“In another world it may be different, but in this world, to live is to change and to be perfect is to have changed often.” These famous words of Cardinal Newman seem especially relevant to this time of year. Not only is the world of nature changing around us almost every day, waking up from its winter slumber, but in the Church too we once again make the transition from Lent, with its focus on self-denial, to Holy Week, when we meditate on Christ’s passion and death, and finally now to the joys and splendour of the Easter season.
All these changes are a reflection of the great changes that took place in the life of Jesus Christ himself. Throughout Lent we contemplated him fasting in the desert, then suffering cruelly for us on the Cross, but now he appears before us in a glorified body, one able to walk through closed doors yet still bearing the marks of the nails in his flesh.
The Apostles too changed a great deal. Before his passion there were many things Jesus said and did which they did not grasp; during his Passion they took to their heels in fear; but after the Resurrection and Pentecost a remarkable change took place in them: they became what St. Peter in today’s first reading calls witnesses to Christ’s death and resurrection, and fearless witnesses at that. They spoke clearly and with great insight about what they had not understood before; they spoke boldly about their Lord and Master, knowing full well they could meet the same fate as he had. But the word that describes them best of all is joy, that joy that comes when we have received a priceless gift we never expected when all hope seemed to have been lost.
“Jesus appeared after his resurrection to certain chosen witnesses; now we are those wit-nesses,” Peter proclaims in his first speech to a non-Jewish audience in our first reading. These are words we can fruitfully apply to ourselves as this joyful Easter season begins. We too have undergone a great change through our sacramental participation in the mysteries of Christ’s death and resurrection, or rather, we know that Christ’s resurrection has changed everything in our life. It has not necessarily taken our problems away, but it has enabled us to see them in a completely new light, the light of Easter symbolised by this paschal candle lit tonight / yesterday.
There was a great saint of the Russian Orthodox Church, St. Seraphim, who after many years praying alone in the forest, began to be sought out by hundreds of people in trouble. It is said of him that sometimes, seeing someone coming to him in the distance, he would instantly know what their problem was, and running towards them he would hug them and say, “My joy, Christ is risen,” and the person would no longer need to tell him anything because he or she knew that the Resurrection of Jesus had changed everything.
And so, to take a favourite phrase of Pope John Paul, let us today open the doors to Jesus Christ, the doors of our own life, of our family, of our society and every situation we face. The disciples locked the doors after the Crucifixion because they feared what might happen to them. So often our own problems cause us to lock away a part of ourselves that has been hurt or disappointed in the past in order to protect ourselves. Christ walked through the locked doors to greet his disciples, but usually he will wait for us to open the door from the inside and invite him in. And when that happens, we become witnesses of his Resurrection by the very change that takes place in us, from despair to hope, from sadness to joy and from fear to the confidence that we stand before him as his beloved sons and daughters.
When we spend some time contemplating Our Lord’s Passion, as we all surely want to do at this time of year, it’s natural to ask ourselves, what should my response be? What should I do in return? That, we are told, was the question the crowd asked on Pentecost Day when St. Peter preached his first homily, and they were cut to the heart realizing that they had crucified God’s chosen one.
And we might well think to ourselves, if that is how God’s Son loved me and the whole human race, I should respond by loving him and other people in the same generous way. And that, of course, would be a good response, but it is not actually the first thing we need to do.
The first response we need to make is actually harder than that, because it is much more humbling: it is simply to believe in his love for me, to receive and accept it and take it deeply into my heart. That is the teaching Jesus gave the people on one occasion when they asked him what doing God’s work involves: he said, this is doing God’s work: believe in the one he has sent.
It is as if he looked forward into the future and saw something we are all too familiar with: people claiming to do God’s work but actually destroying themselves and other people in the process, as we see in an extreme form when people blow themselves up in the name of God and cause terrible carnage.
In a few days’ time we shall celebrate Divine Mercy Sunday, and today we begin our Novena in preparation for it. The message of Divine Mercy is above all one of trust in God. Jesus told one sister who doubted whether she had been forgiven that her lack of trust wounded him far more than her sins. So today let us resolve once and for all to trust his love. We have heard how he did not hesitate to give himself totally for us: let us respond by believing in him with all our hearts and then whatever we do in his name will be based on a sure foundation.
It’s easy to imagine the shocked silence in the room as Jesus began washing the feet of his disciples. It’s as if you had invited the Queen to a magnificent dinner and she noticed the floor was dirty and went down on her hands and knees before you could protest and started scrubbing it.
The Eucharist is something we sadly can get all too used to and begin to take for granted, but the washing of the feet will always be a unique sign of contradiction, a painful thorn in our side every time we begin to take ourselves too seriously or believe in our own self-importance. What makes it worse is that with devastating truthfulness Jesus does not deny who he really is – “You call me Lord and Master and rightly, for so I am.” Far more effec-tively than any sermon, he acts out to etch it indelibly on our memory how we ought to treat each other whenever an opportunity occurs to serve in the humblest, least glamorous way possible.
I recall a story of a drunk on an underground train in Tokyo driving everyone mad with his shouting and cursing until suddenly an old man called out to him, “Hey, what have you been drinking?” Of course being Japan it was sake, and gradually the old man strikes up a rapport with him based on a shared love of sake, finds out that he is desolate since his wife died earlier that year, and as the narrator of the story gets off the train, he sees the old man cradling the drunk in his arms and gently stroking his hair.
If we want to recapture a sense of wonder at the Eucharist, as surely we should at this time of year, maybe we should begin by meditating on stories like that, modern equivalents of the washing of the feet. It’s as if Jesus is saying to us, if you truly want to take part in the Eucharist, that is the kind of person you must at least want to become.
There are many other ways to stir up what Pope John Paul 2 called a sense of “Eucharistic amazement.” He reminded us that even when the Eucharist is celebrated with a couple of people in a humble country chapel, it still has a cosmic dimension. We should never reduce it to the dimensions of a cosy fellowship meal where everyone should feel comfortable. In the Eucharist, as the Eastern Church loves to stress, heaven comes down to earth; in a great act of praise Christ, through whom the whole universe was created, offers back to the Father in the Spirit the world which he came to redeem and restore.
One of the ways we can keep this sense of wonder alive is through Eucharistic adoration, which concludes our ceremony tonight in the Lady Chapel until midnight. In Eucharistic adoration there is that combination in all authentic Christian prayer of deep reverence and childlike familiarity: Christ has humbled himself to dwell among us tangibly, exposing himself to the risk of being taken for granted or even ignored; our response should be to give him our hearts in adoration, pouring out our love and telling him with confidence our deepest secrets.
We can recall Newman recording his first impression, after he left the splendours of Oxford on becoming a Catholic for the squalor of Maryvale, of the presence of Christ in the tabernacle in that house as something totally new and unexpected for him and far outweighing all the difficulties he was experiencing. Or Pope John Paul II dawdling as he came out after some big ceremony at St. Peter’s, and on being asked why, saying, “To have some time for thanksgiving for receiving the Eucharist.”
The washing of the feet, the Eucharist and finally the priesthood, the third of the great themes of tonight’s liturgy. It is difficult to speak about the priesthood today. We are afraid of going back to a time when the priest was put on a pedestal and was even an object of fear to some people. We are all too aware of the failings and sometimes grave sins of priests in our time.
Someone who was not afraid to speak of the greatness of the priesthood, and could do it because he was all too aware of his human limitations, was the Cure of Ars, St. Jean-Marie Vianney. Without the priest, he once said rather provocatively, the Passion and Death of our Lord would be of no use to us at all. Try going to Our Lady, he said on another occasion, and see if she can forgive you your sins: she cannot, but the priest can. He also said once: “If we really understood the priest on this earth, we would die, not of fear but of love.” And his most celebrated saying: “priesthood is the love of the Sacred Heart.”
What he means by that is that you cannot physically see the Heart of Jesus, but when you see a priest, you are seeing what is in Jesus’ heart, his intense love for the whole human race which on the eve of his Passion led him to invent ways to communicate that love to us once he had passed beyond our sight at his Ascension into heaven: the priest, the Eucharist, and something every Christian is called to do, to wash the feet of another human being for whom he died.