Tonight we climb the stairs to a furnished Upper Room in Jerusalem. Night is falling, but there’s a full moon in the sky, perhaps the colour of blood orange. And as we enter the room we see the oil lamps, the play of light and shadow on ceiling and walls. There’s a table with cups and dishes, herbs, bread, wine. There’s a good smell. There are couches to recline on. And there’s Jesus and his disciples. Night is falling and, for all the sense of safeness, there’s an air of trouble. He’s talking of betrayal. He’s saying farewell. He talks of going somewhere, going away, going to his Father. He talks about his hour having come. What does he mean? Has it to do with what he said before about falling into the hands of men and dreadful things happening to him? Yet he talks about ‘glory’ too and Scripture being fulfilled. The hearts of the disciples are burning and bewildered at the same time. Here’s this man, this irresistible man for whom they’ve left so much, on whom they’ve staked their lives. Surely he can’t be going, can’t be leaving, can’t be about to die? He eats and drinks. He talks. He takes bread and wine, prays, says mysterious words and gives them to them. He gets up from table, puts on a towel, and starts to wash their feet. One of them gets up and leaves the room. And Jesus talks and talks. He has always astonished them. But tonight he’s more himself than they’ve ever known him. He seems to grow and grow in their eyes. He has a new stature. He fills the room. That night, ‘He is present everywhere like an all-pervading twilight-hour’, says a poet (Rilke). Something that has been matured within him in his solitude and prayer is now coming to birth. It’s the hour of his deepest doing. And the room seems to expand with him. ‘O blessed place’, says St Ephrem, ‘you are small, but larger than the whole world.’ Perhaps the disciples sense they’re not alone. ‘This is the blood of the covenant which will be poured out for you and for many, he says. Perhaps they sense ‘the many’. ‘I am not praying only for them,’ he says, ‘but for all those who through their word will believe in me.’ Perhaps they sense these believers to come – all the disciples of all the generations, us as well – present at the table with them. This room, this night has become all-embracing, universal, cosmic. And we are in it.
And the Evangelist John uses just two verbs to explain this uncanny spaciousness, these dimensions. Jesus knew, he says, and Jesus loved. He knew his hour was come. He knew he was the Son of the Father who had come from the Father and was going to him, making the true Passover. He knew and he loved. He loved to the end. And it’s this knowledge and love of the Son that embrace and enfold us tonight. This is the Upper Room we’re in. He knew, he saw, the disciples of all time. He saw each one of us. He saw our inability to measure up to him, to reach his stature. He saw us, limits and all, wounds and all. He saw our sadness and brittleness. He saw our perplexity, our false enthusiasms, our Peter-like bravado. He knew it. He knew, knows us through and through. And he loved to the end. And so, on the night he was betrayed, he – so to speak – surpassed himself. He devised the Eucharist. He took some bread, thanked God for it, broke it and gave it: ‘This is my Body which will be given up for you. Do this as a memorial of me’ And the same, later, with the cup. ‘O God, you could not have invented anything better’ (Chiara Lubich). For the last three years, Jesus had taught, told stories, told parables. He had healed. He had cast our demons. He’d gathered disciples, elicited their faith, founded his Church. He had chosen Peter and the Twelve. He had cleansed, purified, prepared them. But instituting the Eucharist he did more. He went further. He crowned everything he had done. He went to the end. In the Incarnation, he had already married humanity. But now he consummated the marriage. He showed he wasn’t going to leave his wife childless and alone. He put his life inside her and made her fruitful. He showed a capacity for intimacy no one had ever expected. He gave the gift of a silent living presence, his flesh for the life of the world, to be eaten in sacramental form. He gave us the memorial of his death and resurrection, so that this wouldn’t be lost in the past, wouldn’t slip further and further away from us as the centuries passed, but would be very close to us, on our lips and in our hearts, in our ears and eyes, and would follow us through the years. He would be present on our altars and in our tabernacles so as to be present in us. He knew and he loved. He knew the need and he loved to the end. In the first place, this means he loved to the Cross. But he knows as well as knew. He loves as well as loved. He loved crucified. He loves risen. And in his crucified and risen Eucharistic body, he extends this love to the very end: to the end of our every emotion and secret thought, to the tips of our fingers and toes. Capacity for intimacy: his body in our bodies, his blood in our blood, his soul in our soul, his divinity in our humanity. Lives entwined. He loves from our first Communion to our last. He loves to the end of our life, for better or worse, in riches and poverty, in sickness or health – and beyond. He loves his disciples to the end of time, through all the Church’s ups and downs. He’s there. The Mass is there. His words are there. His Body and Blood are there. And so the walls of his knowing and his loving are always around us. Even if I’m in a situation where I can’t currently receive Holy Communion, this knowledge and this love aren’t closed to me. The Holy Spirit is secretly at work growing my hunger, till the walls fall, the hour comes, and I can say Amen again.
And so, how can we not wash each other’s feet? If he, our Lord and Master, has come so close. If he has cleansed us with water and word in the Sacrament of Baptism, if he has washed our feet in the Sacrament of Penance, if he gives himself to us so completely in the Eucharist, if his knowing and loving have so embraced us, there’s no space left for our pride. Let us wash each other’s feet!
(St Mary’s Cathedral Aberdeen, 13 April 2017)