What I have always loved about being a part of a sacramental tradition such as Catholicism is the belief we have that God can and does work through tangible objects, that matter––material things––reveal God’s face in some way. We get teased about all our “smells and bells,” but that’s okay. Yes, smells and bells, cloth and flowers, statues and paint, music and dance, bread and wine, water and oil––bring ‘em on! The Spirit uses all these things to reveal the divine to us, and we use all these things to recognize the divine present and active in our world, in our life. One of the problems that the reform of the liturgy in the 2nd Vatican Council addressed was actually trying to make those symbols become more alive yet because often they had been reduced to a mere shadow of an actual tangible symbol. The bread of the Eucharistic feast had become little wafers and the wine was a little bit consumed only by the priest. Now we have seen the emphasis on the bread really looking like bread! And I think the move toward glass flagons of wine was even so that people could see––and consume!––the real wine. Baptism had become a few drops of water on an infant’s head; whereas now the emphasis has been on even up to full immersion, so we really get the sense that there is a kind of a death experience going on at Baptism, drowning in the waters and coming back up alive in a new way, a new person. In this way the signs and symbols can actually convey their meaning more easily, concretely, in the transforming power of ritual. Oh yes, we believe that the grace of God is there either way in the sacrament, but still, it is easier for us to enter in and participate when the symbols are vibrant and alive.
And there is no symbolic sacramental liturgical gesture more bald and striking than this one, the washing of the feet. At the Eucharist you can get away with something that barely resembles real bread and you can leave out offering the consecrated wine to the assembly, and at Baptism you can get away with a polite couple of drops of water. But on Holy Thursday the presider really has to wash peoples’ feet. I struggle with what words to use, since I was the one called upon to make this gesture today––the person entrusted with the most authority in the community, the head of the household (worthy as he may be or not), the leader of the assembly, is commanded to do an absolutely menial task, because that’s what Jesus did. In Jesus’ day of course it was a necessary courtesy; your guests would come in after trudging the dusty roads and the host’s duty was to make them comfortable, as we see people do for Jesus along the way. But this is something you would get a servant or a child to do for you, not something you would do yourself if you were the proud head of a household. But of course that’s exactly the point. It’s like asking the CEO to scrub the floors, or worse, to wash your clothes for you. Washing someone’s feet is not a common gesture anymore since we wear shoes and socks and walk on pavement, but still, there are really no hidden messages here. But just in case we need to make them explicit, there are the three lessons we learn about Jesus’ way that I want to mention here, three simple things that we are supposed to learn tonight to prepare us to celebrate for the next three days. Because in some way I think that the washing of the feet is like a gateway to the rest of the Triduum.
As for Holy Thursday: this ritual is the entrance fee, you might say, to the Eucharistic banquet. Period. When I say the Luminous Mysteries of the Rosary I have a little scripture verse I say before I begin each decade. When I get to the fifth Luminous Mystery, the Institution of the Eucharist, I think of Holy Thursday, and I don’t say “Take and eat, this is my body, which will be given up for you”; I say another phrase that is its equivalent: “I give you a new commandment; love one another as I have loved you.” The great commandments of Jesus always go inseparably together, to love the Lord our God and to love our neighbor as yourself. Just so: ‘Take and eat this is my body’ and ‘Love one another as I have loved you’ are the same thing. Second, as for Good Friday: this is how we share in Jesus’ dying, this is what it means to give our bodies over, to empty ourselves completely and put ourselves in God’s hands and make ourselves totally available to what the Spirit would have us do. This is our dying, dying to our own pleasure, to our own will and our own preferences for the sake of the greater good. Not because our pleasure, our preferences or our will are bad; but because sometimes they have to be sacrificed for a greater good. This is how we go beyond self, transcend self. Third: Easter. This is who the power of Easter, the power of our Baptism, sends us forth to be in the world, for the world, if our world is as small as a little community or as large as a multinational corporation. Disciples of Jesus are the servants of the world. Period. If it was good enough for Jesus to wash his disciples’ feet, if it’s good enough for the Pope, if it’s good enough for the bishop, if it’s good enough for an abbot––then that it should be good enough for you and me, all of us. You could even say that his is the Christian theory of leadership. If we are leaders of industry, if we are kings and queens, if we’re in the farm field of the factory, if we are in politics––we are there as servants. This is how we exercise dominion, by being slaves, by washing each others’ feet, washing the feet of the poor and downtrodden, washing the feet of our neighbors who don’t believe in God the same way we do, washing the feet of our political rivals and our enemies, washing the feet even of Mother Nature and all living creatures great and small over whom we are called to be stewards. Brother Wind and Sister Water, the deer and the squirrels, the redwoods and the wildflowers—we’re their servants too.
One last point, specifically concerning monks… I think it’s also notable that Saint Benedict legislates foot washing twice in the Rule: every Saturday the incoming and outgoing kitchen servers wash everyone’s feet (35:9), and the monks with the abbot are supposed to wash the feet of all guests (53:13). But he also tells his monks that if another brother is angry or disturbed with him “you must without delay cast yourself on the ground at the other’s feet…” (71:8). Saint Benedict makes such a big point throughout his Rule about humility and obedience as if they were the basis for all monastic life, and I think this is why Romuald puts even his hermitages under the Rule too, so that even solitude is based on obedience and submission—and so, ultimately, on charity. But obedience isn’t just obedience to the abbot or to the Rule. Benedict names an entire chapter (71) Ut oboedientes sibi sunt invicem—“That they may obey one another”! He says that “Obedience is a blessing to be shown by all, not only to the abbot but also to one another as brothers”; and then in the next Chapter he quotes Romans 12:10,
They should each try to be the first to show respect to the other, supporting with the greatest patience one another’s weaknesses of body and behavior, and earnestly competing in obedience to one another. No one is to pursue what they judges best for himself, but instead what they judge better for someone else.
This is the hallmark of a Christian monastic community. This is Holy Thursday!
Saint Benedict says that the monk’s whole life should be a little Lent, but I think based on this, we could also say that life in the monastery community is really an extended Holy Thursday, that the monks are living like an apostolic band, a community of disciples living according to the dictates of the Gospel of Jesus, giving their lives over in service to the greater good, supporting each other as we “progress in this way of life and in faith,” as we “run on the path of God’s commandments, our hearts overflowing with the inexpressible delight of love” (RB Pro. 49). This is what could make of a monastery or any Christian community a light to the world, a city built on a hill. Benedict’s famous line, “let them prefer nothing whatever to Christ,”(72:11) is in this context, to make it clear that that’s what it means —to be patient with one another, to obey one another in obedience to Christ, in obedience to, as the famous hymn Ubi Caritas sings, “the love of Christ that has gathered us together.”
And “may he bring us all together to everlasting life.”