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The Holy Thursday Mandatum: Washing Feet, Love is a Verb

By Deacon Keith Fournier
April 22nd, 2011
Catholic Online (www.catholic.org)

The Vigil Mass of Holy Thursday deepens our understanding of the Mystery of the self emptying of Jesus Christ. We celebrate the gift of the ministerial priesthood which continues to make present the Priesthood of Jesus Christ. When our Priest stands at that altar, it is Jesus Christ in whom He stands, Christ is the victim, and Christ is the Holy Oblation.

CHESAPEAKE, VA. (Catholic Online) - "God is love, and he who abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him" (1 John 4:16) These words from the First Letter of John express with remarkable clarity the heart of the Christian faith: the Christian image of God and the resulting image of mankind and its destiny... I wish in my first Encyclical to speak of the love which God lavishes upon us and which we in turn must share with others. That, in essence, is what the two main parts of this Letter are about, and they are profoundly interconnected."

With these words Pope Benedict XVI began his first encyclical letter Deus Caritas Est. (God is Love). It was released on the Nativity of the Lord in the year 2005. We just commemorated the sixth year of his pontificate.  The Holy Thursday Vigil Liturgy begins our Triduum (Latin for our three Holy days). In his message for the Chrism Mass in Rome in 2010 Pope Benedict reaffirmed the ancient understanding concerning these three days, saying that "...they could be considered one single day. They reveal the heart and are the key to both the liturgical year and the life of the Church."

Last Sunday we celebrated Passion or Palm Sunday. Just prior to the reading of the Passion Narrative, we heard proclaimed one of the most ancient of the passages contained within the Sacred Scripture. St. Paulīs powerful words concerning Jesusī great self emptying, in Greek, His "kenosis", recorded in the second chapter of his letter to the Philippians. "Christ Jesus, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God something to be grasped. Rather, he emptied himself." (Phil. 2:6-11)

The Vigil Mass of Holy Thursday deepens our understanding of that Mystery of the self emptying of Jesus Christ. We celebrate the gift of the ministerial priesthood which continues to make present the Priesthood of Jesus Christ. When our Priest stands at that altar, it is Jesus Christ in whom He stands, Christ is the victim, and Christ is the Holy Oblation. Jesus gave Himself to us in the great meal in which we participate in on this Holy Night. The Holy Sacrifice of the Mass is the Holy Oblation of Incarnate Love and we are the beneficiaries, receiving the very life of God.

At the Last Supper, Jesus Sacramentally anticipated the altar of the Cross at which He would willingly pour out the very last drop of His Blood so that we could be set free to live free. St. Paul told the Galatian Christians, "For freedom Christ set us free." (Gal. 5:1) We are set free to live our real human lives in Him, for Him and with Him, for the sake of the World. When the Lord rose from that table, He showed us the naturally supernatural expression of that Love; an expression that reveals the heart of the Christian vocation.

He, who is Lord and Master, King of Kings, took off His Cloak of Royal Splendor and became a Servant. He washed the feet of those whom He had chosen to continue His Redemptive work. He showed them what they were chosen to do and then He enlisted them to live lives of self emptying Love for the world. To bear the name "Christian" is to walk in this kind of love in the midst of a broken and wounded world that is waiting to be reborn.

This is the world which He still loves. It is being recreated anew as He continues His Mission through the Church. The early Christians spoke of the Church as the world in the process of being transfigured. And, my friends, we are a part of that Body, that Communion, which brings heaven to earth and earth to heaven. It is in this sense that we come to understand that Christian love is to be lived, love is a verb. 

Our Priest, standing, to use the Latin "in persona Christi", will rise, and taking the basin, towel and washcloth, he will wash the feet of twelve people chosen to symbolize the sacrificial service of love offered by this whole parish. The Love of Christ, the Incarnate Word, the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity, is made into symbolic action, because Love is a verb. Love is a command, a mandate. This foot-washing is more than a re-enactment of an actual historic event; it is an invitation to participate in the ongoing redemptive mission of Jesus Christ through His Church.

The Eucharist is the "Sacrament of Love", in the words of our beloved Holy Father Benedict XVI. In that first Encyclical letter he underscored the depth of the Mystery revealed in that penultimate Sacrament, and connected that Sacrament - and our participation in it - to our choice to live lives of expressed and sacrificial love in the real world. That is what I mean by the expression Love is a verb

Foot washing is a symbolic action. It expresses what living this kind of Eucharistic Life, a life of self emptying love in imitation of the Lord who emptied Himself for us, looks like. It has been traditionally referred to as "the Mandatum", the Command. It is an invitation to become a man or woman poured out for others. A Christian who lives the love of Charity (Caritas), the Love of Jesus Christ, makes Jesus Christ real in the real world. In so doing, the Incarnation continues.

In our participation in the Mysteries of these three Holy days, this one day; we will encounter the Lord Himself. In that encounter He calls us afresh to follow Him, to bear His name in the real world. To pray and live in that name, Christian, it helps to remember what names meant in the biblical sense. They communicate identity. Through grace we are capacitated to become an "epiphany" a manifestation of the self emptying Servant love of Jesus the Christ.

In that encyclical Pope Benedict wrote of the inner dynamic which happens when we participate in the Eucharist: "The Eucharist draws us into Jesus' act of self-oblation. More than just statically receiving the incarnate Logos, we enter into the very dynamic of his self-giving. Union with Christ is also union with all those to whom he gives himself. I cannot possess Christ just for myself; I can belong to him only in union with all those who have become, or who will become, his own.

"Communion draws me out of myself towards him, and thus also towards unity with all Christians. We become "one body", completely joined in a single existence. Love of God and love of neighbor are now truly united: God incarnate draws us all to himself...."

"So, during supper, fully aware that the Father had put everything into his power and that he had come from God and was returning to God, he rose from supper and took off his outer garments. He took a towel and tied it around his waist. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples' feet and dry them with the towel around his waist.

So when he had washed their feet and put his garments back on and reclined at table ..."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." (St John, Chapter 13)

Here, in this poignant scene recorded by the beloved disciple, we encounter Jesus, before he shares a final meal with his closest friends; before He who knew no sin, would suffer and freely stretch out His sacred arms to embrace the entire world and join heaven to earth, showing the depth and substance of true love. Shortly after this event we read of the continuation of this great Act of poured out Love. First Jesus inaugurates the great meal that is itself the very heart of the holy exchange, The Sacrifice, the Holy Oblation of Love. He gives Himself as food for those who will make the journey with Him back to the Father and invites them to bring the whole world with them.

Then, this Innocent One walks the way of suffering and mounts the altar of sacrifice on Golgotha in order to fully pour Himself out - every last drop of blood and water flowing from His wounded side - on behalf of us all, beginning creation anew, overcoming sin, paying the debt of justice and defeating the devil and last enemy, death.

As we enter into this "Triduum", the great three days, the one day, we are invited to make this mystery our own. No mere spectators in this Act of Love we are to become participants. We who bear the name "Christian" are called ourselves to pick up that basin and towel, to climb upon that Cross and to learn -and to live- this way of Love in service. Our faith and love are meant to be active and incarnate. We live Lovesī eternal promise by living like the One who washed, who still washes, His disciples feet. When we do, we make the mystery real on an earth that still awaits the fullness of redemption.

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