Our celebration tonight is very joyful. We remember the Last Supper in a particular way and we remember Jesus giving us the Eucharist during the Last Supper, his Body and Blood, and giving us the priesthood during the Last Supper so that we can continue to have Jesus present in the Eucharist.
Not long ago, The History Channel showed a documentary in which scientists attempted to create what may be the most realistic 3-D image of the face of Christ.
They spent many months on the project, using sophisticated computer technology to craft the image from the Shroud of Turin.
The result is the face of a young man with long hair, and a beard, and scars, and blood stains around his brow. The computer estimates that he’d be about 5’8″. He looks heavier, more muscular than most may think. But he otherwise looks very much the way any of us might imagine Jesus looked at the time of his death.
What Jesus really looked like has fascinated us for centuries – and it’s informed how he’s been portrayed in art. And it’s not just what he looked like, but what he did. We see him depicted so often in art as a crucified victim, or a good shepherd, or a teacher preaching to his followers.
But tonight, on one of the holiest nights of the year, we are given a very different picture of Jesus. And it may be more surprising than anything you’d see on the History Channel.
We see him on his knees, wiping away dirt, washing feet.
This is truly what it means to be Christ. He said so himself.
“I have given you a model to follow,” he tells his apostles. “So that as I have done for you, you should also do.”
For all those who ask the perennial question, “What would Jesus do?,” here is your answer.
And it comes at a surprising moment: on this night when we celebrate the institution of the Eucharist, and the institution of the priesthood. The church offers us readings about Christ giving us himself in the form of bread and wine, and gives us this gospel reading about washing of the feet.
But the message, I think, is the same. Tonight, God gets down on his knees for us. Tonight, He lowers himself. Tonight, He becomes a servant to the world — as humble as a slave, as meager and plain as a crumb of bread.
From this, we learn what it means to be like Christ.
The overwhelming impression is surprising, and challenging. It is God becoming less…so that we can become more.
One of his last acts on earth, the last communal moment with his friends, is spent taking care of them, purifying them, removing the dust of the day. Perhaps he is anticipating the roads they will travel in the hours ahead. Maybe he is somehow getting them ready for the long journey ahead — missions they will undertake after he has gone, traveling by foot to bring the gospel to the world.
I also think it is also a beautiful representation of the priesthood, and the sacrament of reconciliation. We all walk the earth carrying the debris of our lives – our failings, our sins, our weaknesses. They cling to us. But here, they are washed away. We are made new; we can begin again.
And this, too, is what it means to be like Christ.
“As I have done for you, you should also do.”
The Imitation of Christ begins with this moment. It is in the selfless service, doing what others won’t do, or can’t.
Today is the day when Holy Mother Church celebrates the origins of the Priesthood, finding them in the great high priestly sacrifice of Jesus Christ and in His commissioning of His apostles to “do these things in remembrance of me.”
And it is priests who anoint our sick and offer absolution for our sins, and celebrate mass with one simple goal in mind – to save souls.
At a moment when the priesthood is under attack, we can’t forget those who are quietly, prayerfully, persistently doing God’s work in our world – the great majority of good priests whose work often goes unnoticed. You won’t see headlines about them in the newspaper.
With you I am a Christian, for you I am a priest. In my training in the seminary I came across some wonderful words written by a famous and loved Cardinal, a former Cardinal Archbishop of Paris named Cardinal Suhard. He wrote:
“Every Christian, especially the Christian priest, must
be a witness. To be a witness consists in being a living
mystery. It means to live in such a way that one’s life
would not make any sense if God did not exist.”
A priest is most a priest when he humbly and without self-centeredness or self-consciousness washes the emotional and spiritual feet of those who come to him with the dust and the dirt of this world’s road clinging to them. He is a fully a priest when he hands over his time, his comfort and all of his energies for the care of God’s people – without counting his costs in doing so.
The priest is most a priest when he stands for the honor of God, when he will not compromise our Faith or the ways of our Faith simply in order to please people or to be “with it” in following the latest fad. He is a priest when he does this without counting the cost found in the loss of human respect for him. He cannot hand people human stones when they need the Bread of Life.
We all want to be liked – but at what price? The priest cannot sell out the honor of God for thirty pieces of whatever the going rate is for human respect.
The priest is most a priest when he hands over his life, his own personal preferences and his own personal convenience or wishes so that he might devote himself to caring for those who come to him, as they came to Jesus, in their need.
A priest is most a priest when he stands in front of you here at God’s altar and joins his words into Christ’s saying: “This is my body, take it. This is my blood, drink it”.
That is Christ’s message to his followers 2,000 years ago – and, of course, to us tonight.
And so, this night, confronted with this challenging gospel reading, it’s worth asking ourselves: what have we done? How many feet have we washed?
How have I tried to imitate Christ?
Science and technology can only tell us so much. The fact remains: if you want to really know what Jesus looked like, you won’t find it on the History Channel. You won’t even find it on the Shroud of Turin.
Look, instead, to tonight’s gospel.
In this night’s stillness we see God on His knees, washing our feet and giving Himself over to us in utter powerlessness. In it God says to you: “I give you my self… I give you my body… I give you my blood… and I wash your feet… because I love you.”