Before the festival day of the pasch, Jesus knowing that his hour was come, that he should pass out of this world to the Father: having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them unto the end (Jn 13:1)

Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,

My very dear sons,

We find ourselves again this evening on the threshold of the sacred Triduum, the holiest days of Holy Week, at this solemn Mass of Maundy Thursday. We are here to commemorate the beginning of Our Lord’s Passion. But is this not something we have done before, many times? Is Maundy Thursday just an exercise we repeat year after year? Or is it not, rather, a unique mystery into which we enter—at least this is to be hoped—more intensely every time? Surely, at the heart of it, there is but one Holy Thursday. Like the sacrifice of Mass itself, this is no mere memorial that is repeated, recited over and over again because never complete, but rather a kind of portal through which the Church enters in order to embrace the salvific love that comes to meet her members and to wrest us out of the grip of Satan. Holy Thursday looks to a single historical event, but one that has eternal consequences. It is represented to us mystically in the holy liturgy. We humbly pass through this liturgical portal and approach the unique mystery—and, as always, on our knees.

Who is this Lord, this Christ, the Son of Man, who so affects the lives of his disciples and of all mankind? In reading and reliving the story of His Passion, we increasingly understand that He is quite simply the key to the entire human enigma. As a Divine Person, He is God Himself, the Word, the Son, the Second Person of the Trinity. As man, He is truly the greatest human being that ever lived. In Him are found simultaneously the wisest of philosophers, the most sublime of poets, the greatest statesman who ever walked upon the face of the earth or ever will, and the holiest of the prophets. What is the meaning of these events that mark the end of His life here below?

One might say that it is all about bending. The Son of Man bends down, lowers Himself, condescends, in the best sense of the word, in order to reach and save the lowly creatures that we are. The King of Heaven deigns to kneel over the probably none too tidy feet of His disciples. This would be a wonder for us, were we not so used to reading about it.

Saint Paul saw it all on a grandiose scale. He contemplates the whole sense of the history of the world in gazing at this bending over of a Divine Person. “Who being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God: but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being made in the likeness of men, and in habit found as a man. He humbled himself, becoming obedient unto death, even to the death of the cross.” (Phil. 2:6-8). This is what is known by the Greek term “kenosis” (κένωσις), which means something like “emptying”. This is a bending down that is also an emptying, an impoverishment of sorts.

This impoverishment and bending of Himself marks the entire life of Christ, beginning with the very humble birth in the lowly stable of Bethlehem. It is here, however, it is now, starting in the Upper Room of Jerusalem that He brings this action of coming down, of bending down for Man, to its climax. The very last act of the drama will be accomplished when He is lowered from the Cross into His mother’s arms and then into the Tomb. His human soul will descend even further, into the dark regions of Hell [Limbo], in order to visit the just ones of the Old Testament and invite them to the eternal life of Heaven once all is consummated.

The first great obstacle to our entering into this mystery is the fact that we initially just do not want to accept it. Like Saint Peter, we want to say, “Thou shalt never wash my feet.” Somehow this self-emptying of Christ disappoints our expectations of a glorious Messiah, of a figure whose glory will rub off on us, make us rise from our mediocrity to a noble destiny. In this we are like the Jewish people at the time of the first coming of the Messiah. We do not attach ourselves to Christ in order to be defeated, we think, but to share in the great victory over evil in all its forms. Foot-washing seems terribly inglorious. However, like Saint Peter, we also know deep down that we are not able to understand it all. When Jesus turns the problem around, we too know we can only comply. “If I wash thee not, thou shalt have no part with me. Simon Peter saith to him: Lord, not only my feet, but also my hands, and my head” (Jn 13:8-9).

Even more difficult for us, no doubt, is the understanding of the practical implications of the lesson that is given. Our Lord is taking His leave from the scene of this world. He will not come back again in a public manner until the end of time. His parting words are thus for His friends a solemn program of Christian living. These are the ultimate lessons in how to live life during our mortal days. The water and basin and the washing of feet show that this lesson is not merely a pious attitude, but meant to teach us to be like the Master in a very real way. It is saddening to see how we Christians, practicing Catholics, while fully accepting in principle the idea of loving one another in concrete gestures of charity, pull back and very much balk at the prospect of actually performing any act that expresses this charity in action. Saint Benedict, echoing the lessons of Christ in his Rule, says that the monks must “with the greatest patience endure one another’s infirmities, whether of body or of character.” (Chapter 72). It is one thing to read these words, but quite another to carry them out in the heat of action, on the battlefield of life.

Pope Francis has made the exercise of fraternal charity, especially in its larger, social dimension, the corner-stone of his papacy. In this domain, he is doing and teaching nothing very different from all the popes that have preceded him. This is what he says in his Apostolic Exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium, quoting several times Saint Thomas Aquinas:

This loving attentiveness is the beginning of a true concern for the person of the poor which inspires me effectively to seek their good. This entails appreciating the [poor] in their goodness, in their experience of life, in their culture, and in their ways of living the faith. True love is always contemplative, and permits us to serve the other not out of necessity or vanity, but rather because he or she is beautiful above and beyond mere appearances: “The love by which we find the other pleasing leads us to offer him something freely”. The poor person, when loved, “is esteemed as of great value”, and this is what makes the authentic option for the poor differ from any other ideology, from any attempt to exploit the poor for one’s own personal or political interest. (Evangelii Gaudium, n. 199; see Saint Thomas Aquinas, S. Th., II-II, q. 27, a. 2.; Ibid., I-II, q. 110, a. 1.; Ibid., I-II, q. 26, a. 3.)

In the end, there is nothing as sublime as this bending over of Christ. In bending down to accomplish His Passion, He does not cease to be in the fullest sense Christ the King. Even as he girds Himself with a towel in order to perform a most humble of tasks, He remains the King of Heaven and Earth. He wears His crown even while He stoops. Over the Christian centuries many a king has sought to imitate this humility of Our Lord. There is no greater glory for an earthly prince. There is no greater glory for each one of us.

The night will tell who Jesus’ friends really are. Sadly enough human weakness will drink the dregs of shame in it all. But there is hope.

Behold, the hour cometh, and it is now come, that you shall be scattered every man to his own, and shall leave me alone; and yet I am not alone, because the Father is with me. (Jn. 16:32).