*The following homily was delivered on March 24, 2016 and is based off of Fr. David Tyson, C.S.C’s 2010 Holy Thursday homily at the University of Notre Dame. Homilies are written in a conversational style and do not follow traditional writing conventions.
One of the big questions in the world of the behavioral sciences these days concerns the concept of altruism. So a whole bunch of big wig scientists are asking questions like: “Why do we see so many examples of people who give up their own comfort, their own pleasure, their own power, or even their own lives for other people in need? Why do people give of themselves like this, especially since our biology tells us that we are supposed to protect ourselves so that we can pass on our genes to the next generation? Why do we see so many examples of altruistic people?”
And we do see examples of this, right? Think about the response of so many people after big natural disasters, or terrorist attacks like we just witnessed in Belgium—the countless people who are willing to reach out and help total strangers. What is it in us, or about us, that gives us this instinct to reach out to others? To give of ourselves in this way?
So to try to answer these questions, geneticists are trying to find an altruistic gene, and behavioral ecologists are studying chimpanzees to see if this all evolved from the successful practice of communal child rearing, and the list of studies goes on and on. Well tonight, we might get a little glimpse into another, more theological, answer to this question from our Gospel.
So tonight we hear the story about how Jesus insists upon washing the feet of his disciples. Now, I don’t think some of the disciples liked that idea: as Jesus begins pouring some water into a basin, Peter lashes out in his usual, impulsive manner: “Master, you will never wash my feet.”
Now, I don’t think Peter was trying to be mean here. He wasn’t trying to be stubborn or obstinate. After all, Peter sees Jesus as his master, and everyone at that time knew that master’s don’t wash the feet of subordinates! It should be the other way around! But Jesus responds to Peter with these haunting words: “What I am doing, you do not understand now, but you will understand later.”
Huh….so Peter doesn’t really get it. He hasn’t really grasped who Jesus is; and he hasn’t really grasped what is about to happen. And this ritual action that Jesus performs can only be understood once everything has come to its fulfillment. You see, Jesus’ actions here–when he washes his disciples feet–isn’t just a little reminder for the disciples to be kind. Of course, it is that too. But ultimately it’s a symbol to bring comfort to the disciples and to help them understand.
Because later tonight, the disciples will see their master crying tears of blood in the garden. And tomorrow, they will see their beloved master being scourged and mocked and ultimately hung on a tree in terrible agony until he breaths his last.Because tomorrow their master will die and the disciples won’t know how to make sense of it. The master isn’t supposed to die like this.
But you see, the washing of the feet–not to mention the breaking of the bread which we also celebrate tonight; these things tell us ritually that all that happened to Jesus mattered, and that ultimately all of his pain and suffering was an act of service: for us, for me, for you. Because ultimately it’s saying that Jesus isn’t master in the way Ceasar is master, through power, and might, wealth, and honor. Instead, Jesus is saying that he is master through self-giving, self-offering. In other words: Jesus is master through agape. Love. Jesus’ actions tonight are an interpretive key:so that when we are faced with the horror of the crucified Christ, we don’t see failure, or meaningless violence. Jesus is telling us that when we gaze upon the cross, we should see what the love of God looks like. This is what the breaking of the bread, this is what the washing of the feet ultimately mean: Its preparing us to understand what the next couple of days are really about: that our God is a God of love, of agape, of altruism. That he is doing all of this for us.
So lets for a moment return to the question we raised in the beginning: How is all of this an answer to the question we raised above? Theologically speaking, how do we make sense of our altruistic impulses.
Well, it’s because of who Jesus reveals God to be by washing his disciples feet, and through the breaking of the bread. It’s because our God is love. It’s because our God is one who is willing humble himself and give of himself completely in love by taking on a human nature. It’s because our God is one who is willing to humble himself through selfless service in his ministry to the leper, the lame, the blind, the widow and orphan. Its because God is one who is willing to humble himself to the point of death, death on a cross.
And, very importantly now, because God is love, because he is one who by his very nature gives of himself in love, and because we are created in this God’s image and likeness, we all share this part of him. We are all naturally inclined toward love; toward picking up our own crosses on behalf of others. And so essentially what Jesus says tonight to Peter is this: “Be who you are created to be. Act according to your nature. Be altruistic. Pick up a pitcher. Pick up a towel. And follow my example. Wash the feet of your brothers and sisters.”
Now, this by no means discredits or undermines the work of the great scientists mentioned above. It’s very important that we continue to try to understand the created world. But, as Christians, we believe that there is more to life and human nature than observation of the material world can reveal. We know that our natural impulses toward altruism aren’t just “facts” that we can either follow or ignore based on our own will. Instead, we know that these good impulses, when guided by revelation, call us to obedience and fulfillment. So let’s remember who God is. Let’s remember whose image and likeness we share. And let’s follow his example.