Homilies,  Year B

Holy Thursday 2021

Sometimes a throw away line strikes us to the core of our hearts, and we remember it for the rest of our life.  Such was my own experience when I once heard an old shearer from outback Queensland remark in an interview with Caroline Jones, “Nothing perfect is every beautiful.”

It was a remarkable statement which in its very simplicity spoke of an unmistakable wisdom and humanity.  A statement of remarkable acceptance, it undid a certain instinct in me that at the time demanded perfection in both myself and others.  A few words changed what I thought about beauty and what I thought about perfection.  I have not thought about either beauty or perfection in the same way since.

As those few words dramatically changed my own perspective on life, the gesture of Jesus which we have just recounted changes forever the disciples’ understanding of Jesus. A simple gesture.  But a revolutionary one.  And not only did it revolutionise the first disciples’ understanding of their friend, but through them the entire human understanding of God has been revolutionised. This simple gesture of foot washing has changed forever the perspective we have of God. In a few simple, unexpected moments our human understanding of God has been turned upside down.  It has changed forever.  We can never think of God in the same way again.

On this evening we commemorate what one commentator, Beatrice Bruteau describes as the “Holy Thursday Revolution.”[1]  Deep inside us there is the instinct that expects God to be part of the logic of domination and submission and that expects our relationship with God to be one in the pattern of master and servant. In a simple gesture, Jesus subverts this expectation.  He revolutionises the human expectation of God to be Lord and Master.  The late Cardinal Martini, formerly archbishop of Milan, would remark that, “conversion is a change in our image of God.” In recounting this gesture, we are invited into the deepest of conversions. 

This gesture shows forth a God who wishes to serve us rather than be the master of us. It invites us to surrender an instinctive, inadequate imagination about God.  It invites us to receive a radical, totally unexpected imagination about God.  Tonight, our instinctive image of God as the dominant Master or as the Sovereign Lord is shattered.  Now, in Jesus, God is the Humble One, the One of unexpected Service.

And why?  If God has become as servant to us, and if God, in Jesus, wishes to be remembered by us in this way, it is that we might assume the heart of a servant to one another.  It is that we might surrender our own instinct for domination in regard to one another.  

“We are all familiar with domination. We see it in the way decisions are made in our families; in the way orders are given at work; in the way social life is structured in our city by gender, race and wealth; in the way our industry or profession relates to its competitors or its market or its clientele; in the way governmental agencies function; and in international relations, economic, political and military. We speak colloquially of the top-dog and the underdog, of getting top-drawer service and being low [one] on the totem pole, of who wears the pants, and who calls the shots.”[2]

Peter is caught in this logic. He pulls back from the revolution that Jesus is envisaging by the reversal of roles Jesus enacts in this gesture of foot washing.  Peter’s reaction reflects his anxiety, 

“If the Lord washes my feet, how shall we be governed?  Whom shall we honour and how?  How can we run the world unless some have power and others obey?  How will this affect families?  Businesses?  It’s too disorienting.  I would have to readjust all my relationships, all my values, all my attitudes.”[3]

Yes, we would.  And Jesus responds to Peter – and to us – further, 

“We have been living in a world organised in terms of lords and servants.  What I have just shown you is what I think of lordship.  When the ‘lord’ acts as a ‘servant,’ then being a ‘lord’ or a ‘servant’ doesn’t mean anything anymore . . . What I have done is destroy that whole concept . . . We are friends, all equal.  Everything I have done you can do as well. . . Sharing my life with you has been my love for you . . .  Do you see how it is?  That a friend’s life lives inside you? And you live in your friend? It’s that kind of love. . . “

“Let me show you another sign to make this clear.  Here is bread. . . If I break it, so, and give it to you . . . it will become you.  What was my body will by your body.  Do you see?  My life is given to nourish your life, to make you live more fully.”

“Let us do it with the wine too. . .  It is s single cup; share it among you.  It is a common life among us all.  Now you must do the same . . . You also share your lives with one another, feed each other with your very bodies and souls, lay down your lives for each other, dwell in one another.”[4]

Jesus is saying to us, “As I am ready to be servant to you, be servants of one another.  As I am ready to be food for you, be food for one another.  In this way, and only in this way, will the world really begin to change.”

Thus, the simple, unexpected gesture of foot-washing inaugurates the most profound revolution – a revolution in the way we are understand God’s way of being with us, a revolution in the way we are to be with one another.

[1] See Beatrice Bruteau, The Holy Thursday Revolution, (Maryknoll, New York:  Orbis Books, 2005).

[2] Bruteau, The Holy Thursday Revolution, 7.

[3] Bruteau, The Holy Thursday Revolution, 59.

[4] Bruteau, The Holy Thursday Revolution, 59-60.

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