The liberating power of washing feet and sharing the Body

Notes for a Holy Thursday homily, in Honduras, translated and edited from Spanish

Exodus 12: 1-8, 11-14
1 Corinthians 11: 23-26
John 12: 1-15

Today, in the Celebration of the Lord’s Supper, only the second reading speaks of the Eucharist. We begin with the retelling of the Paschal Meal.

Jews celebrate, even today, the Passover, the Exodus from the slavery of Egypt, with a sacramental meal. It is not a drama – for them, the Meal is a way of living again the liberation from the Egypt. They recall the mercy of God who heard the cries of the people and intervened to rescue them. The Passover Meal is a way to celebrate the liberating presence of God.

The Last Supper of Lord Jesus was probably a Passover Meal. With his disciples, Jesus celebrated the liberation of the people of Israel from Egypt in the midst of the occupation of Israel by the troops of the Roman Empire. The Passover was a very tense time in the days of Jesus. Recalling their liberation from the Pharaoh, many Jews of his time awaited their liberation from the foreign Roman troops. Some wished to throw them out violently.

Jesus came to liberate his People – but not by killing others but by handing over his life for all. In the Last Supper he gave his disciples his body and blood, under the forms of bread and wine, to show his commitment, his handing over of his life even to death, a death that he would suffer in less than twenty hours. The liberation from slavery, on God’s part, is an act of handing oneself over on behalf of others.

DSC01489But, after the Supper, Jesus gave us an example of his style of liberation. He washes the feet of his disciples.

This too was not theater. It was an act of service, of making himself nothing, of putting himself in the midst of the servants and slaves. In the days of Jesus, only the slaves would wash others’ feet – and those feet were assuredly dirty, from walking on dirt roads and in streets full of dung and refuse.

When he lower ourselves before another person, kneeling at their feet, we recognize that we are not those who are the big guys, the powerful, those who matter. We are the lesser ones, the lesser brothers (and sisters) as Saint Francis of Assisi called his friars. We put the needs of others before our own. We recognize that God wishes a community where there is the connection of love, of tenderness, of mutual support.

Why. Because we have a God who loves us, who has lowered himself, and has handed himself over, even to death, for us.

And doing the same as He does, we can experience true liberation.

 

Speaking words of encouragement

The Lord has given me the tongue of a disciple
to speak a work of encouragement to the downcast.
Isaiah 50:4

Yesterday I visited the elderly and sick in two villages. What a blessing for me.

It is part of the ministry of the deacon to care for widows, orphans, and the ill. I don’t do as much visiting the homebound as I could, partly because one of the major ministries of our communion ministers is to visit the sick in their communities. I do work with them in their continuing formation but I try not to replace their ministry to the sick.

This Holy Week we have about fifty parishioners in mission to most of our villages, visiting homes and praying with the people there. I’ve come across some who are invigorated by the experience of sharing the Gospel in a simple way with people.

I have also worked with the communion ministers so that we can get communion to the elderly, the sick, and the home-bound during Holy Week. But there were a few villages that were left out – and so I arranged visits in two villages.

So often these visits are a time of grace for me – as I enter the lives of the elderly, the sick, and the poor. Yesterday was such a time of grace.

In the first village I visited a woman about 70 years old who can’t walk to church and so I was glad to share a time of conversation and prayer as well as Communion. She was very up-beat, despite her weakness and aches and pains. Later, in another part of the village, about ten minutes in car from her house, I visited a ninety-two year old man who lives with his evangelical wife and often walks to church. He was much less talkative than the woman, probably partly because he is hard of hearing, but it was a gift to share Communion with him.

Both of these lived in poor houses with dirt floors. But there I found Jesus (and did not merely bring Him there in Communion).

I later went to another village where a young catechist took me around. The four women I visited were all very talkative.

I had visited the first woman a few weeks and go and she was bed-bound at that time. This time she was walking about. We sat down in the kitchen while her daughters and grand-daughters were busy mixing dough to bake bread.

In several places I made a special effort to speak to those who were caring for the elderly, encouraging them and letting them know that their work can be very hard but it is very important. As I speak with them I often tell them how important it was for me to care for my Dad at home in the last years of his life. I feel it is very important to give them “a word that will rouse them.”

This morning, while reading the third Servant Song of Isaiah (50: 4-9), I thought of how visiting the sick and ill has opened up for me a part of myself that I have not really appreciated. I am continually amazed how God’s compassion and God’s words of encouragement pass through me. This has become an important part of my life here and is one of the graces of being a deacon.

Where I got back to Plan Grande I went to the church to put the remaining hosts into the tabernacle. As I walked into the church I was moved by the light falling on the statue of El Nazareno, Jesus carrying his cross, before the altar.

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This helped make sense of my few hours visiting the elderly and the sick.

 

Truth is freeing

“If you remain in my word, you will truly be my disciples,
and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”
John 8: 31-32

Madeleine L’Engle once wrote: “Truth is eternal. Our knowledge of it is changeable. It is disastrous when you confuse the two.”

In our search for God, it is easy to confuse our notions of God with the God who is beyond all words – but who keeps giving us glimpses of the Truth who God is.

Remaining in God’s word, for me, means opening my heart to God and all God’s people so that I can hear God’s call wherever it may lead me.

And so, I continually ask myself, am I a disciple who listens with an open heart or do I think that I know it all?

This is a source of humility and great hope for all of us who seek God.

God of Truth, you show us small signs of the truth which you are, but you are greater than our minds and our hearts.  Keep us open to all these signs and keep us always free of the temptation to think that we have all the truth.


Adapted from my contribution to the Lenten Booklet of the Associates of the Dubuque Franciscan Sisters.

The stench of the tomb

Are we willing to love, facing the stench of the tomb?

This past week I presided at a funeral in a rural village. The wife of a man active in the local church had died, just three weeks after their son had died in an accident.

When I arrived the people were in the small church gathered around the casket.

I walked to the front and as I walked past the casket I sensed a foul odor. I proceeded to the front and prepared for the service. Only occasionally during the service did I smell the odor.

When Jesus tells the men at the tomb of Lazarus to move the stone, Martha objects: “Lord, by now there will be a stench; he has been dead for four days.”

But Jesus persists: “Did I not tell you that if you believe you will see the glory of God?”

And Lazarus comes forth.

Where is the glory of God manifested in today’s Gospel (John 11: 1-45)?

DSC00526We could easily – and rightly say – it’s in the raising of Lazarus to life. For, as St. Irenaeus wrote, “The glory of God is the living human being.”

Our God is a God who calls us forth to life – here in this world and in the fulfillment of God’s will in heaven.

But I wonder if the glory of God is not shown when we lovingly confront the stench of death, when we recognize that that stench is not the final word, when we call others to live in the face of death.

Is the glory of God shown in those who are not afraid of death and the stench of death – but lovingly embrace God and all God’s people?


Detail of Lazarus in a painting in the church of Santa Maria Novella, Florence, Italy.

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Scrutinies and courage

This morning I went to a village, El Limón, where we celebrated the Scrutinies for four young men who will, God willing, be baptized in the Easter Village. This afternoon I served as deacon and preached here in Plan Grande where we celebrated the Scrutinies for two young men.

The Scrutinies are special prayers and exorcisms for those preparing for baptism. The community prays for them and they kneel. The priest or deacon lays hands on their heads as they kneel in prayer. We pray that they be freed from the power of the Father of Lies.

For me it was moving to pray silently, laying my hands on the heads of the young men in El Limón. I prayed that God would work through me to give them the strength and courage to continue their journey to baptism. It was also moving because before the celebration we had a discussion because of some problems in the classes they should have been receiving. The community made a decision that allowed these young men to continue toward Baptism. I pray that what we did will help the community grow toward greater unity. But what was important was finding a way to really support and welcome these young people.

In Plan Grande, I was moved when Padre German spoke directly to the two young men calling them to be courageous as the man born blind was courageous.

I preached in both places and one thing that really impressed me was the man born blind in the Gospel (John 9: 1-41) . He comes on the scene as a worthless blind beggar. But cured by Jesus, but with the his own cooperation – going to the pool of Siloam and washing his eyes, he affirms his dignity in the face of people denying that this seeing man was the man born blind. “I am.”

But what really impressed me was how he stood up to the authorities who wanted not only to chastise him as a sinner but wanted, using him, to chastise Jesus and charge Jesus as a sinner.

The man who had been blind stands up to the religious leaders, claiming that Jesus was a prophet. And when they asked him again about the cure, he, probably fed up that they didn’t listen to his explanation he first time, asks them, almost sarcastically, if they want to become disciples of Jesus.

What courage – from a man who had been a useless blind beggar.

And then, when he had been expelled by the religious leaders, Jesus seeks him and reveals Himself to the man who had been blind as the Son of Man.

That is the message for these young people – and others seeking to be baptized.

Jesus is the Son of Man, the Light of the World, who give us the courage, who leads us to see not only the presence of God in our midst but also to see our dignity and gives us the courage to be who we are – children of the Light (Ephesians 5: 8).

Pray for these young men and the more than thirty others who will be baptized in Dulce Nombre at the Easter Vigil.

The angel entered the house

The angel entered where Mary was
Luke 1:28

Most of our images of the Annunciation have Mary in a contemplative state – with arms crossed, kneeling, or – anachronistically reading a book. I especially love Fra Angelico’s fresco in the San Marcos Convent in Florence.

the-annunciation-3-large

There is a Byzantine icon of the angel greeting Mary at a well, based on a story in the Protevangelium of James.

But I really wonder if they have all got it wrong.

What would a woman be doing in a house? Most likely, cleaning, washing clothes and dishes, preparing meals, and maybe even sewing, repairing clothes, or spinning wool. But I have seen almost no images with Mary doing any one these things when the angel Gabriel arrives.

There are also a few icons that have Mary with a distaff.

Annunciation

Coptic icon of teh Annunciation 91995) by Bedour Latif and Yousef Nassief

There is also a painting by JW Waterhouse which has Mary kneeling with what appears to be a spindle on the ground beside her. (But there is also the anachronistic book.)

800px-John_William_Waterhouse_-_The_Annunciation

Yet the angel entered and found Mary in her house.

The angel found Zacharias in the temple. Angels appeared to Joseph in dreams.  Angels appeared to the women at the tomb of Jesus. But the Angel Gabriel makes a house call to Mary.

I was thinking of this as I prepared to preach this morning in Debajiados. Without conferring beforehand, Padre German mentioned at the beginning of Mass that the angel came into Mary’s house.

We can encounter God – and God’s messengers – anywhere, especially in our daily lives. We don’t have to be praying; we don’t have to be reading a spiritual book; we don’t have to be kneeling or with our arms crossed over our chests. God comes whenever and wherever.

That is part of the message of many saints and mystics, including Brother Lawrence, famous for his Practice of the Presence of God amid the pots and pans.

But a spirituality which doesn’t take the Incarnation seriously makes many think that we have to be pious to hear God. Piety helps, but attentiveness is more important. And perhaps even more important is being open to God who comes in the little things as well as in the great surprises.

And so let us make sure that we are attentive when the angels enter our house.

 

Joseph – just, docile, free

Joseph, the silent actor, was just, docile, and free.

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Today, because March 19 fell on a Sunday, we celebrate the feast of Saint Joseph, the spouse of the Virgin Mary, the Mother of Jesus. Yesterday, however, we celebrated the feast of Saint Joseph in the village of San José Quebraditas, where I preached.

There is very little in the Gospels about Joseph. We never hear a word he might have spoken. He is the silent witness of the Incarnation of the Son of God. But he listens – even to dreams – and acts.

In the Gospel for the feast, Matthew 1:16, 18-21, 24a, we hear of a man who is just, docile, and free.

Matthew calls Joseph a “just man” or, as some translations put it, a “righteous man.” Joseph is just with the justice of God – not with a merely human justice.

The merely human justice of the law of his day would have condemned Mary to death by stoning – as an adulteress. But Joseph had already chosen a different kind of justice, the justice of mercy and compassion. He had planned to put her away privately.

But Joseph was also docile to the call of God. In a dream an angel calls him to take Mary as his wife. Joseph had proposed a good thing for Mary, but God calls his to go further. Joseph is open to God’s call; he is docile, teachable, and so takes on his role as guardian of Jesus, the Son of God make flesh. For Joseph, his pray to God is not “my will be done,” but “thy will be done.”

In all this we find a free man. Joseph was not so tied to his own ideas that he could not give them up to the dreams of God. Joseph was not so bound by his own culture or his own plans that he could not let God change his plans and move him to respond in an unexpected, loving, and free way to God’s call to change his plans. Joseph is free. As Father Alfred Delp, SJ, wrote from a Nazi prison, “Without complaint he lets his own plans be set aside.”

We would do well to imitate Joseph – the just, docile, and free person who listens and acts.


The photo was taken on March 19, 2017, in San José Quebraditas, Concepción, Copán, Honduras.

The quote from Father Alfred Delp, SJ, comes from The Prison Meditations of Father Delp  and is also found in Alfred Delp, SJ: Prison Writings,  p. 63.