We celebrated two funerals earlier this week. And each time I sit down with a grieving family, after we hash out the specifics of the funeral liturgy—which date is best for everyone, what time, whether or not there’s a casket, a visitation, a reception, an interment; after deciding on the scripture readings and the music; after assigning the family member to speak a word of thanks and remembrance; after selecting the readers, and the people to bring up the bread and wine; I ask them to tell me some good stories. What was it like for their loved one in their youth? What were their colorful interests, their tender loves, their insatiable hungers? How did they first meet their spouse? What was it like raising their family? And after the children had moved away? And after retirement? And after downsizing and moving that one last time?
The people we come to know and love over the span of our lifetime will easily leave an impression on us. Some memories will make us smile; some will make us laugh hysterically. Some will cause us to shake our heads in disbelief; some will open old wounds. We will typically picture their physical appearance—timid, guarded, carefree, relaxed, welcoming, troubled, dismissive, intimidating, threatening. We might consider what fueled our loved one’s passions, their interesting use of words, their -isms, their insistence on what the rest of the world might find unconventional or even strange, their unique mannerisms, their quirks, their personal preferences and foibles. Often without our loved one’s knowing, but with overwhelming agreement among those who knew them well, they probably would have to concede, however reluctantly, to the picture we eventually piece together of what we saw them to have been in life.
Several years ago, I spoke to a group of college young men preparing for graduation and their official launch into adulthood. I shared a particularly annoying experience from high school and college seminary, and my frustration that for several years I was assigned for the first few months to bathroom and toilet duty. Eventually I took my pain and anger to confession. I was convinced that some dark conspiracy was sent to break my spirit, and clobber me into humble submission. But I wanted sincerely to trust that God had my best interest at heart, and that this was all part of his awesome and loving plan. I even jokingly suggested that if a monument were ever built or a statue of me was ever cast, like those of celebrated heroes and saints of old, I would have a toilet brush in my hand. Some weeks later, they presented me with my own gold spray-painted toilet brush, for when I pose for that commemorative portrait to go in some famous museum. Today it sits prominently on a pedestal in my living room.
Since remembering is something that the living do, we can attempt to create that perfect picture of ourselves we hope people would remember for when we depart this earthly life. But whether or not that is what they actually remember is not anything we can control. They will remember us as we have impressed them. It’s just how it works.
Jesus instructed his friends who gathered around the table the night before he died to celebrate this ritual meal, to break unleavened bread and to share a simple cup of wine. It was already an important memorial meal to begin with. It was the Passover of the Lord, meant to recall each year how in his great mercy, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, delivered Israel from their bondage in darkness and sin to the freedom of God’s daughters and sons. Now this act of remembering took on added meaning. It brought all who partake in its celebration to encounter and experience personally God’s deliverance of his people. It would be more than just some mental exercise. It would be above all an immersion in God’s very saving action.
But the sense of the early church was to gather more often than once a year to celebrate this meal and remember. Rather, it would become the central focus of their worship of God and their fellowship with one another. This memorial meal was rightly linked with the historical events that unfolded shortly thereafter—Jesus’ arrest, his trial, his torture, and his death. St. Paul enunciated it in his first letter to the Corinthians that we read this night each year. “For as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the death of the Lord until he comes.”
But the community of believers from which the fourth gospel emerged would offer us yet a different perspective. The Jewish meal of Passover is implied on this night before Jesus embraced his suffering and death. And the difficult teaching surrounding his offering of his own flesh and blood as food and drink had been treated extensively several chapters before. So when the church chose a gospel reading for this once-a-year liturgy, we read instead how Jesus got up from the table, poured water into a basin, picked up a towel, knelt before each of his disciples, and washed their feet. None of the other three gospels recount this event. And yet it is what the church offers for our consideration tonight.
Another name for Holy Thursday is Maundy Thursday, taken from the first word that begins the gospel acclamation for today in Latin. “Mandátum novum do vobis, dicit Dóminus, ut diligátis ínvicem, sicut diléxi vos.—I give you a new commandment. Love one another as I have loved you.” This is what Jesus tells his disciples later on in the gospel after he had washed their feet. So we can read it as simply flowing from that last lesson he was teaching. “Do you realize what I have done for you? You call me ‘teacher’ and ‘master,’ and rightly so, for indeed I am. If I, therefore, the master and teacher, have washed your feet, you ought to wash one another’s feet. I have given you a model to follow, so that as I have done for you, you should also do.”
When we picture the glorious Son of God, we probably see him hanging on the cross as he is represented in every Catholic church everywhere in the world. But on this Holy Thursday night, the church presents us the image of a servant, who kneels before us to wash our feet. Some churches have taken Jesus’ instruction rather literally and have incorporated into the liturgy a washing of feet involving the assembly. They would argue that’s what Jesus said for us to do. It is not quite what the liturgy says we should do. Instead, Jesus’ washing of his disciples’ feet is a profound symbol of what a Christian’s lifestyle of service to others should look like. We can probably picture some prominent Christian, or some member of our own church community in the act of serving another because that is what we have seen and know of them in reality. If other people would picture you in the act of serving your neighbor, would they come up with one quickly? Of you holding a wooden spoon over a pot of soup? A broom? A mop? A toilet brush? Otherwise, would you be happy with whatever they come up with to remember you? Would Jesus agree it’s exactly what he would have pictured?
Rolo B Castillo © 2018