In the Gospel of yesterday’s Mass Jesus says, “It is at your house that I am keeping Passover” and when I hear these words it strikes me that there is a very personal dimension to it, like Jesus is saying it directly to you and to me, that my soul is the house and my heart the table of His Passover; that He speaks directly to you saying, “this is my Body broken for you…this is my Blood poured out for you. In this we are invited inward to share this mystery in a profoundly personal way and it means that He does not want us to remain outside or that the mystery of the Eucharist should be something external to us.
At the Chrism Mass this morning in the Pro-Cathedral Archbishop Diarmuid Martin asked us to bring home his good wishes to all the people in our parishes and in his homily he spoke a lot about the theme of Mercy which is so prominent in the life, teaching and action of Pope Francis – Mercy that crosses all boundaries, Mercy that is expressed in a Church described by the Pope as being a field hospital in war.
I never knew what a field hospital looked like until I saw the movie ‘Testament of Youth’ which tells the story of the English feminist and pacifist Vera Brittain who lived during the First World War. The field hospital is an incredibly awful reality, a place of unspeakable human suffering and misery.
Vera gave up her hard won education at Oxford and trained as a nurse so that she could share the suffering of the men who were fighting at the front. To her dismay she was sent to work in the German Ward of a field hospital in France and was challenged by the fact that she had to nurse those who were killing the English men she loved. But she had to do it. And maybe one of the reasons why she was sent to that ward was because she spoke German.
There’s a scene in which a young German soldier is near death and the ward sister tells Vera to go and look after him. He is young and blinded and bloodied. And when Vera goes to him he thinks she’s his girlfriend – so she lets go of her resistance, holds him and speaks tenderly to him in German and he dies comforted. Vera had a vision of Divine Love working in that awful place.
In a poem called ‘The German Ward’, Vera later wrote – “I learnt that human mercy turns alike to friend or foe”. Mercy turns alike to friend and foe!
This is what we witness in perfect form in Jesus at the Last Supper. He who is Divine Love and Mercy gets down on his knees to wash their feet – feet that are dirty and tired from the journey of their life. It is not a liturgical act – it is love on his knees tending to the reality of their lives.
The astonishing thing about this is that Jesus does not only get down on his knees in front of the nice, good apostles; he gets down on his knees in love before Judas and before Peter; he kneels to the betrayer and the denyer. Mercy turns alike to friend or foe!
But this does not mean that Jesus supports or agrees with what they are about to do. Divine Love is able to love and to disagree in the same moment; Divine Love is both merciful and truthful in the same moment, to serve and to oppose in the same moment. And this is the love that we are called to become when we celebrate the Eucharist in Holy Mass.
However, the liberal, progressive society in which we live does not understand such love and will not allow it to be expressed. In the major changes that are taking place one of the ideas being promoted is that if you love me then you must agree with me, if you really love me you must support what I am doing no matter how wrong or harmful it may be and if you do not agree with me, if you do not support me then you do not love me. Jesus would say to much of what is happening – I disagree with you and I love you; I oppose what you are doing and I get down on my knees to minister to your needs.
It happens all the time in marriage relationships, in the relationships of parents with their children, in our relationship with someone we love who is living a self-destructive life, or a life destructive of others. In our ordinary relationships love and opposition live side by side as do conflict and mercy, hurt and healing. In our perseverance against the odds the perfect Love of Jesus is at work.
The first thing tonight is that each of us needs to allow Jesus to wash us in whatever way we need, to let him be the lover that we need in our moment of greatest weakness, to be light in the darkness of my depression, to bind up what is broken in my body, mind, soul and heart, the liberator of my addictions. We need to allow him to do it and not resist him as Peter did.
And then every single one of us, without exception, is to become Living Love and Mercy to friend and enemy alike.
“When he had washed their feet and put on his clothes again he went back to the table. ‘Do you understand’ he said ‘what I have done to you? You call me Master and Lord, and rightly; so I am. If I, then, the Lord and Master, have washed your feet, you should wash each other’s feet. I have given you an example so that you may copy what I have done to you.’”