When I entered into Holy Week this year on Palm Sunday, I was deeply aware that I wanted to preach from a place of hope deeply rooted in prayer. I wanted my homily to be theologically rich, unfolding the beautiful imagery of Jesus as the new Passover/Paschal Lamb who humbly gives us his very Body and Blood to save us and set us free.
Instead, I have found myself in a dark place, different from, and yet somehow linked to the darkness in our world today.
A darkness not just because of Covid-19, but because of the darkness of war; because of refugees crowded in temporary camps that have become permanent homes for millions and breeding places for viruses and violence; because of drought that has caused crop failure and hunger; because of torrential rains that have washed away crops or caused landslides killing hundreds; or because she’s a single mom with three kids who suddenly lost her job and is now alone because the guy who told her, “I love you more than anything, than anyone,” walked out because he found somebody else to supposedly love “more than anyone.”
Archbishop Gomez of Los Angeles wrote a short reflection which begins, “Future generations will look back on this as the long Lent of 2020, a time when disease and death suddenly darkened the whole earth. As we enter into Holy Week, these most sacred days of the Church year, Catholics here in Los Angeles, across the United States and the world are living under quarantine, our societies shut down by the Covid-19 pandemic…
“These are times almost without precedent in the long history of the Church. In the face of this world-wide contagion, my brother bishops and I in almost every country have had to temporarily suspend public worship and the celebration of the Sacraments.”
My personal darkness began late Sunday evening with an unsuspected rising anger, a seething, growing anger at an unseen enemy that was striking down the most vulnerable, the old and weak, around the world.
Then the anger turned in and I became depressed. All day Tuesday I was feeling disoriented and couldn’t seem to find which way to go. I kept feeling, “This is not how it is meant to be— empty pews, an empty pitcher, a dry towel, no feet to wash, no adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, no confessions, no anointings of the sick and dying or trips to the hospital or helping at the men’s shelter because I’m too old and vulnerable and because I have ALS.”
I found myself shaking my fist at God on Wednesday. “You will never, never wash my feet,” said Peter to Jesus.
“Never,” Fr. Jim said to Jesus.
“Don’t you get it? I’m supposed be washing people’s feet Thursday night. I’m the pastor. I’m supposed to be modeling what service is meant to be.”
“What I am doing, you do not understand now, but you will understand later.”
“Later? How much later, Jesus,” I shouted back.
“Jesus knew that his hour had come…He loved his own in the world and he loved them to the end…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, took off his outer garments…and began to wash the disciples’ feet.”
It hurts my heart every time I walk past the St. Joseph Chapel to and from the office. The sawhorse blocking the doors and the sign, “Adoration Chapel CLOSED.”
Closed. It’s not supposed to be that way.
So this morning, as I went to do my regular Thursday morning holy hour in the chapel at the rectory instead of the adoration chapel, I felt empty and hardly ready for the Paschal Triduum. It felt more like being in the cold tomb with the stone rolled tightly against the entrance.
And there I sat on my prayer stool looking at our makeshift tabernacle which is really my chalice case for my 40th anniversary of ordination chalice.
On Holy Thursday, the church also remembers the Sacrament of Ordination to the priesthood. Ordination. I was ordained to serve, to give myself for others, to be there with others in celebrating the Sacraments and being present for the sacramental moments where God breaks into people’s lives.
Yet most of that, I thought, was taken away.
I usually don’t give titles to my homily. But I did to this one, because as I knelt there overburdened with my stuff, my feeling, my disappointments all focused on me, Jesus ever-so gently nudged me saying he wanted to wash my feet.
“Petty pride,” is the title of this homily. Caught up, yet again, in the “mes.” You know—the poor mes, the why mes, the “how come mes” that imprison us and quarantine us, that shut down the economy of our heart’s love and leaves our daily discipleship of following Jesus in the unemployment line.
Jesus then reminded me of this gift that my good friend Bishop Joe Tyson of Yakima sent to me.
This is a quote from then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger’s Pilgrim Fellowship of Faith: The Church as Communion.
“When Augustine felt his death approaching, he ‘excommunicated’ himself and took upon himself ecclesiastical penitence. In his last days, he set himself alongside, in solidarity, with the public sinners who seek forgiveness and grace through the pain of not receiving Holy Communion. He wanted to meet his Lord in the humility of those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for Him, the righteous and gracious One.
“Against the background of his sermons and writings, which describe the mystery of the Church as a communion WITH the body of Christ and AS the body of Christ, this gesture is quite shocking.
“Do we not often take things too lightly today when we receive the most Holy Sacrament? Could such a spiritual fasting not sometimes be useful, or even necessary, to renew and establish more deeply our relation to the Body of Christ?
“Such fasting could help people toward a deepening of their personal relation to the Lord in the Sacrament; it could be an act of solidarity with all those who have a yearning for the Sacrament but cannot receive it. It could be a recognition and expression of the fact that we are all dependent upon that “healing of love” which the Lord effected in the ultimate solitude of the Cross.
“Sometimes we need to be hungry—bodily and spiritual hungry—so as once more to comprehend the Lord’s gifts and to understand the suffering of our brethren who are hungry. Spiritual hunger, like bodily hunger, can be a vehicle of great love.”
“Master, then not only my feet, but my hands and head as well.”
Petty pride. It had kept me quarantined from not only experiencing Jesus’ unconditional love for me but more importantly my willingness to pour out his love on behalf of others.
Tonight, maybe you, like me need to have your feet washed, touched and toweled by the One whom you long to receive, the Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity of Jesus in Holy Communion and yet unlike me, are unable.
As the guys in the men’s shelter come in, as the lead host takes their temperature, as the men wash their hands, find their 6 feet of space and others take a shower; as the cooks in the kitchen dish up meals; as the overnight hosts deliver the meals to the men’s separate tables on the other side of those doors, we gather virtually at this table. We gather with Jesus who will become food for our Paschal journey so that we might be “foot washers” for others.
I close with these words from Archbishop Gomez.
“This holy week will be different. Our churches may be closed, but Christ is not quarantined and his Gospel is not in chains. Our Lord’s heart remains open to every man and woman. Even though we cannot worship physically together, each of us can seek Him in the tabernacles of our own hearts.
“Because Jesus loves us, and because His love can never change, we should not be afraid, even in this time of trial and testing. In these mysteries that we remember this week, let us renew our faith and trust in His bountiful love for us.”
Thank you Jesus for once again forgiving my “petty pride” and reminding me of what you said to your disciples, “I have given you a model to follow, so that as I have done for you, you should also do.”
In the weeks, months and I pray, years ahead, please allow me to wash your feet in my humble service as your priest and your pastor.