Maundy Thursday: Gird yourselves and look for Jesus
This year, I am the guest preacher for the Triduum at Church of the Ascension in Chicago. Because people sometimes ask for sermon texts, I thought I’d post them here. Enjoy, or not. And, by all means, if you are in Chicago, stop by the Ascension for some excellent liturgy, warm people, and generous clouds of incense (among many other good things).
Jesus said, “For I have given you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.”
In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
For those of who you might be experiencing this strange and wonderful celebration of Maundy Thursday for the first time this evening, we are about to embark on a pilgrimage. Tonight, and over the next two nights, we will enact dramatic events from the first Holy Week: the final meal of Jesus with his friends in the Upper Room, the first Eucharist, Jesus demonstrating his love for his disciples by washing their feet, the loneliness and betrayal of Gethsemane, the Passion, the Cross, the uncertain waiting, and finally the Empty Tomb and the Risen Christ.
Now perhaps some of you are a bit miffed at the preacher for reading out our plan for these Three Holy Days, not so much because I’ve given spoilers but because we all ought to know this. Why state the obvious? But I think these annual rituals have a danger, and that danger is familiarity. We have repeated them so many times, perhaps we are tempted to enter a kind of ritual lull, when the shocking power of what we are doing is lost on us.
I invite you, if you are familiar with what happens in Holy Week, to have a conversation with someone for whom this is all unknown. Perhaps there will be guests or new Christians or people new to Catholic worship here, experiencing all this for their first time. Ask them what it is like. See what we do through their eyes.
And if you are here tonight wondering what you’ve just signed up for, be not afraid. You are about to savor the most powerful and transformative liturgies in the Christian tradition. On our wild journey through friendship, love, betrayal, sorrow, death, grief, and finally unfettered joy, we will see how deep and how wide God’s love is for our world and for us.
But let us talk about tonight.
St. Paul recalls for us Jesus’ command to “Do this in remembrance of me” and the promise that, “For as often as you eat this bread and and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.” Tonight we recall both with joy and with sorrow that first Eucharist, that promise that Christ is mystically present with us at every Mass.
What we are doing here is not merely re-enactment, but also an experience of mystical foretaste of the heavenly banquet. And what we are doing here is, let us not forget, also meant to feed us and to change us, tonight. To be sure, we offer everything we have to God and celebrate this Mass to the glory of God, but in so doing we receive back the strength and the nourishment we need to share God’s love with a world in desperate need of hope.
We Christians have gotten very good at Holy Eucharist. We’ve got it down to a science almost. We manage it once a week, or in places like this, every day. If we had a mind to, we could go through the motions without thinking. Fortunately, our liturgical tradition throws a curve ball at us every now and then, and we are about to get one —because the command to repeat the Eucharist was not the only command Jesus gave in the Upper Room. We, as a church, have perhaps been less attentive to this other command because, frankly, it is awkward and not very convenient. It is certainly not familiar, because we keep this commandment of our Lord only once each year.
It’s pretty easy to see why Peter protested when his Teacher and Lord bent low to wash his feet. We can rationalize all we want, but this is an unmistakable gesture of humility, service, and love. We 21st-century Americans are not used to public gestures of humility, service, and love. It’s not any easier — or more difficult, perhaps — for us than it was for Peter and the others.
But there it is. “If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.”
In a few moments, Father Cobb will wash the feet of several people. Most of us will watch and listen and pray while this is happening. But I suggest that you imagine what a gesture like this might mean for you. What would it be like literally to wash the feet of another? What would it be like to practice a different gesture of humility, service, and love in Christ’s name? And, perhaps just as challenging for many of us, what would it be like to receive a gesture of humility, service, and love?
It’s not really optional for us Christians. For all the reasons we are meant to gather on the Lord’s Day and celebrate Mass together, we are meant to care for one another — whether or not it is familiar or convenient — in Christ’s name.
A couple of weeks ago, I was in London for some meetings. As I usually do, I stayed at the guest house at St. Matthew’s Church in Westminster. There, in the entrance, is a bit of a shrine to Bishop Frank Weston, who before he was Bishop of Zanzibar, served his curacy in that parish.
Bishop Weston was a fierce advocate for Catholic worship, but he was also a relentless advocate for our duty to engage the needs of the world. In his address to the 1923 Anglo-Catholic Congress, he concluded with words — now famous words — that have everything to do with us, gathered here on this night. At a time when Catholic worship was itself controversial in the church, he said,
You have got your Mass, you have got your Altar, you have begun to get your Tabernacle. Now go out into the highways and hedges.… Go out and look for Jesus in the ragged, in the naked, in the oppressed and sweated, in those who have lost hope, in those who are struggling to make good. Look for Jesus. And when you see him, gird yourselves with his towel and try to wash their feet.
That is exactly right. If we leave here tonight, comfortable and satisfied that we can check “Maundy Thursday” off our annual list, we have missed a great opportunity. We will have missed an opportunity to know and to serve our Lord Jesus Christ.
We are meant to leave here disquieted. The Altar will be stripped, so we will see that all is not right in the world. The rituals of this night are meant to disturb us from our complacency, to remind us that following Jesus means not only being fed, but feeding and serving others. We are meant to leave here with an irresistible desire to follow the commandment of our Lord Jesus Christ: “You also should do as I have done to you.”
Image: Sketch for “Jesus Washing Peter’s Feet” by Ford Madox Brown (1821‑1893), ca. 1851. Ink and graphite on paper. From the Tate.