Holy Thursday Reflection

I was invited to give the reflection at our Holy Thursday services tonight at St. Mary-in-the-lake. It was an honor to share my thoughts and prayers with such wise women. We then had the washing of the feet, which is always such an amazing ritual. No less so tonight.

Have a Blessed Triduum everyone!
Last Spring, as part of my Novitiate ministry experience, I spent three months working with human trafficking survivors in Newark, New Jersey.

The clients had already been rescued by law enforcement – some from sexual slavery, others from situations of forced labor. Trained case workers, psychologists and counselors helped the women on their path to restoration and recovery. As a volunteer, my role was simply to be present, a friendly face who cared about them and wanted nothing in return.

One of the women I got to know was Mary. Mary was from the Philippines. She had a husband and daughter back home. In fact, that’s why she ended up in slavery in the first place. A family friend had promised to help set her up with a good job as a nanny in America. She would be paid well and in a few years have enough money to pay her daughter’s school fees in the Philippines.

Unfortunately, like Jesus in the Gospel story, she was betrayed by her friend. Upon arrival in this country her traffickers took her papers and forced her to work long hours for very little pay. She was locked in the house at night and not allowed to talk to strangers. Like the Israelites in our first reading, she was held in slavery in a land far away from her own.

When I met Mary, she had been away from her traffickers for a few months, after being in captivity for almost two years. Little by little, she told me her story. Her traffickers had treated her very badly, but what amazed me most about Mary is that she did not want revenge. She wanted justice – she wanted her traffickers prosecuted for the crime they committed – but she did not want revenge.

In fact, she had forgiven them. She told me that she held no hatred for her traffickers in her heart. Instead, she was filled with compassion for a broken world and a desire to serve. In the years to come, she hoped to help other survivors of human trafficking recover and restore their lives. I have no doubt that given time, she will do just that.

This evening, we gather to remember one of the last public acts of Jesus’ life and ministry. Faced with the betrayal of a close friend. Knowing that he faced a certain and painful death, he gathered his friends to share in one last meal together. Jesus, like Mary, was filled with compassion for a broken world and a desire to serve. And so he gives us the gift of the Eucharist … food for the journey ahead.

Author Judy Cannato writes this about Holy Thursday: “It is clear that this ritual of remembrance is not only about the past. It is about now. The reading from First Corinthians reminds us that the sharing of the bread and wine is to continue, keeping alive the hope that is ours. … When we share this sacred meal, we are proclaiming Jesus’ death, announcing it as good news, because with death comes resurrection—his and ours.”

With death comes resurrection – his and ours. Those are powerful words.

I often find myself wondering about Mary. By now, hopefully, she has her T Visa and permanent residency in the States. The last I heard she was awaiting the arrival of her daughter and husband. They were going to build a new life – in safety – here in the United States. Her past as a human trafficking victim was a death of sorts, but it was also a resurrection.

But she would not have gotten to that point, were she not able to accept those foot washing moments in her life. With the police. With immigration. With the counselors. With her caseworker. Even with me.

The thing about Mary was that you could tell she had always been the one to serve others. It was in her nature, at the core of her very being. Even when she was at the social service agency, waiting for her English lesson or to talk with her case worker, you would find her asking how she could help. Before you knew where she’d gone, she’d be dusting the tops of the filing cabinets or cleaning out the coat closet. If one of the other clients needed someone to go with them to a doctor’s appointment, she’d be the first to volunteer. But it was very hard for her to be the one being served.

In the Gospel reading, Peter says to Jesus, “You will never wash my feet.” Mary was far too polite to say that to any of us, let alone Jesus, but I could tell how hard it was for her to be the one who was served. And yet, I could also see how transformative it was. For her and for those who were helping her.

I look out at all of you and see women who are very good at washing the feet of others. Figuratively and literally. If we counted up the number of people each of you has served – elementary school students, hospital patients, homeless women, parishioners, friends, family, complete strangers, each other – we might run out of numbers.

But I also have a feeling that many of you, like me, find it difficult to have your own feet washed.

I’ll never forget the first Holy Thursday liturgy I went to in my parish in Portland as a young adult. Back home, growing up, it was always just twelve representatives – usually men – who had their feet washed.

So I was completely unprepared the first time I went to Holy Thursday services at St Philip Neri in Portland and everyone was invited to have their feet washed. Needless to say, I didn’t participate. The next year I was more prepared … I made sure to give my feet a thorough washing of my own before I went to church!

Why is it so hard for us to have our own feet washed, in the more figurative sense? I think it’s because of the simple fact that we are vulnerable at that moment. All our warts are visible – at least to us. The illusion of being in control, of being self sufficient super women is thrown out the window.

Instead, we realize that we need other people, just as they need us.

Jesus knew that this interdependent equation would be hard for us to understand, let alone accept. And so that’s why, on his last night together with his friends, he does the unthinkable. He, their teacher and leader, takes on the role of servant and washes their feet. “I’ve given you a model to follow,” he says. “I’ve shown you what to do, now it’s your turn.”

Jesus gives us the Eucharist, so that we may remember him and remember who we are. He gives us the example of the foot washing, so that we may remember how we are to act.

Both the sharing of the Eucharist and the washing of the feet teach us to live in God’s all encompassing love. As Mary learned and taught me through her example, our job is simply to live with open and vulnerable hearts so that we can actively participate in the mystery of that love.


Katney said...

Thank you for sharing.

Pachyderm said...

Thank you, Sr Susan. The Mandatum is one of the most beautiful services in the calendar. I took my 3 year old daughter last night and she was really touched - not so much by the footwashing but by the stripping of the sanctuary, setting up the altar of repose, and turning out all the lights in the church. Our big parish church was in near-total darkness by the end and it really meant something to her.

Have a blessed Easter.
Robyn tssf

Susan Dewitt said...

Susan, what a beautiful homily. I heard that from Eleanor, and I can affirm it completely! Thanks for the gift of your deep wisdom.