Easter Sunday 2009

Sunday April 12, 2009

Mandatum

As I reflected on the Easter feast, I found myself returning to the liturgy of Holy Thursday and in particular, the ‘mandatum’ or the ‘washing of the feet.’ For priests and pastors, this action is more than a ritual. It is at the heart of his vocation as a priest. In fact it is at the heart of the vocation of every Christian. It is the tone-setter for our life as Christians.

During the washing of the feet, the priest kneels before the symbolic apostles, women and men selected from the congregation and in a gesture of deep humility, pours water over their feet, dries them and kisses them. He does this in imitation of Jesus. But there is a difference for the priest. He does so in the consciousness of his own sinfulness. There was no sin in Jesus but he took on the sins of humanity that we might be washed clean of sin and rise above the misdeeds that have handicapped our potential for goodness. Thus the many miraculous healing stories recorded by all four evangelists. .Jesus was an itinerant preacher and healer of the mind, body and spirit.

Actually the celebration of Easter does not begin on Easter Sunday morning but on Ash Wednesday and Holy Thursday is really the day which disposes us for this miraculous feast because in this one gesture that took place during the final meal with his disciples, Jesus epitomized the miraculous nature of his entire mission and ministry, the core of which was service.

It is curious that John’s Gospel, which is also known as the ‘Book of Signs,’ or miracles does not contain the words of institution or consecration of the Eucharist. More than likely, this was due to the fact that by the time he wrote his narrative, Christians were already gathering in their homes for the celebration of the Eucharist on Sunday, the day of Resurrection. It appears that John wanted to make a connection between the ‘breaking of the bread’ and the ritual washing of the feet of his disciples.

After the washing, he said to them, “Do you understand what I have just done for you? 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 what I have done for you, you should also do.” [Chapter 13:12-15]

This humble act of Jesus was indeed a tone setter for the meal that was to follow as it was for his entire life.

I stated earlier that John did not include the words of institution in his narrative because the ritual celebration of this memorial meal was already well established among the early Christians. When the presider took the bread and repeated the words of Jesus, “Take this all of you and eat, this is my body… Take this cup and drink from it, this is the blood of the new covenant…” those at table knew that it was not just about the miracle of bread becoming flesh but about the miracle of their becoming the bread of Jesus’ life that he had shared long before his disciples arrived at the supper and long before these early Christians arrived at a common table in house churches.

There is an intimate connection between what we do at this table and what we do at our family table and at the table of humanity. This is why we must keep these tables connected. The washing of the feet in ritual form is called the “Mandatum,” a Latin word meaning, command. It also has the meaning of being sent out to act. We are sent at the conclusion of every Mass “to love and serve the Lord in all people.”

Resurrection is not about an empty tomb or is it an isolated feast that occurs once a year. It is celebration of human life in context—in the context of your life and mine.

“Love cannot remain by itself—it has no meaning. Love has to be put into action and that action is service. How do we put the love for God into action? By being faithful to our family. And to the duties that God has entrusted to us. Whatever form we are, able or disabled, rich or poor, it is not how much we do but how much love we put in the doing—a lifelong sharing of love with others.” [Mother Teresa, Love Seeks to Serve]

In a recent commentary entitled “Declarations” on the current economic crisis published in the Wall Street Journal, Notre Dame professor of law quoted writer and philosopher Laurens vander Post, in his memoir of his friendship with Carl Jung: “We live not only our own lives but, whether we know it or not, also the life of our time.” Peggy added: “We are actors in a moment of history, taking part in it, moving it this way or that as we move forward or back. The moment we are living now is a strange one, a disquieting one, a time that seems full of endings.”

And scripture commentator, Pat Sanchez has this to say about the feast and about the miracle of participation in the miracle of resurrection: “At the heart of all our proclaiming and celebrating and remembering, the fact remains that the resurrection is, as Karl Barth once asserted, ‘a difficult dark truth and a word that can scarcely be tolerated by our ears’ because we are ‘threatened by resurrection’ because we do not like to admit that we are deeply imprisoned in our world of sin and death and that we are incapable of helping ourselves. ‘Admit it,’ dared Barth, ‘there is no way out of this life with its thousand festering needs. Nothing except the possibility of a miracle can help us. Resentful of this infringement on our self-sufficiency and reluctance to rely on anyone else, even God, we are threatened by the need that the very idea of resurrection raises.’ Resurrection cannot be achieved by human progress, evolution or even enlightenment. Resurrection is a call from God into the depths of human suffering and dying. ‘Rise up!’ says God. ‘You are dead, but I call you to live.’

“This is what we celebrate today: the call to life from our God. Take away this summons, said Barth, and make of it something smaller and less than the absolute ultimate or all-powerful, and you have taken away the last hope for humankind.” [Pat Sanchez, Preaching Resources, Celebration, NCR Publications, Kansas City, Mo 2009]

Peggy Noonan says there’s no pill we can take to make it easy. Indeed, it is a matter of giving up control to a higher power and it is in the giving up of power that we are ultimately empowered to do what Jesus did and in so doing, we are participating in the miracle of resurrection.

We are here to connect with three realities—the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. We are here to celebrate our participation in all three in our own lives individually and collectively by our active engagement with the world through works of justice, love and peace.

We are here to testify that Jesus Christ is indeed risen, in you and me.

A Blessed Easter!


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