Exod 12:1-8, 11-14 Ps 116 ICor 11:23-26 John 13:1-15
“I have given you a model to follow”
Dear friends! There is an expression that says, “Do as I say, not as I do.” The basic meaning is that it’s easier to talk a good game than to play the game well. All in all, the saying highlights the gap between saying and doing. But in today’s gospel, in Jesus we hear the utterance and see the utterance brought to fulfillment; he is both the saying and the doing.
So when Jesus states, “I am the good shepherd,” he really does lead; or I am the bread of life,” he does nourish; or “I am the resurrection and the life,” he really does give new life. 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. But the church does not offer us a gospel reading about Christ giving us himself in the form of bread and wine. Instead, it gives us this gospel Jesus washing the disciples’ 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. From this, we learn 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.
Millions upon millions of people witnessed Mother Theresa’s dedication to the poor in Calcutta and around the globe. She insisted that her community need not do ‘great things’ for God. Rather, it was in loving much and committing one’s life to the poor that her sisters made an ‘offering of something beautiful for God.”
El Salvador was torn apart by persecutions and violence. Archbishop Romero took on the government and the military, institutions that were killing the poor and blocking the work of justice. On March 24, 1980, while saying Mass at a Carmelite sister’s hospital, Romero was shot and killed. Like Jesus, he gave his life for others and became a voice for the voiceless.
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 New York Times. And it is priests like me and Fr. Don before you tonight, thousands around the world, who anoint our sick and offer absolution for our sins, and celebrate mass with one simple goal in mind – to save souls.
Tonight’s liturgy includes a time for the pastor to wash the feet of some of his parishioners. As this special rite unfolds tonight, imagine that Jesus himself is present, telling all of us: “As I have done for you, you should also do.”
That is Christ’s message to his followers – and to us. What our community and society needs today is not just Sunday worshipers but imitators of Jesus. 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?