Cardinal – Jesus’s humility in service can be our hallmark too

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Maundy Thursday 2024, Westminster Cathedral

In his homily for the Mass of the Lord’s Supper in Westminster Cathedral, Cardinal Vincent Nichols reminded us that “our true selves will be revealed in the service that we give to others.”

“Only in sacrificial service, will disputes and divisive arguments be overcome,” said the Cardinal. “Sin throws us apart. It divides us. Only the grace and example of Jesus can save us, so eloquently expressed in this action.”

Full Homily

One of the characteristics of St John’s Gospel is that Jesus is presented as being aware of his destiny. The washing of the feet, then, is introduced by these words: ‘Jesus knew that the hour had come for him to pass from this world to the next’ and, ‘Jesus knew that the Father had put everything into his hands.’

So as he knelt for that act of washing Jesus knew what was to happen. He knew this was the crucial moment, the climax of his life in our flesh. And fully aware of that, he chose this moment to teach an unforgettable lesson.

We too know what is to happen to Jesus. We are following his footsteps. We know he is going to Calvary, death and the tomb. In this washing, then, he is preparing us to join him, to take up our part in this work of our salvation. By this washing we are drawn closer to Christ. Through this washing we are readied to enter into the Sacrifice of Christ, wonderfully made present in the Mass. We are to be partakers in all this.

This evening, then, please see yourselves as represented by these twelve Chelsea Pensioners. They represent each one of us gathered round the Lord.

The washing we receive, then, is to prepare us for what lies ahead, for all that is to come.

But, unlike Jesus, we do not know what lies ahead for us on our road through life. We do not know what sorrow will cross our path, nor what great joys will fill our hearts. We do not know the challenges and temptations we will face, nor the gifts of love and forgiveness we will receive. Yet this washing prepares us for all that lies ahead. Its lessons are for every time and circumstance. In faith we want to be with Jesus, and know his presence with us, throughout our journey. We want to have everything in common with him. That is why we say with Peter: ‘Not only my feet, Lord, but my hands and my head as well!’

Look at the lessons that Jesus gives at this moment, the lessons he is teaching us for the road ahead: service marked by humility, bridging difficulties, overcoming disputes. Service and sacrifice are the lessons we are being taught today.

In this washing of the feet, Jesus does not stand on his pride, but humbles himself, making himself vulnerable, on his knees, in this act of loving service. This humility in service can be our hallmark, too. People on high horses cannot wash feet. Only by getting down can we sense the hunger, the loneliness, the despair that is not at all uncommon today. Only when we are without any sense of superiority, can we serve those in need and thereby heed the lesson of this evening.

In this washing of the feet, Jesus also overcomes the estrangement between God and mankind brought about by our constant disobedience. He does this because he who serves is both human and divine. In him, humanity and its Creator are wonderfully united, and in him our relationship with our Heavenly Father is restored. This dramatic healing, to be brought about on the Cross, is previewed and made real in this act of humble service for it is God who washes my feet.

In all that lies ahead of each one of us, our true selves will be revealed in the service that we give to others. Service, in a union with Christ, will save us from being isolated, lonely and lost, and for all eternity.

Let us now recall, for a moment, the account of the Last Supper given to us by St Luke. He tells us that at this supper ‘a dispute arose between them about which should be reckoned the greatest’ (Luke 22:24). St John replaces this unsavoury argument with the washing of the feet. It is clear: only in sacrificial service, will disputes and divisive arguments be overcome. Sin throws us apart. It divides us. Only the grace and example of Jesus can save us, so eloquently expressed in this action. Jesus is saying to us: you may prefer to argue and fall out. I prefer to wash your feet. This is the example I give you to follow.

Think of our world with its tragic and devastating wars. Think of our family rows, the fallout in friendships, the constant bickering and corrosive back-biting on social media. Here we are given a glimpse of how to emerge from those dead ends and destructive places. What we witness this evening, and its unfolding on the Cross tomorrow, is the only road to take, no matter what may befall us, in days and years to come.

This, then, is our lesson for life, taught by the Lord and Master. Let us take it to heart, with gratitude for the gift of faith, filled with joy at being called to share in this Mass, the sacrifice new for all eternity, this banquet of loving service which opens for us the wonder of charity in this life and the fulness of life in the world to come.