MAUNDY THURSDAY SERMON 2023
Dear friends at St John’s
Maundy Thursday is the night above all other nights when we celebrate being one body together in the body of Christ. It was on this night, according to Luke’s Gospel, that Jesus gave his closest friends a most significant instruction, ‘Do this in memory of me’. Christians in the Catholic tradition have made a great deal of this command of Jesus in the sign of the breaking of bread and sharing of wine. Unlike the Synoptic Gospels, John’s account of the Last Supper omits the institution of the Eucharist altogether and replaces it with the account of Jesus washing his disciples’ feet, but this also comes with a similar instruction, ‘If I, then, the Lord and Master, have washed your feet, you must wash each other’s feet. I have given you an example so that you may copy what I have done to you’.
As a devotional practice this instruction is almost universally ignored except in a liturgical re-enactment on this day. Yet there’s a sense in which the washing of feet is as much a Eucharistic sign as the breaking of bread and sharing of wine. It’s what Pope Francis refers to in his exhortation The Joy of the Gospel when he says, ‘Sometimes we are tempted to be that kind of Christian who keeps the Lord’s wounds at arm’s length. Yet Jesus wants us to touch human misery, to touch the suffering flesh of others. He hopes that we will stop looking for those personal or communal niches which shelter us from the maelstrom of human misfortune and instead enter into the reality of other people’s lives and know the power of tenderness. Whenever we do so, our lives become wonderfully complicated and we experience intensely what it is to be a people, to be part of a people.’ It’s on this night that we rediscover and experience all over again what it means to be a Eucharistic people, to be ‘revolutionaries of tenderness’.
The German painter and priest Sieger Köder painted the Word that he preached and the sacraments he celebrated. His painting has a prophetic and a sacramental quality. There are five paintings in which the face of Jesus is caught in reflection in a pivotal scene. I’m going to share these pictures with you during this homily because they stand as a homily in themselves. The first image comes in the painting of the Woman at the Well. When Jesus meets her, he can hardly keep the longing out of his voice: ‘If you only knew what God is offering and who it is that is saying to you, “Give me something to drink,” you would have been the one to ask, and he would have given you living water.’ These are words that resonate for us tonight, “if [we] only knew what God is offering … [we] would have been the one[s] to ask, and he would have given [us]” whatever grace we needed. Our trouble is that we find it so difficult to know what we really, really want, that we don’t ask.
One person who knew more than most about desire was St. Augustine, who might be called the patron saint of desire, since he wrote that most honest of prayers, ‘Lord, give me chastity, but not yet’. Many of his writings express a profound theology of desire. He tells us that ‘to fall in love with God is the greatest of romances, to seek God the greatest adventure, to find God the greatest human achievement.’ In one of his sermons he elaborates further, ‘The whole life of a good Christian is holy desire. What you desire you cannot see yet. But the desire gives you the capacity, so that when it does happen that you see, you may be fulfilled… This is our life, to be exercised by desire.’
Let’s think of that for a moment. The desire gives us the capacity – for what? We live in a consumer culture, where all around us is the clever and all-pervasive cultivation of desire. A powerful and psychologically brilliant advertising industry tells us what we want, and the food, drink, leisure, sex and fashion industries provide it. The market has become the means by which we satisfy most of our needs, but it’s also what creates and exacerbates those needs in order to perpetuate itself. In this endless cycle of false desire and partial satisfaction we become cut off from true longing. St. Thomas Aquinas says, ‘the greater the love, the greater the desire. And desire in some sort prepares and opens the one who desires to receive the one who is desired’. Desire, as it were, hollows out a space within us into which the living God can enter, so as to live in intimacy with us. That is God’s desire for us – that we should learn truly to desire Him.
Jesus wasn’t afraid of desire, and he responded immediately to anyone who dared to show him their desires: the Syro-Phoenician woman, the Roman centurion, blind Bartimaeus, the woman with the haemorrhage. At the Last Supper he expressed his own desire: ‘I have ardently longed to eat this Passover with you before I suffer’. From the Cross he cried out his thirst for us. And when the man who had everything came to ask him what more he could have, Jesus looked at him with love and said, ‘Give it all away, experience emptiness and longing, follow me…’ and the rich young man, who had everything but true desire, went away sorrowful. The Samaritan woman looks down into the well. Up above she’s an isolated figure, lonely and thirsting, but in the water of the well two faces are reflected back: her own and that of Jesus. It’s when she looks into her own depths and allows Jesus to see her as she is that she finds the fulfilment of her true heart’s desire. We see a similar reflection in the bowl of water when Jesus washes Peter’s feet. In the Judaism of their time only two people ever washed a man’s feet: his slave or his wife. No wonder Peter looks so horrified as Jesus breaks through the conventions of hierarchy and intimacy by doing this himself. Whenever we ‘touch the suffering flesh of Christ in others’ it’s a truly Eucharistic moment as we do it in memory of him.
We see another type of intimacy in two scenes from the Stations of the Cross, when the suffering Jesus meets Simon of Cyrene and Veronica. In the painting of Jesus and Simon there are two faces, but they mirror each other, and their arms are so entwined that we can barely tell whose arm is whose. In the depiction of Veronica the face of Jesus is imprinted on the cloth with which she wipes away the blood and sweat from his face. These, too, are Eucharistic moments. The reluctant Simon is forced into helping the suffering stranger, while Veronica takes the risk of reaching out in compassion. Both touch his suffering flesh and learn what it is to be part of his people. Each of these moments is as Eucharistic as the one in which Jesus takes up the cup of wine at the Last Supper and his face is reflected back as he blesses it before giving it to his disciples.
We approach the Eucharist with deep seriousness and devotion, and so we should. It is a sacred mystery. But it is also a sacred mystery when Jesus offers us those other sacramental moments in our daily lives. The theological definition of a sacrament is ‘a sign which makes real what it signifies’. When we open our hearts to deep desire for intimacy with Jesus the desire itself gives us the capacity to receive what he makes real. When we ‘wash one another’s feet’ in the many humble tasks of daily family life: washing the bodies or clothes of children or sick or elderly family members, tending the garden, cleaning the house, putting out the bins or whatever gestures of loving service we undertake for each other’s sake, we do it in memory of him. When we bear one another’s burdens, with a loving gaze, with attentive listening, with a gentle touch, the suffering face of Christ becomes imprinted on our heart, and we become more like him. In fact we become him, we reflect his face to the world around us. It’s a sacramental experience which makes real what it signifies.
So on this most holy night, when we remember the signs that he gave us to remember him by, let’s by all means, honour the Eucharist with deep and sincere devotion. But let’s not forget to take seriously all those little, sacramental moments of every day in which we touch him in his hidden body and come to ‘know the power of tenderness’. However small and banal a service it may seem to us, we have it on the best of authorities that whatever we do for the least of our brothers or sisters, we do it for him.
Glory be to him whose power, working in us, can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine; glory be to him from generation to generation in the Church and in Christ Jesus for ever and ever. Amen.