Do You Realize?

By Jon Chalmers

It is so very tempting to make this homily cute and engaging. It would be easy to tell a few anecdotal stories, perhaps about the road conditions of the ancient Near East and the general nastiness of the disciples’ feet. Perhaps I could draw some parallels to how we understand the condition of the feet as a harbinger of overall health, even in modern healthcare, or even offer a few moments of personal experience with podiatry. I know of these temptations because I have heard these homilies, and it would be so very easy to offer you some charming story, allow a few chuckles, and then sit down and let us get on with the business of celebrating the Sacred Triduum.

And that would be a crime against the teaching office of the Church; it would be pablum, the soft, mushy food that we feed to those with immature digestive systems. It would be like inviting you to dinner and offering you a microwaved bowl of instant grits. It is not worthy of the promises of Christ. It is simply not worthy.

Tonight we celebrate the institution of the Eucharist, the first day in our most sacred time leading us to the Paschal mystery and the celebration of the resurrection. But we’re not there yet. We are still at the table on the night before our Lord suffered and died, and in more ways than simply the obvious, we have a call to a feast, but only if we can answer as mature Christians the same question that Jesus asks his disciples:

Do you realize what I have done for you?

The pace is beginning to quicken. The Passion and death are on the near horizon. There is betrayal that foments crisis. And the clock is ticking.

Do you realize what I have done for you?

Since the Council of Nicea in 325, we have celebrated Easter on the Sunday following the full moon after the vernal equinox. This is the time. And so here we are at the start of these most sacred days. And it is a day for mature Christians to come to the table, to be asked and to answer that most haunting question:

Do you realize what I have done for you? Do you know what I am about?

Many of us call this Maundy Thursday in honor of the mandate that Christ gave us to love one another. The mandate is found in the First Letter of St. John: as God has already loved us, our love for others is not just obeying a command but offering a response to the gift that draws God near to us.

We celebrate on this night the institution of the Holy Eucharist, the source and summit of our faith, with a gospel passage that does not mention it. This is a time for mature Christians, indeed. This is a time for us to take seriously the question before us.

Do you realize what I have done for you? Can you put it all together in your hearts and in your minds?

Peter, bless his heart, shows that he does not understand (in verse 7). Like most misunderstandings of the disciples in John, Peter leaps to the concrete and takes comfort in the status quo. Peter did not understand, as yet, the link between Jesus washing the disciples’ feet and his unconditional love for them.

Which brings Jesus to ask this drumbeat question, Do you realize what I have done for you?

Jesus dressed and returned to the table. He asks and answers this most salient, this most cutting, this most serious question. This is not a charming or cute question. It is the question that is more important than any other question in life, for it is the question whose answer conquers death itself.

It is a question of an entirely different order. While linked to the foot-washing, it still looks away from simply the concrete symbol of self-gift to the new example it establishes. It is a reversal of the accepted and expected patterns of the behavior. It is scandalous by the etiquette of the day, and yet our Lord simply does not care. He does not have the time to nurse their understanding along. He does not have the time to be polite, but rather direct and instructing.

Peter knew that this was a subversive act and objected to it. His initial response was not worthy. He did not realize, then, what Jesus had done.

And Jesus tells him essentially that it doesn’t matter what the social and historic and ritual rules of the time are. They don’t matter then and they don’t matter now. It doesn’t matter that this is how they have always done things, or what the culture says, or what the dominant powers claim about being polite.

Do you realize what I have done for you?

They are to repeat the loving gift of self, the commitment to love even to the point of death. The word used for model resonates with the Hebrew understanding of an exemplary death, as found in Maccabees and Sirach, and gives to them and to us a norm, an expectation, a code of conduct and behavior for the believing community of disciples that expects a commitment to love without qualification, an expression of vulnerability with confidence in the ultimate insurance, even through death.

Do you realize what I have done for you?

These are not ethical or moral commandments. This is not a rule. We are not making a choice here. If you leave here and go down the street to the shelter and find some feet to bathe, you will have done someone a nice turn, but you will not be making a mature response to the question Jesus asks.

The gospel tells us that as the knowledge and love of Jesus flowed into action, so must the knowledge and love of the disciple flow into action. It’s not just about feet or podiatry or some other charming story.

Do you realize what I have done for you?

It will be only though the Passion and cross that we can begin to understand. And that comes soon.

The Rev. Jon Chalmers is pastor of Prince of Peace Catholic Church in Hoover, Alabama.


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