Sunday, April 9, 2017



Holy Thursday.  1 Cor. 11:23-26.

AIM: To help the hearers see the centrality of the Eucharist and the significance of the foot-washing


          “Do this, in my memory,” Jesus tells us. Was ever a command so obeyed? Down through the centuries, and continuing today, the friends of Jesus Christ have obeyed his command to do this in his memory.

          In Rome today our Holy Father has done this. Somewhere in a prison in China a priest or a bishop of the so-called underground Church has done this today, with a morsel of bread and a little wine smuggled in to him by friends. Bishops all over the world have done this, surrounded by their priests, at the only Mass other than this one which the Church permits on Holy Thursday: the Chrism Mass at which the bishop, as chief pastor of each local church, consecrates the oils to be used in the year following for baptisms, confirmation, the sacrament of holy orders, and the anointing of the sick. In our Cathedral this morning our archbishop did this, surrounded by some 200 of his brother priests. We renewed our ordination promises to serve you, God’s holy people.

          In Lent 2000 a Vietnamese bishop, Francis Xavier Van Thuan, preaching the annual Lenten retreat to Pope John Paul II and the Roman curia, told them of how he had obeyed Jesus’ command to do this, in a Communist prison in Vietnam. Here is his story, in his own words.

          “When I was arrested I had to leave immediately with empty hands. The next day I was permitted to write to my people in order to ask for the most necessary things: clothes, toothpaste ... I wrote, ‘Please send me a little wine as medicine for my stomach ache.’ The faithful understood right away.

          “They sent me a small bottle of wine for Mass with a label that read, ‘Medicine for stomachaches.’ They also sent some hosts, which they hid in a flashlight for protection against the humidity.

          “The police asked me, ‘You have stomach aches?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Here’s some medicine for you.’

          “I will never be able to express my great joy! Every day, with three drops of wine and a drop of water in the palm of my hand, I would celebrate Mass. This was my altar, and this was my cathedral! It was true medicine for soul and body ... Each time I celebrated the Mass, I had the opportunity to extend my hands and nail myself to the cross with Jesus, to drink with him the bitter chalice. ... Those were the most beautiful Masses of my life!” [Francis Xavier Nguyen Van Thuan, Testimony of Hope (Pauline Books, Boston, 2000) p. 131] 

          In Israel and Gaza today Palestinian Christians are doing this, amid gunfire and bombing, fearful that they may be the next random victims. In southern Sudan today a priest has done this in a shabby mud-brick church, its corrugated iron roof pock-marked with holes from bombs dropped on Christian churches and schools by the country’s previous Islamic government.

          Young men of twenty-five, fresh from their priestly ordination, surrounded by family and friends, nervous but joyful, do this for the first time. Somewhere today more than one priest, and perhaps a bishop or two, has done this for the last time: encountering the Lord under the outward forms of bread and wine for the final time before he encounters him face to face in heaven.

          We do this when Christians marry. We do this for birthdays, for anniversaries of marriage and ordination. We do this at life’s end, to pray for our departed loved ones, coming closer to them through our obedience to Jesus’ command than we can in any other way here on earth.

          No matter what the outward circumstances, whether accompanied by splendid ceremonial, gorgeous music, in a stately cathedral — or under makeshift conditions, in a primitive hut, a prison cell, or on the hood of a military jeep under the open sky — our obedience to Jesus’ command, “Do this in my memory,” is in every essential respect the same. When we do this with the bread and wine Jesus is with us as truly as he was with his twelve apostles in the Upper Room on this evening, with but one exception: we cannot see him with our bodily eyes, only with the eyes of faith.

          If our fulfillment of Jesus’ command were merely an act of obedience, it would still be impressive. But there is more to it than obedience. We do this with the bread and wine so that Jesus may empower us to do in daily life what he did before he gave us this command — and what I shall shortly do in literal imitation of Jesus. The washing of feet is a symbol of what all of us are called to do as followers and friends of Jesus Christ: to serve the needs of others whom we encounter on life’s way. 

          If we are faithful to that calling, one day we shall hear the Lord saying to us, very personally: “Come, you have my Father’s blessing! Inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me to drink. I was a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me. I was ill and you comforted me, in prison and you came to me. ... As often as you did it for one of my least brothers [or sisters], you did it for me” (Mt. 25:35f, 40).