Given on Maundy Thursday, 17 April 2014, at Westminster Cathedral
This evening we begin our celebration of the Sacred Triduum, these three most holy days, in which we recall all the events of our salvation. These are days in which, through the power of the Holy Spirit, we come to participate in these events and to share again in their supreme fruit: the forgiveness of our sins and the gift of our eternal salvation.
We approach these moments with great joy, as Pope Francis asks us to, for here, in his words, we are again 'accepting the Lord's offer of salvation' and 'are set free from sin, inner emptiness and loneliness.'
During these next three days, I will take as a guide to my words, what Pope Francis has to say about us as missionary disciples, a people called to share in the missionary work of our Lord himself. The Holy Father says that we are to be a people who wish to share the joy they find in knowing the Lord; a people who point to a horizon of beauty and, thirdly, a people who invite others to a delicious banquet (Evangelii Gaudium 15).
This evening we reflect on our joy in knowing Christ Jesus as our Lord, a joy to be shared with others. Tomorrow, on Good Friday, we shall ponder this 'horizon of beauty' which he opens for us. And in our celebrations of Easter Day we shall rejoice in the delicious banquet to which all people are invited.
As we celebrate this Mass of the Lord's Supper, what is it that we learn about him which moves us so joyfully to want to share with others?
The Gospel passage tells us so much.
In washing his disciples' feet, an action which we echo here in a few moments, we read that Jesus is poised between good and evil. We read that, on the one hand, 'Jesus knew the Father had put everything into his hands.' He trusted his Father entirely. This is one of the most precious things we learn about Jesus and from him: that God is our loving Father, that our lives are in his hands, and that we can trust him entirely, even with our very life-blood. This is indeed worth sharing with others.
And on the other hand, Jesus also knows that 'the devil had already put it into the mind of Judas Iscariot to betray him.' Jesus knows the reality of evil. It is present at his table. He looks it in the eye. This too is important knowledge, for when we understand this truth about Jesus then we can begin to become free of our own fear of evil, of its presence in our lives, in our own hearts, perhaps at our own table, too.
Jesus, at this moment, is poised between his loving trust in his Heavenly Father and the presence of evil that seeks to betray and destroy him.
What does he do?
We read that he takes off his formal clothing, wraps a towel, servants' wear, around his waist, gets down on his knees and washes feet. This is how Jesus responds. This is what he teaches us to do, in loving trust of our Father, even in the face of wrong-doing, suspicion, judgement and condemnation. 'If I, your Lord and Master, have washed your feet, you should wash each others' feet. I have given you an example so that you may copy what I have done to you.'
Now we look for the inner meaning of these actions of our Lord. What exactly has he done? What is it that we learn of him that gives us such joy so that we want to share it with others?
This is what we learn. In washing his disciples' feet, Jesus gives us not only an example of service but also an experience of being forgiven. This washing teaches us to put aside the great obstacle of our pride and also to be ready to receive from Jesus the liberating gift of his mercy.
We do not serve out of guilt craving forgiveness. Rather we serve out of joy, knowing that we have been set free. Nor do we seek forgiveness as humiliated servants. Rather, like Peter, we glimpse that we are so beloved of the Lord that we want to be washed clean all over, for his sake.
Forgiveness and service. These are powerfully present in the heart of Jesus, and when we come to know and love his heart, then we too learn to have these same gifts to give to others. When we are close to him, we cry out with joy that he may wash us clean, removing from our inner clothing, from our hearts, the stain of our wrong-doing that so often disfigures our goodness. When we are close to him, we too are willing to lay aside the robe of our pride and offer humble service to those in need, especially those we have offended, those even of whom we are afraid.
This is the joy of knowing the Lord. It brings into our lives the liberation from so many of our burdens: from our sense of unworthiness, from consciousness of our evil; from the fear of evil that can touch our lives. Knowing the Lord brings to us a sure knowledge of how to act, how to behave in so many difficult circumstances. With the help of his grace we are to do as he has taught us. We are to forgive and to serve.
On this night, we are led by the Lord to the delicious banquet of his Eucharist. The pathway is by way of his forgiveness and humble service. Once we know this truth, this inner secret of our blessed Lord, his gift of life to us, then indeed, in the words of Pope Francis, we are a people who wish to share with others our joy in knowing Christ Jesus our Lord.
'Grant, we pray, O God, that we may draw from so great a mystery the fullness of charity and life. Through Christ our Lord. Amen'