Readings: Exodus 12:1-8,11-14; 1 Corinthians 11:23-26; John 13:1-15
There is in the Eastern Church a well-known icon which has been given the name “Extreme Humility”. This icon depicts the crucified body of Jesus standing in his tomb. In our Western Church tradition we have the famous Shroud of Turin, which is believed to be the burial shroud that wrapped Jesus’ body after he was taken down from the cross. The image of Jesus crucified is imprinted like a photographic negative upon the shroud. Both of this sacred objects depict a profound spiritual truth, stated by Saint Paul, that God willingly humbled himself, taking the form of a man and making himself like a slave for us, even to dying on a cross.
Today as we now begin these three days of Jesus’ redeeming sacrifice for our salvation, we celebrate the final meal Jesus shared with his faithful disciples before his passion. It was a Jewish Passover meal, at which Jesus fulfills the name first given to him by his cousin, John the Baptist; Behold the Lamb of God, John exclaimed. Jesus now consecrates himself within the meal as the actual Passover Lamb: Take and eat, this is my Body…Drink this cup; it is the New Covenant in my Blood.
In the course of that last supper before he died, Saint John’s Gospel relates to us that Jesus bestowed upon his disciples a final Testament of all he taught them, during his Last Supper Discourse and by washing their feet. These two moments go together; they fulfill each other. One is the testament which Jesus made in words, the other is the testament which the Lord transmitted by actions.
Six days ago the whole Church celebrated the Feast of Saint Joseph. We very movingly reflected at this feast upon the deep personal humility expressed by St. Joseph’s life. Joseph arose from sleep and did as the angel in his dream had instructed him. Actions do speak stronger than words. And this evening we once again demonstrate that same truth, when all Catholic churches throughout the world reenact the deed Jesus performed at his last meal with his disciples, to wash his own disciples’ feet–an action immortalized for all time during every Holy Thursday Mass.
Extreme Humility is the name given to the icon of Jesus in his tomb. But it is not only by his death that our Lord displayed such an extreme act of humility. The entire life of Jesus, from the moment of his miraculous conception at Mary’s word of consent, throughout his lifetime, every moment was an unimaginable manifestation of God’s incomprehensible humility dwelling among us. His human death and burial were only the final acts of his lifetime of humility.
How can we, who live with our all too fallible mortality and prone to sin, imitate the humility of such a singular model as the Son of God? All we can do is listen to what he taught us and seek to obey his words and follow his example. Jesus gave us one single, supreme command: I have given you a model to follow so that as I have done for you, you should also do.
You must do what I have done. How is that even possible, we ask? However, Jesus said another time, For mankind it is impossible, but not for God. For God all things are possible. Either we believe what Jesus said or we don’t. With God all things are possible. Our Lord has assured us that we have only to ask him: …and how much more will your heavenly Father give good things to those who ask Him?
What else is extreme humility but a personal expression of total love? Love and humility are inseparable, two sides of the same coin, one reality. To love is to demonstrate authentic humility; to love as fully as Jesus loves is to express extreme humility. What Jesus asks us is this: I have given you a model to follow, so that as I have done for you, you should also do.
He rose from the meal…and tied a towel around himself…and poured water in a basin and began to wash his disciples’ feet.