Thursday evening of Holy Week: Holy Thursday. Maundy Thursday. The moment when the liturgy recalls the mandatum of Jesus in the fourth Gospel. To paraphrase, “Do you know what I have done? I who am master and Lord have watched your feet. I have given you an example. As I have done, so you must do for each other.”
Do we know what he has done?
Perhaps partially, if at all. He has served, yes. But in doing so in this particular way, at this particular moment on the way to his death, he has revealed the very heart of God as a a heart of service. He has introduced God as One who wills to bend down before the other, to hold, to embrace, to wash and dry, to do whatever is needed. Whatever is needed for the sake of love.
This evening I went to pray at an evening Eucharist nearby. The homilist directed our attention to feet. Oft overlooked (no pun intended) they tell the story of who we are, of where we’ve been, and (in the path of the steps behind us) they tell what is important to us, what counts for us, where we have had the energy and the will to go. The two priests of the parish came into the assembly, got down on the floor, and washed the feet of all who came forward, of almost all who were there. Gently. In silence. With respect for the story told by the feet of each sojourner who stepped forward.
I love this night, with a special love. I always have, as long as I remember. This evening I recall Holy Thursday at dear Sacred Heart Parish in Lynn. I believe the night I picture in my mind now was either in 2003 or ’04. Two winters before, a frigid killing winter, we found Tommy. He was living in a car up the street. He was wrapped in blankets. He was cold, very cold. He wasn’t eating right. He didn’t have the medication he needed. He didn’t have the daily reminders of the love we all need. He was often drunk. He had a heart of gold.
Over the year and a half we had known him at Sacred Heart, Tommy came and went. He sometimes helped out at the Food Pantry on Thursdays. He would offer to do odd jobs. Sometimes he was sober for weeks at a time and stood taller and walked stronger and told stories about his childhood and growing up, and about his dad the fire chief. Other times he was very low, dragging himself to the door; hungry but not knowing it; lonely, but it couldn’t be admitted. The hole was too deep and dark.
But this one year I thought: Tommy should be asked if he will be one of those having their feet washed at the evening Mass of the Lord’s Supper on Holy Thursday. We were asking twelve. I thought, ‘Tommy should be one of those twelve.’ I was thinking: ‘he’s become part of this community. He’s not perfect, Sometimes he’s radically imperfect. But hell, he’s only showing out loud what is true of every one of us here. Including the priests.’ So I asked. And he said yes.
Holy Thursday evening came. And so did Tommy. I wasn’t sure he would show up. It depended on a bunch of factors coming together just right. And they did. I think the English word for such a moment is: God. We came to the point in the liturgy for the washing of feet. Tommy moved up with the others and sat down. He took his shoes off, the best ones he could find. As I was privileged to do with the others, I poured warm water over his feet into a basin. I wiped them dry. I kissed them. I looked into his eyes. He was smiling. He was smiling like nothing had ever gone wrong for a single moment his whole life long. I think there’s a word in English, and every other language, for moments like that. I think you know what that word is.
In the 13th chapter of the Gospel according to John, it is Jesus who washed his disciples’ feet. Peter first protests, and then insists. The others, it seems, went along. Judas was there among them. Jesus washed his feet as well. With a special knowledge, but still with the very same love.
I was thinking on that evening ten years ago, and ever since, and again tonight: when you today as priest kneel down in front of men and women and do what Jesus did; when you hold their feet gently, when you look into their eyes, you are the disciple. That night, when I looked up into Tommy’s eyes as I dried his feet? I was looking at Christ. I was looking into the eyes of Jesus. Jesus struggling. Jesus suffering. Jesus trying. Jesus loving.
Saint Augustine, the amazing North African bishop long ago said it this way:
“If you want to understand the body of Christ, listen to what the apostle Paul says to the faithful: ‘You are Christ’s own body, his members’; thus, it is your own mystery which is
placed on the Lord’s table. It is your own mystery that you receive. At communion, the priest says: ‘The body of Christ,’ and you reply ‘Amen.’ When you say ‘Amen,’ you are saying yes to what you are.”
It was true before he said it and it is still true. But he said it so beautifully.
So did Saint John Chrysostom, who warned us sternly to care for Christ first on the streets, in the squares, lying in the gutters, and then after inside the church building. Chrysostom preached: “The temple of our afflicted neighbor’s body is more holy than the altar of stone on which you celebrate the holy sacrifice. You are able to contemplate this altar everywhere, in the street and in the open squares.”
During the distribution of the Eucharist tonight, as each one affirmed that here was present the Body of Christ and the Bread of Heaven, we sang the hymn Where Charity and Love Prevail. The tune was different than the one I learned as a boy at Saint John’s Parish by the water in Swampscott, on the north shore of Boston. But the lyrics remain the same. And the things that remain the same are rock-solid, damn-that’s- good-count-on-this foundational.
Remember the last couple of verses?
“Let us recall that in our midst dwells God’s begotten Son; As members of his body joined, we are in Christ made one.
No race or creed can love exclude, if honored be God’s name; Our family embraces all whose Father is the same.”
That is saving truth, given us to live. This night and every night. There are feet to be washed on any given evening. And Jesus to be found.
Tommy, thank you, on this Thursday evening when you are alive to me again. And rest in peace, dear brother.