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Homilies from St Etheldreda's

Afterwards you will understand

Posted April 1, 2021

Maundy Thursday 2021

‘Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart out of this world to the Father, and having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end’ (‘jusqu’à l’extrême’, as one French version has it).  Coming after this solemn introduction, the foot washing is a bit of an anti-climax.  It is a humble gesture, to be sure, but it is not in itself that act of extreme love that we might have expected.  It must be that the washing of the disciples’ feet points beyond itself to the whole of the Passion narrative that follows it.  It is intended to bring out the meaning of what Jesus is about to do for us in his Passion.  It is a metaphor in action. When Jesus strips and stoops to pour water like a slave, that is the meaning of his being stripped and humiliated by the soldiers, of his being dressed as a buffoon, of his physical torment, of his being lifted up onto the cross.  The foot washing tells us that we are to think of Jesus’ Passion and death as the Lord and Master stooping to love us with complete self-effacement and astonishing condescension.

With that in mind I want to take just one line of the narrative and make it the subject of our Maundy Thursday meditation.  It is where Jesus says to Peter: ‘What I am doing, you do not understand now; but afterwards you will understand.’  What does this ‘afterwards’ refer to?  When will Peter understand?  As often in St John’s Gospel, I think this reference to the future is a reference to the final consummation in eternity.  Only in eternity shall we understand.  Only when we look upon the eternal Son of God in splendour, only then will it be brought home to us how much he has loved us.  For this Son of God enthroned in glory is the one who not only stooped to wash my feet but consented to be vilified, to be mocked as a fake, to suffer degradation, to be handled so mercilessly, in order to take me with him to the Father and so share God’s splendour with me. 

And when at last we see all that with perfect clarity, how shall we react?  With awe, of course – with awe that will transfix us for eternity; with love, I know; with gratitude; and surely also with regret that we were not similarly overawed during our lifetime, nor similarly grateful, but we took it for granted that the Lord stooped low to serve us, to cleanse us and to raise us up: and we carried on regardless.  And then it will be too late. 

And Judas too was among them.  The Lord stooped to serve him too.  He did not understand at the time; but he did afterwards,  when it was too late.  And how did he react?  With unspeakable horror and shame, no doubt.  And Peter too – he will have reacted with great regret, for he betrayed his Lord and Master; but his regret would surely be mixed with joy, since he went on to reciprocate the Lord’s love by giving his life for him, while it was still not too late. 

And as for ourselves – perhaps we shall share some of Judas’ horror, but too late; and some of Peter’s regret; but hopefully also some of Peter’s joy.  Who knows?  We can but speculate.  But there must be some truth in the speculation, for those words stand: ‘What I am doing now, you do not understand, but afterwards you will understand.’  It is the ‘afterwards’ of a son or daughter who realizes, too late, that they have been ungrateful or even hurtful to a parent who gave them everything.

But notice that this ‘afterwards’ refers not just to eternity – though it applies most dramatically to eternity – but also to our lives here and now.  Already the Holy Spirit begins to bring home to us what Jesus did for us in his Passion and his death, if only we will allow ourselves to be moved.  It is not too late.  The time for having our eyes opened to what Jesus has done for us is now – the time for making our own those words of St Paul: ‘Christ loved me, and gave himself up for me.’

Holy Week is about being overawed by Jesus’ love for us.  We should not wait for eternity to be transfixed, too late, by the extent of his love.  We must expand our minds to it now, understand what God is doing now, allow the Holy Spirit to illumine us and remind us and lead us into all truth.  And if we are not mystics to be transfixed by the extent of Jesus’ love, nor even poets to feel it vividly in our emotions, then let us at least be humble disciples, serving one another in self-denial.  For that, after all, is the one, infallible sign that we have begun to understand what Jesus was doing when he stooped to serve us.  Then afterwards, in eternity, we shall be overwhelmed not only by Jesus’ love for us, but also by the changes that his love has brought about in our personality and in our lives. 

‘If I, then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet.  For I have given you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.  If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them.’

Fr Tom Deidun

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