Summary: What are the washings that God has as gift for us?
Maundy Thursday 2015
With what are we washed, followers of Christ? The first physical sign of an impending birth is a rushing of waters from the mother’s womb, as the sac that encloses the infant ruptures. That is one reason that water is connected with birth, and why it is most fitting that when we are baptized, it is in water. Jesus taught that unless we are born again–born from above--by water and the Holy Spirit, we will not enter into the kingdom of God. Saint Peter tells us that we are washed in the waters of regeneration. So in just two days, the catechumens of the Church, thousands in number, will walk down into the baptismal font and experience the rebirth that Jesus promised, as water is poured over their heads by the ministers of Christ. Baptized, soaked, marinated in water and the Holy Spirit, dead to self and alive in Christ.
Tomorrow we will be reminded of the price of that rebirth. Jesus Christ, God and man, died on Good Friday, almost two thousand years ago. As he hung dead on the cross, after giving us His Mother, Mary, as our mother, a soldier took a weapon and pierced His side, opened His heart, and St. John, an eyewitness, tells us that blood and water poured out. That is the Calvary birth of the Church from the heart of Christ. His death is the sign of God’s love, the primal sacrament that gives us the Eucharist in blood, and baptism in water. So we are washed in the water that pours from the infinitely generous heart of Christ, and nourished by His Blood as we take communion under the signs of bread and wine. That is why St. Paul reminds us tonight that our sharing in the bread and cup is a proclamation of the enduring reality of Christ’s saving death until He comes again in glory. And, in the part of the letter to Corinth that was not read, Paul reminds us that if we eat and drink unworthily–in serious sin–we eat and drink to our own condemnation. So we must confess serious sin before ever taking communion.
But there is another washing that St. John recommends to us–in fact, commands us to do–and that is why we have the Mandatum ceremony after the homily today. We are to wash each others’ feet. The first century city or town did not have concrete or asphalt roads and alleys. At best, there were muddy trails full of dirt and worse. Horses and oxen and donkeys left their waste in the road. Walking, even with sandals, was an exercise in filth-avoidance, and nobody could avoid it unless wealthy enough to ride in a sedan chair carried by slaves. So a slave would be at every home with a bath of water for the guests’ feet, and would wash, dry and anoint them as they arrived. Jesus took this role on Himself at the Last Supper. St. John never forgot it, and since John had already written in his Gospel, chapter 6, about the Eucharist, he used the Last Supper scene to talk about service. Slave service. St. Paul taught that Jesus, coming into the world, took the role of a slave, emptying Himself for us. St. John shows us Jesus acting as a slave, washing the feet of His disciples, and commanding them to do the same for each other.
Now today we have paved streets and gasoline engines and all the things that keep our feet from getting filthy, so washing feet is symbolic language. But symbolic of what today?
I believe that when we wash feet today, it is symbolic of our desire to get down into the swamp with suffering humanity, and help to keep them human. And not just feed the hungry and clothe the naked and give shelter to the homeless, so that their human dignity is honored and preserved. No, we must do what we can to raise them up to divine status, as God intended in the beginning. That’s why the spiritual works of mercy are also critical requirements of the disciple. We must instruct the ignorant, that’s why we always need catechists. We must counsel the doubtful. We must warn the evildoer and pray for the living and the dead, and all the rest. God became human to make humans divine, to give us an adopted filiation, union with the Blessed Trinity. So our servant task is to help others in their physical and moral and spiritual needs to become all that God wants them to be. And by doing that, in union with Christ, we will become what God wants us to be–sons and daughters of the Most High.