He Gives Himself Entirely to Us
April 8, 2004 Homily by Fr. Robert Altier Holy Thursday
Reading I (Exodus 12:1-8, 11-14)
Reading II (1 Corinthians 11:23-26)
Gospel (St. John 13:1-15)
Today we celebrate the feast on which the institution of the Eucharist and the priesthood took place. It is also, therefore, the day on which Our Lord, exercising His priesthood, offered Himself as a sacrifice sacramentally. He had not yet physically sacrificed Himself, that would take place the next day, but already in the Blessed Sacrament at the Last Supper He offered himself in a sacramental form under the forms of bread and wine so that He could give Himself to His disciples in the most intimate way.
But in order to demonstrate what it was that He was doing, He first washed their feet. This is something that they did not understand. Peter, of course, objected. You will never wash my feet, he said. But then Jesus said to him, If I do not wash your feet, you have no part of My inheritance. Now if we consider what this really means, remember that Our Lord Himself told us that He came into this world to serve and not to be served. Saint Paul says, He took the form of a slave, being born in the likeness of men. But even that was not enough to be able to understand what it was that He was doing because we recall that by Jewish law not even a slave could be forced to wash the feet of his master because that was considered beneath human dignity. Considering what they would have been walking through, wearing sandals and having no sanitation the way that we think of it with sewer systems and all the things underground, all of their things would have been above ground and their feet would have been pretty filthy. And absolutely no one could be required to wash the feet of someone else. So Our Lord, in order to demonstrate to His disciples the extent to which He was willing to go, lowered Himself and became less than a slave. He was willing to deny Himself in everything for the sake of those who would follow Him.
If we just consider what He does for us today, if it was not too much for Him to wash the feet of His disciples and make Himself lower than a slave, today He gives Himself to us in the form of a piece of bread. He is Almighty God, and He comes to us in a way that is so humble that unless He Himself had said it no one would believe it because, once again, it is lower than a slave. Yet He told us that we have to do the same. When we recognize what He has done for us, then He tells His disciples that they have to do the same, that we have to be willing to make ourselves less than everyone else, which He also said in other places. But if we understand it in its context, it makes perfect sense.
Recall that the two sacraments which are most closely aligned are the Eucharist and marriage; all of the symbolism is identical. And so what Jesus is requiring of Saint Peter and of the other apostles is that they had to receive the gift which Our Lord was giving, just as a married couple receives from one another the gift that is being given. When you think about it from the point of view of the giver, it is a beautiful gift but a very humble gift because it makes one completely vulnerable and places one completely at the service of the other because it is giving, not taking. But part of the gift that a married couple offers to one another is to receive the gift that the other is offering. So too with the Eucharist. If we are not willing to receive what Jesus is giving, if we try to take it instead of receive it (which is a purely selfish act, then), we have no part of Him. But if we can receive in love the gift which He gives in love, then we have part of His inheritance, then we are united, because we give ourselves to Him as a gift and we receive His gift of self to our own selves and then we become one. That is precisely what Our Lord desires for us.
But in order to become fully one, we have to give it all. We have to become less than a slave. A slave has to give to a certain point; and when the slave is giving, it is because he is being required to give. It is not that way with Christ; it must be a gift, not something which is required. So He tells us, when He says what is required, that we have to do the same but, once again, it cannot be under force; rather it must be freely chosen, freely given, and freely received to make ourselves completely vulnerable, to open ourselves entirely to Him. Of course, in order to do that, it means also placing ourselves at the service of others, precisely the thing He told us to do when He commanded us to love God and to love our neighbor. That is exactly what we have in the Blessed Sacrament, the example that Jesus continues to give us.
If He Who is God, He Who is Teacher and Master, is willing to do what a slave could not even be required to do, is willing to humble Himself so completely that He would give Himself to us in the form of a piece of bread so that we could actually receive Him into ourselves, then we have to look and say, Whats wrong with me that I am not willing to do the same? If God is willing to do this for me, why do I think it beneath my dignity to serve others? Why do I think it beneath my dignity to accept the ridicule of others? Why do I think it beneath my dignity to remain silent when people heap disgrace upon me? Why do I think it beneath my dignity to become a slave of Jesus Christ and of His Blessed Mother? That is what we need to look at. When we see that He has made Himself lower than a slave for us, that He came into this world and loved and gave Himself completely in love, what are we willing to do in return?
Again, when we look at marriage, it is not a 50-50 proposition; it is 100-100. Jesus gave one hundred percent. If we are really, really generous, maybe some of us are willing to give 60 70. That is not enough. For those of you who are married, imagine what that would be like. I love you with half of my being. I love you with three-quarters of myself. Im willing to give part of me to you. What would that do to your marriage? It would result in exactly the problem we have in marriage today: It would be a disaster.
Jesus gave it all. He continues to give it all, and He asks that we would do the same, to lower ourselves, to become less than a slave, but not in force in love so that we will die to ourselves and we will give ourselves to Him and to our brothers and sisters in a perfect act of love.
* This text was transcribed from the audio recording of a homily by Father Robert Altier with minimal editing.