Homily for Holy Thursday 2023
If you watch the coronation of George VI in 1937 (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g6U6EC_ivBo) you might be struck as I was by how very “Old Testament” are the robes he wears (Exodus 28 and Leviticus 8 tell you more). I assume that Charles III will be similarly attired next month and doubtless we’ll hear Handel’s anthem “Zadok the priest and Nathan the prophet anointed Solomon king” at the high point.
It is as if in the coronation ritual all past history is gathered up, concentrated into the moment of anointing the monarch, before being propelled into a new future. Space-time compressed into an instant then launched like fireworks into a transformed world.
That is exactly what I think tonight is about.
It is part of a process in which history is wrapped up into a single event—the agony in the garden—before exploding into a new world. We humans can’t make the most of this transformed world if we live in tombs weighed down by memories of past mistakes and resentments, so as Jesus says the Last Supper is about forgiveness, freeing us from the past.
It is not Jesus having “supper with his friends” as the dreadful prayer in Common Worship has it. It is far broader and deeper than that. The mass is not about you and me feeling good because we’ve partaken of a bit of wafer and a sip of wine. It’s not about how you feel. It’s not “me, me, me”. It is far broader and deeper than that. It’s about God, not you.
It is cosmic.
In Greek, chaos means disorder, cosmos means order. At creation chaos is transformed into cosmos. Tonight we celebrate the renewal of that process as the forgiveness offered by the host at the Last Supper enables us to live life abundant with divine order and beauty and opportunity and hope.
It is or should be an ecstatic revelation of the Divine when as Isaiah says clouds of incense fill the holy place.
That is why I think that this mass should be celebrated with awe and majesty and beauty and colour and enthusiasm and joy and the best sights, smells and sounds possible. That is why I think it should be celebrated at the high altar with the priest facing God, not as a shared snack for members of a cosy club with the minister facing his customers like an “Open all hours” shopkeeper.
This is cosmic glory, cosmic transformation.
But there is more to come.
Transformation of the cosmos can only come when we recognise that we are part of it—part of community, part of something much bigger than self. Transformation of the cosmos can only come when we respond as Jesus did in the garden of Gethsemane by putting aside self for selflessness. His transformation was a struggle. In the agony in the garden his humanity said “please don’t make me do this” then he submitted, saying “let it be as you wish”. Jesus let go of human self-regard, allowing it to be enveloped by divine selflessness.
And so for us. Our transformation comes when we renounce self-regard for selflessness.
What better way to symbolise that than by washing each other? We are very prudish about our bodies and reluctant to let others touch us, but people in Biblical times were much less troubled than we are. Washing feet in those days, given the state of the footpaths, the weather, the dust and the lack of stout brogues, was a utilitarian and compassionate act of care. Today we might wash the face, or hands (you never know where mine have been).
Until we’re allowing someone else to minister to us, and until we’re ministering to others similarly, we will not enter into the fullness of this cosmic transformation. So set aside your Hyacinth Bucket notions of pride and prissy propriety and get your shoes and socks off. Now.