Below is the text of the homily that I preached at the Mass of the Lord’s Supper on Holy Thursday at St. Agnes Catholic Church in Nashville, Indiana.
There is a danger in these days of the Triduum – a danger in these annual days when we as a Church commemorate the most important events of our salvation – the institution of the Eucharist and the priesthood at this evening’s Mass of the Lord’s Supper, the suffering and death of Jesus Christ at tomorrow’s Service of the Lord’s Passion, and our Lord’s resurrection at the celebrations of Easter. We spend a lot of time in church buildings during these days, surrounded by other believers – listening to the words of Scripture, meditating on the mysteries of our faith, singing the hymns of our tradition, adoring the Eucharist and the cross, being bathed with the waters of baptism either for the first time or as we renew our baptismal identity. These days are filled with beautiful liturgies – intense prayer – communal celebrations of who we are as a Church. But here’s the danger – these days can turn into being all about us. We can easily focus almost exclusively on what we do here in this church building – we can celebrate the faith that we have been blessed with – we can rejoice in what Jesus Christ has done for you and for me. And then we can go back to work and school and our regular lives on Monday, without radiating the joy of the risen Christ – without bringing Christ to the world – without being disciples. If that’s what these three holy days do in our lives, then we might as well not celebrate them at all. If our liturgies of Holy Thursday and Good Friday and Easter serve only to bring us together as members of the Christian family so we can spend time with one another – even holy, prayerful time – but if these days only serve to gather the Church together, then we’ve missed the point. Because the Church is not the Church until it goes beyond the Church. The danger of these days – the danger of Christian life in general – is that we are only the Church when we are here, in this building; that we are only disciples when it’s time to go to church; that we only strive for holiness when our fellow Christians are looking. The Church is not the Church until it goes beyond the Church.
That’s where the washing of feet comes in. Jesus had gathered his disciples together on the night before he died for a liturgy – for the first Eucharist – and for a ritual washing. The mission of the disciples started by gathering as a community in the presence of their master and teacher. But then, they were given a command – mandatum in Latin, a mandate – to wash feet, to serve one another, to go out into the world to bring the presence of Christ to the dirty, the lonely, the poor, the abandoned. What does this look like for us? To be able to speak a word of strength and closeness for someone reeling from a diagnosis of cancer – that’s what it means to wash feet. To spend an afternoon talking or playing cards with a shut-in – that’s what it means to wash feet. To speak up in kindness and love when the talk turns to gossip or judgmental attitudes – that’s what it means to wash feet. To smile to a stranger; to be a friend to a co-worker; to comfort the bereaved; to teach the truth in love; to hold one another to the standard of holiness, not just goodness; to sacrifice having the latest gadget so your money can be spent on others rather than yourself – that’s what it means to wash feet; that’s what it means to be Church. It starts here, to be sure – gathering as a community of believers in the presence of Christ – but the real work of disciples doesn’t happen inside these walls. Because the Church is not the Church until it goes beyond the Church.
There is a danger of these days – these three holy days of the Triduum. There’s a danger inherent in the humanity of the Church – that it becomes all about us, that we turn ourselves inward, that we become, in the words of Pope Francis, “self-referential.” But it’s not about us – life is not about you or me – it’s about Jesus Christ, and once we have been nourished by his word and sacrament as a baptized community, we must leave here and wash feet. Because the Church is not the Church until it goes beyond the Church.