Bishop Anthony B. Taylor delivered this homily on Holy Thursday, March 29.
One of the greatest occupational hazards I face as a priest and now as bishop is that it is easy to get used to being waited on. And I never want to take people’s kindness for granted.
Once I spoke about this with a priest from India, where poverty there is so great that priests, who obviously have a source of income, feel morally obligated to give jobs to those who don’t, with the result that rectories have maids, cooks, gardeners and drivers. Yet whatever the reason, priests must always remember that the help provided us by others is to enable us to serve more effectively and not turn us into members of the local leisure class.
Social divisions in Israel in Jesus’ time were even greater than the caste system of today’s India. There the wealthy not only had servants but also slaves and one of their jobs was to wash the tired, dirty feet of visitors. It was a tender gesture of welcome as universal there as offering drinks to visitors is here.
As late as the 1960s my grandparents in Texas employed an African-American cleaning lady named Allie Turner who for decades was my grandmother’s constant companion, much loved but still subordinate. These were still the days of racial segregation and subjugation. If she had lived in Israel 20 centuries ago, she’d have been washing feet.
So it is crucial to notice that today as Jesus institutes the Eucharist and establishes the priesthood, he makes it clear that these sacraments are incompatible with an attitude of domination and subjugation. If you have ever attended a Jewish Seder Supper you may remember that during the Passover Meal there are two ritual washings of hands, one of which has been retained in the Mass when the priest washes his hands after filling the chalice with wine.
What is striking is that this was the moment when Jesus washed his disciples’ feet. Not when they first arrived at the house, which is the customary time for foot washing, but rather right in the middle of the most solemn liturgy of the Jewish liturgical year, right in the middle of the very first Mass ever celebrated, right after telling the Passover story of liberation from slavery in Egypt, Jesus removes his cloak, assumes the role of a slave and washes feet in place of the expected washing of hands.
One often overlooked detail regarding the Exodus is that when the Hebrews escaped from slavery to Pharaoh, it was not a transition from bondage to freedom as we imagine it, but rather a transfer of ownership from one master (Pharaoh) to another more powerful Master (God).
The Hebrew the word for slave (eved) also means believer and the Old Covenant is God’s title of ownership whereby God becomes Israel’s new master and they become his people. They now belong to him instead of Pharaoh, they are now the sheep of his flock. Notice that sheep are not free: they are a possession, owned by a master, guided by a shepherd. Those sheep who wrongly imagine that they will find freedom by straying from the flock quickly become lost and either die of starvation or perish at the hand of predators.
Israel belongs to God; that is why they were called “the Chosen People.” God bought them by the blood of the Passover lamb which was poured out on their doorposts on their last day of slavery to Pharaoh. Jesus is the new Passover “Lamb who takes away the sins of the world.” And so now in the Last Supper, as he institutes the New Covenant, Jesus assumes the role of a slave in order to show that God is once again buying people out of slavery — and now not just a single nation, but anyone who wants a change of owners, to become God’s possession, part of his new “Chosen People.” And Jesus will pay for us by pouring out his own blood on the doorpost of the cross. From that day forward, Jesus becomes our master and we become his servants. That is what the Blessed Mother means when she says, “I am the handmaid of the Lord!” So when Jesus says, “Do this in memory of me” he means two things: 1) that we should celebrate the Eucharist in memory of him, but also 2) that we should pour ourselves out in service of others just as he pours himself out for us, symbolized by the washing of feet today and accomplished by pouring himself out for us tomorrow on the altar of the cross.
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