This morning I had tears in my eyes as I watched the grade seven students of St. Anthony’s School enact the Stations of the Cross. My reaction wasn't that surprising – the children played their parts with conviction and with emotion. And I noticed that I wasn't the only one wiping away a tear.
Still, it got me wondering: why does a dramatic presentation of Christ's suffering and death move me more deeply than liturgies that actually make those saving moments present? Wouldn't it make more sense to cry during tonight's liturgy, when the awesome love of Christ, who poured out his blood for us on the cross, is given to us in the Eucharist?
As I thought about this question, one answer came to me. If the sacraments engaged us with the full emotional effect of the mysteries that they represent, we would hardly be able to endure them.
If each Mass carried us back fully to the Upper Room, to the sight of Jesus, preparing to undergo his passion, we would be reduced to helplessness every Sunday.
Instead, God’s plan requires us to make an effort to enter into the mysteries we celebrate. We’re not meant to feel overwhelmed at every Eucharist, but to participate with our minds as well as our hearts.
We are invited to reflect, not simply react. We engage at Mass: not as mere spectators, but in a certain sense as actors.
I didn't need to prepare myself to watch the Stations of the Cross this morning. I simply showed up, and they moved me immediately.
At Mass, on the other hand, a short period of preparation, of reflection, helps us enter more fully into the mysteries we celebrate. A time of thanksgiving after Holy Communion also deepens our awareness of what the Lord has given us. And our active attention and participation makes an enormous difference to what we get out of attending Mass.
Tonight, of course, we have a special invitation – to enter into the upper room with the Lord. To enter with the apostles into that Cenacle where he shared the gift of himself with them and all the ages.
There are no costumes, no dramatic speeches tonight. And yet we will be moved in the very center of our being if we permit ourselves to be – if we open our hearts to the Lord who is inviting us to sit with him at table as he breaks the bread and blesses the cup.
The scripture scholar Cardinal Vanhoye reminds us that our natural tendency is to be concerned with ourselves. We worry about what we have to do, who we have to see, our strengths and our weaknesses, what we have and what we lack.
But tonight the Lord wants us to be concerned only with one thing: receiving his love, for our joy, for God's glory, for our good and the good of everyone around us.
Notice that last point: for the good of those around us. We do not attend Mass and receive Holy Communion for our own sake alone; it is what empowers us to serve the needs of others.
The Eucharist is the fuel of Christian charity.
It is the Eucharist that strengthens the members of our parish who visit the needy, take Communion to the sick, help street kids, and hand out sandwiches on the downtown Eastside. When Mass ends, a small army of generous volunteers leaves the church ready to serve—and not only in the many forms of outreach I’ve mentioned: we serve one another at home and in the parish itself.
Despite what I’ve just said about how the liturgy avoids dramatic gestures, tonight in a way we do imitate the grade 7 students by reenacting Christ’s washing the feet of his disciples.
By highlighting the humble service that Jesus performed for his disciples at the Last Supper, our liturgy leaves no doubt about the connection between the Eucharist and charity.
In a few moments, I will wash the feet of twelve men, not women. One reason for this is clear enough: we’re focusing on the tradition of Jesus washing the feet of his twelve apostles. We’re also obeying current liturgical rules, which clearly specify that men be chosen.
But you can bet that 2013 is probably the last year we won’t wash the feet of women as well, for that’s just what Pope Francis did in Rome today.
What might the Holy Father’s decision mean? It certainly doesn’t mean he disobeys liturgical laws; as the Church’s legislator, he is free to modify such laws. My guess is this: he has decided that right now it’s more important to look ahead than behind. He has decided to change the focus from what Jesus did to the apostles to what we will do to others, as Jesus taught.
In fact, the missal doesn’t actually mention “apostles” in connection with the washing of the feet, and a document issued in Rome some years ago explains the rite only in terms of “Christ’s gesture of service and charity,” a ministry obviously not limited to apostles.
As I have said, don’t be surprised if we wash the feet of some women on Holy Thursday; but at the same time, let us not be worked up about it one way or another. What’s important—crucially important—is that we hear Our Lord saying “I have set you an example, that you should also do as I have done…”
Whether we are members of the St. Vincent de Paul Society helping the poorest of the poor, or moms and dads washing the dirty faces of children, it is our heartfelt participation at Mass that gives us the strength we need to do what Jesus did.