Holy Thursday: Evening Mass of the Lord’s Supper

Today’s readings

We should glory in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ,
i
n whom is our salvation, life and resurrection,
through whom we are saved and delivered.

That is the proper entrance antiphon, also known as the introit, for this Evening Mass of the Lord’s Supper.  It is taken from Paul’s letter to the Galatians in which he says “May I never boast about anything other than the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which I have been crucified to the world and the world to me.”  As you know, the Church considers these three days – the Sacred Triduum – as just one day, one liturgy.  When we gather for Mass tonight, and reconvene tomorrow for the Liturgy of the Lord’s Passion, and finally gather for the great Easter Vigil in the Holy Night on Saturday, it’s just one day for the church, one great Liturgy in three parts.  And the only part that has an entrance antiphon is tonight’s Mass, so the Church has chosen this text to set the tone for our celebrations for these three nights, and to draw all of them together with the cross as the focal point.

I think what the cross teaches us in these days, and what this evening’s part of the Liturgy says in particular is summed up in the Latin word, caritasCaritas is most often translated into English as either “charity” or “love.”  And, as in the case of most translations, both are inadequate.  When we think about the word “charity,” we usually think of something we do to the poor: we give to the poor, we have pity on the poor, that kind of thing.  And “love” can have a whole host of different meanings, depending on the context, and the emotion involved.  And that’s not what caritas means at all.  I think caritas is best imagined as a love that shows itself in the action of setting oneself aside, pouring oneself out, for the good of others.  It’s a love that remembers that everything is not about me, that God gives us opportunities all the time to give of ourselves on behalf of others, that we were put on this earth to love one another into heaven.

And I bring this up not just as a lesson in Latin or semantics.  I bring it up because caritas is our vocation; we were made to love deeply and to care about something outside ourselves.  We are meant to go beyond what seems expedient and comfortable and easy and to extend ourselves.

Two parts of this evening’s Liturgy show us what caritas means.  The first is what we call the mandatum: the washing of the feet.  Here, Jesus gets up from the meal, puts on a towel and begins to wash the feet of his disciples.  Washing the feet of guests was a common practice in Jesus’ time.  In those days, people often had to travel quite a distance to accept an invitation to a feast or celebration.  And they would travel that distance, not by car or train or even by beast of burden, but most often on foot.  The travelers’ feet would then become not only dirty from the dusty roads, but also hot and tired from the long journey.  It was a gesture of hospitality to wash the guests’ feet, but it was a gesture that was usually supplied not by the host of the gathering, but instead by someone much lower in stature, usually a servant or slave.  But at the Last Supper, it is Jesus himself who wraps a towel around himself, picks up the bowl and pitcher, and washes the feet of his friends.

We will reenact that Gospel vignette in a few minutes.  But I have to admit, I’m not a big fan of this particular ritual.  Not because I don’t like washing feet or don’t care to have mine washed.  It’s just that I think this particular ritual should be reenacted outside of church.  Every day, in every place where Christians are.

For example, maybe you make an effort to get home from work a little sooner to help your spouse get dinner ready or help your children with their homework.  Maybe at work you try to get in early so that you can make the first pot of coffee so that people can smell it when they come in to the office.  Or maybe after lunch you take a minute or two to wipe out the microwave so it’s not gross the next day.  If you’re a young person, perhaps you can try on occasion to do a chore without being asked, or at least not asked a second time, or even wash the dishes when it’s not your turn to do it.  Or if one of your classmates has a lot of stuff to bring to school one day, you can offer to carry some of his or her books to lighten the load.

This kind of thing costs us.  It’s not our job.  We’re entitled to be treated well too.  It’s inconvenient.  I’ve had a hard day at work – or at school.  I want to see this show on television.  I’m in the middle of reading the paper.  But caritas requires something of us – something over and above what we may be prepared to do.  But, as Jesus says in today’s Gospel, he’s given us an example: as he has done, so we must do.  And not just here in church washing each other’s feet, but out there in our world, washing the feet of all those in our lives who need to be loved into heaven.

The second part of our Liturgy that illustrates caritas is one with which we are so familiar, we may most of the time let it pass us by without giving it a thought, sadly.  And that, of course, is the Eucharist.  This evening we commemorate that night when Jesus, for the very first time, shared bread and wine with his closest friends and offered the meal as his very own body and blood, poured out on behalf of the world, given that we might remember, as often as we do it, what caritas means.  This is the meal that we share here tonight, not just as a memory of something that happened in the far distant past, but instead experienced with Jesus and his disciples, and all the church of every time and place, on earth and in heaven, gathered around the same Table of the Lord, nourished by the same body, blood, soul and divinity of our Savior who poured himself out for us in the ultimate act of caritas.

We who eat this meal have to be willing to be changed by it.  Because we too must pour ourselves out for others.  We must feed them with our presence and our love and our understanding even when we would rather not.  We must help them to know Christ’s presence in their lives by the way that we serve them, in humility, giving of ourselves and asking nothing in return.  That is our vocation.

And sometimes that vocation is not an easy one.  Sometimes it feels like our efforts are unappreciated or even thwarted by others.  Sometimes we give of ourselves only to receive pain in return; or we extend ourselves only to find ourselves out on a limb with what seems like no support.  And then we question our vocation, wondering if it is all worth it, wondering if somehow we got it wrong.

Many of you know that I’ve been there, recently; you had probably felt it when you saw me or talked to me.  It was a difficult summer and fall, and I did ask God if I could leave my vocation behind.  I asked him because I knew, however difficult it was, my vocation really belongs to him (that’s true for all of us, by the way).  Right about the time I asked that question, a very good friend of mine lent me this wood carving, which sits on the shelf in my office.  It’s Jesus carrying the Cross – you know, the one we should glory in.  And when I looked at him and asked whether I could leave my vocation, he said no.  And the second time I asked him, he said no, and stop asking.  So I had my answer.  Caritas isn’t something from which one turns away.  We embrace our little crosses and journey on, knowing that Jesus carried the big Cross for our salvation.

The ultimate act of caritas will unfold tomorrow and Saturday night as we look to the cross and keep vigil for the resurrection.  Tonight it will suffice for us to hear the command to go and do likewise, pouring ourselves out for others, laying down our life for them, washing their feet and becoming Eucharist for them.  It may seem difficult to glory in the cross – it may even seem strange to say it.  But the Church makes it clear tonight: the cross is our salvation, it is caritas poured out for us, it is caritas poured out on others through us, every time we extend ourselves, lay down our lives, abandon our sense of entitlement and do what the Gospel demands of us.

We should glory in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ,
in whom is our salvation, life and resurrection,
through whom we are saved and delivered.

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