Service and Sacrifice – Jesus’s template for how we live our faith

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Maundy Thursday 2023, Westminster Cathedral

As we enter the Holy Triduum, three sacred days which bring us to the foot of the Cross, Cardinal Vincent Nichols encourages us to look at the act of Jesus washing his disciples’ feet as an act of service – an act of love in action.

Preaching his homily for the Mass of the Lord’s Supper in Westminster Cathedral, Cardinal Nichols describes the washing of feet as “a representation of every act of service, every act of random kindness, that makes our lives bearable and fruitful.”

“Here,” he says, “Jesus stoops to offer this humble service, our daily acts are given fresh meaning and new depth.”

“Service is love in action,” he continues. “Here, service is forgiveness in action. This is his command to us.”

Full Homily

As we know, actions often speak louder than words.

The words of this Sacred Liturgy are precious and rich. Yet this evening the actions are even more eloquent.

This is Maundy Thursday. Now we enter the three sacred days which bring us to the words and actions of Jesus that lie at the heart of our faith and give shape to our lives. Two words sum up these days: service and sacrifice. These two words also sum up how we are to live our faith.

The act of Jesus’ washing the feet of his disciples is a representation of every act of service, every act of random kindness, that makes our lives bearable and fruitful. Here, as Jesus stoops to offer this humble service, our daily acts are given fresh meaning and new depth. Hidden within our instinctive kindness and compassion for those in need is the touch of God’s Holy Spirit, for such actions show in practice the truth that we human beings are made in the image and likeness of God. Our kindly service bears the mark of God. For this we thank the Lord this evening. We offer to him, again, the gift of our lives that he may use us, as he wills, to do this work of service for all his people.

Yet his washing of the feet takes us beyond our comfort zone. Here is something more than everyday kindness. And the command he lays on us this evening is far from comfortable.

As this Last Supper of the Lord takes place, we know that ‘the devil had already put into the mind of Judas Iscariot son of Simon to betray him’ (John 13:2). And we know that Jesus was fully aware of his betrayer. Yet Judas was included in this washing of the feet. Jesus did not shun him or turn him away. No, even his betrayer is included, knowingly, in his act of loving service.

‘Do you understand’ he said, ‘what I have done to you…I have given you an example so that you may copy what I have done to you’ (John 13:13-15).

Service is love in action. Here, service is forgiveness in action. This is his command to us.

And herein, too, lies the truth of his sacrifice. The death of our Blessed Lord, which tomorrow we will behold in great solemnity, is a sacrifice offered for us as sinners. He gives his life for us, people who regularly betray him with our bitterness, our mean-spirited reactions to each other, our lack of forgiveness.

Yet he embraces us all. He turns no-one away, excludes no one, just as long as we come to him as sinners in need of his mercy. ‘Lord, I am not worthy…but only say the word and my soul shall be healed.’

Often, when I celebrate Mass, and again this evening, my mind and heart are full of wonderment. When I take the host, in the simple form of bread, I see in it all the hunger of the world, all those mouths longing for food, hearts hungry for acceptance. As I elevate the consecrated host, I think of Jesus accepting and absorbing all that distress and injustice, all the hunger for life that marks our world, all the pain of injustice that causes such misery. And Jesus makes of it all a sacrifice to the Father, begging forgiveness for us in our puny efforts and pervading greed.

When I take the chalice, holding his blood, I see there all the cruelty and bloodshed of our broken world, in warfare, in feuds, in gratuitous violence that breaks bones and lives alike. This too he takes and transforms into a sacrifice of love.

Here is the miracle of service and sacrifice of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Truly of our flesh and truly of the fulness of God, he alone can wash us clean. In his offering to the Father, which evokes for all time an outpouring of the Holy Spirit, he takes not only the good that we do, our acts of kindness, but also our sinfulness, our destructiveness and ingratitude. Of these too he makes a saving sacrifice. Judas is not cast out. This is the wonder of our salvation, for left to ourselves we are, all too often, authors of our own tragedies and downfall.

With this Mass of the Lord’s Supper our Lenten journey has come to an end. Here, in this Eucharist, our wanderings in the desert are over. Here, as in every Eucharist, we enter into our promised land, overflowing with the gifts of the Holy Spirit, waiting to fill our hearts and reshape our lives. As St Paul tells us, in doing this, in celebrating Mass, we are to keep our wits about us, missing nothing of the wonder of this action, its beauty and goodness, its truth and strength, knowing that here, again, we are proclaiming the saving death of the Lord, ‘until he comes again’.

Praise to you, Lord Jesus Christ. You are the king of glory.