Thursday, April 21, 2011

Holy Thursday

“Jesus loved his own in the world
and he loved them to the end.”
So John begins his account of the last supper,
which presents us with the striking scene
of Jesus washing his disciples’ feet.

“He loved them to the end.”
Not simply the “end” in a chronological sense –
the point at which something ceases –
but the end in the sense of a goal that has been reached,
a process that has been completed,
a task that has been finished.
Knowing that his hour has come
in which he is to pass from this world to the Father,
Jesus does the work God has given to him,
a work that can only be fulfilled by love,
a work whose completion he will announce on the cross
when he declares, “It is finished.”

The washing by Jesus of his disciples’ feet
is not simply an example of service;
it is an enacted parable of his whole life.
The water that he pours over his disciples’ feet
is the living water that he offered
to the Samaritan woman at the well;
it is the water that will flow forth with blood
when his side is pierced on the cross;
it is Jesus himself,
pouring out his life for his disciples out of love,
for it is through such love that he accomplishes the task
that his Father has given him to do.
Only when he has poured out his life
for the life of the world
can he say “it is finished;
I have loved them to the end.”

It is finished,
but it is still going on:
Jesus continues to wash our feet today,
as he pours out his life for us
through the living water of baptism
and in the Eucharistic feast of his body and blood.
Jesus still washes our feet
because he gives himself totally
for each and every one of us,
holding nothing back.

And this is what he commands us to do as well:
“I have given you a model to follow,
so that as I have done for you, you should also do.”
Our participation in the ritual of washing feet
is an enacted parable of our own willingness
to give ourselves totally
for each and every one of our brothers and sisters,
holding nothing back.

But there’s the difficulty.
We see in Jesus the completion of love’s task
but we also see in ourselves love’s failures.
As every person knows,
no matter how fully we seek to love
there seem always to be those moments when,
even with the ones we love most deeply,
we say, “I can’t tolerate another moment.
I can’t forgive that hurt.
I can’t love that far.”
We see in ourselves the pride,
the grudges,
the prejudice,
the lack of patience –
all of the things that stand in the way
of giving ourselves totally in love,
the the things that keep us from saying
“it is finished;
I have loved them to the end.”
We know that as much as we try to reach that goal,
we always seem to stumble.

And this is why we cannot simply wash feet,
but must also let our feet be washed.
Our only chance of loving as Christ loved,
of pouring out our lives
and holding nothing back,
is to let ourselves be loved by him:
to let him bathe our stumbling feet
with his own mercy.

On the night before he died,
Jesus gathered with friends and betrayers,
some of whom were one and the same people.
He knew the failures of love.
He saw it in Judas.
He saw it in Peter.
He sees it in us.
He knows that the feet he washes
are feet that will stumble,
yet he washes them anyway,
to bathe us in his own life poured out.
And bathed in his life we, in our own imperfect way,
can join him in love’s task,
called forward into another day’s living by his great cry of victory,
“It is finished;
I have loved them to the end.”

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Lent 4

Confronted with a man who was born blind,
Jesus’ disciples ask,
“who sinned, this man or his parents?”
A devastating earthquake hits the island of Haiti
and American televangelist (and sometime politician) Pat Robertson
asks whether this might be because of a pact
the Haitians had made centuries ago with the devil.
Who sinned, the Haitians or their parents?
An even stronger earthquake
and the resultant tsunami
pushes Japan to the brink of a nuclear crisis
and the governor of Tokyo asks
whether this might not be divine punishment.
Who sinned, the Japanese or their parents?

We might think that faced with such misery
we would never raise such questions
but it is a natural human response to misfortune
to ask why such things happen,
to ask who is to blame,
to seek some past action on someone’s part
that would justify the pain and suffering
that has occurred.
We desire to find order in the world;
for if we can figure out how misfortune and disaster
are connected to someone’s past action
then the perplexity that accompanies such events
might be dissipated,
and we can restore our belief
that the world really is, despite all appearances,
a reasonable, just and orderly place.

But Jesus approaches the misery and misfortune
of the man born blind
in a different way:
in response to his disciples’ question
he says that, “Neither he nor his parents sinned;
it is so that the works of God
might be made visible through him.”
Jesus then spits on the ground, makes a muddy paste
and, rubbing it in the man’s eyes,
heals him and restores his sight.

I don’t think Jesus is saying
that God blinded this man from birth
just so that Jesus could come along, decades later,
and heal him.
Rather, he is indicating to his disciples that,
when confronted with human suffering,
they are asking the wrong sort of question.
They are seeking an explanation
of where misfortune comes from:
Why was this man born blind?
Why must the suffering of the poverty-stricken people of Haiti
be magnified by a terrible earthquake?
What did the people of Japan do
to deserve a catastrophic tsunami?
But these sorts of questions are unanswerable,
or at least whatever answers God has to them
are probably not the kind of thing
we mere mortals might understand.
Instead, Jesus redirects the attention of his disciples
from asking about the reason for suffering
to the ministry of alleviating suffering.
The source of the misery and misfortune of the man born blind
remains hidden.
What is visible is the healing, saving, enlightening power of Jesus.
What is visible is the ministry of Jesus, the light of the world.
Into the darkness of the man born blind, Jesus brings his light
both to heal the man’s physical blindness
and to give to him the eyes of faith,
so that he might recognize the power of God
in the one who has healed him.

Having been enlightened by Jesus,
the man becomes himself a source of light,
bearing witness to Jesus
before those who would oppose him.
This remarkable transformation from darkness to light
is echoed in our second reading,
from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians:
“Brothers and sisters:
You were once darkness,
but now you are light in the Lord.”
Notice that Paul says to the Ephesians
not simply that they have received light in their darkness,
but that they have become light.
The light that they have received
they are now to share with others.

In other words,
now that they have received Christ’s light
they are called to share in Jesus’ ministry
of healing, saving, and enlightening.
Notice that in today’s Gospel Jesus says to his disciples,
“We have to do the works of the one who sent me while it is day.”
Not I, but we
the disciples are called to share
in Jesus’ ministry of light in darkness.

Faced with human misery and misfortune,
whether that of the man born blind
or the disasters of our own day,
true followers of Christ
must not let the inevitable questions about “why”
keep them from answering Jesus’ call
to join in his ministry of light:
“Awake, O sleeper,
and arise from the dead,
and Christ will give you light.”
Through the light of Christ,
we become light.
And, transformed into light,
we can respond to the call
that he gave to the disciples
who witnessed his transfigured glory:
“Rise, and do not be afraid.”
Rise, and join me in being light
in the darkest places of human misery and misfortune.