross of Jesus and the Eucharistic heart of that service, we fail to understand the deepest meaning of the service we give.
The Jesus lifted up before us this evening is the Master who offers freely given service; he is the King who gives his life on the Cross and he is the Eternal Word who remains with us always in the Eucharist, giving us a new life and love that we may lavish on each other and so bring his mercy and comfort to our troubled world.