Sacrifice and Service: Homily for Holy Thursday

Pope Francis Washing Feet

What if,
at communion,
after receiving the Body and Blood,
after consuming the consecrated bread and wine,
we were handed a consecrated towel?

What if we came forward with arms held out,
and the priest or deacon or eucharistic minister said,
“The Body of Christ,” and handed us the host,
and then, “The Blood of Christ,” and handed us the cup,
and then “The Service of Christ,”
and gently placed a white towel in our hands?

And what if we took that towel
walked out of this building
and went in search of feet to wash?
Strengthened by the Body of Christ,
given new life by the Blood of Christ,
what if we spent the rest of the week on our knees
washing dirt from the feet of our friends, neighbors, and strangers,
or wiping their tears,
or binding their wounds,
only to return the next Sunday to get another towel?

Tonight we are reminded
that the love of Jesus consists of two things:
sacrifice and service.

Love is service made possible by sacrifice.

At the Last Supper
Jesus is about to humble himself to serve God and us
by his sacrifice on the cross.
“He loved his own in the world
and he loved them to the end.”

He is on the eve of giving his Body and Blood for our sake;
and in his final act before accepting the cross,
he does the work of a menial servant
and tells his disciples to do for others as he has done for them.

This was the purpose for which Jesus came:
to serve God and neighbor,
a service we are called to imitate
by loving one another as he loved us.

This is who we are now—
the people who do this in remembrance of Jesus;
the people who do for others as he has done for us;
the people who bring the love of Christ
through service made possible by sacrifice.

Pope Francis has described the Church as a field hospital.
The world is filled with the sick and the wounded
waiting to be touched by the love of Christ.
Waiting for us to wash their feet.

When I imagine a field hospital, I think of the TV show M*A*S*H.
M*A*S*H stands for Mobile Army Surgical Hospital.
The doctors and nurses of the M*A*S*H units worked in tents,
picking up and moving to wherever the wounded needed them the most.
It was menial, dirty work;
they were often exhausted;
they were often put in harm’s way;
and they often questioned the war;
but they kept at their healing work for the sake of the soldiers.

We are to be the M*A*S*H units for the wounded of this world.
We go out from this place
strengthened by the Body of Christ,
renewed by the Blood of Christ,
and we set up our tents of healing,
wherever they are needed.

Like the doctors and nurses of the M*A*S*H unit,
sometimes our healing work is menial and tedious;
sometimes it exhausts us;
sometimes it puts us in harm’s way;
and sometimes we question a world that causes so much pain;
but our discipleship calls us to keep at our work
for the sake of the wounded.

Tonight the liturgy asks us to consider,
Is my home a tent of healing?
Is my place of work a field hospital for the sorrowful and lonely?
Is the Church in our city a healing presence
for the hungry, the imprisoned, the marginalized?
Is it time to move my tent to another location
where the wounded need help?

This kind of service is a sacrifice,
as all true service is.
It makes great demands on us;
it takes us away from things we would rather do;
it sends us to places we would rather not go.

But it is only a shadow of the great sacrifice of service
Christ has done for us.
In fact tonight is a foreshadowing,
a prelude to the great act of love we commemorate tomorrow,
the Way of the Cross.

We can make tonight a prelude to our own Way of the Cross
by calling to mind all those in our lives who need healing,
who need the grime of disappointment and desperation wiped away.

On this Holy Thursday Mass of the Lord’s Supper
we will watch as members of our community come forward
to get their feet washed and dried with a towel.

They represent all the wounded whom we are sent to serve.
And they are many.

And later, as we come forward for communion tonight
we won’t get a towel to take with us out to the injured of the world.
But we will receive the Body and Blood of Christ for their sake,
and take the love of Jesus into the wounded world,
to wherever there is pain and loss.
We can provide our own towel.

This is who we are:
the people who do for others as Christ has done for us,
the people who perform a sacrifice of service,
in pale imitation of the Christ who loves us more deeply
than we can ever imagine.

The Isenheim Crucifixion – Homily for the Fifth Sunday of Lent

Isenheim Crucifixion by Matthias GrunewaldDo you remember the first picture of Jesus you ever saw?
Was it a picture in a children’s Bible?
A coloring book page from Sunday school?
The actor Robert Powell in Jesus of Nazareth?
There are many famous images of Jesus,
and some of them hang on the walls of our homes.
There’s the famous Warner Sallman painting of the Head of Christ,
which has sold over 500 million copies.
There’s the familiar Sacred Heart of Jesus,
and the Divine Mercy image.
Another popular painting of Jesus
is the one where he stands outside the door knocking.
We could run through an entire catalog of famous paintings of Jesus:
in the manger at his birth, sitting on a bench surrounded by children,
carrying a lamb on his shoulders.

If the Greeks in today’s gospel had come to us and said,
“We would like to see Jesus,”
we have many paintings we could show them.
And yet, none of them would be the real Jesus.
All of them would be artistic interpretations of who he is.
They each reveal an important aspect of Jesus,
but none of them is complete.
We all carry around inside of us an incomplete picture of Jesus.
We carry these images in our minds
and they form our view of who Christ is.
It’s like seeing a movie before reading the book.
No matter how hard we try,
Frodo Baggins will always look like Elijah Wood;
Atticus Finch will always look like Gregory Peck;
The Godfather will always be Marlon Brando.
Who does Jesus look like to us?

The Greeks had heard all kinds of things about Jesus of Nazareth.
I wonder how they pictured him.
I wonder who they expected to see when they asked to see him.
Jesus the preacher? Jesus who turns water into wine?
Jesus who walks on water?
And what about us?
Who did we expect to see when we came to Mass today?
Like the Greeks, each of us has come here to see Jesus.
Each of us has an image of Jesus in our mind when we pray,
when we come to communion.
Who is the Jesus we have come to worship?

Whoever it is the Greeks wanted to see,
Jesus surprises them.
And maybe he surprises us.
He says that he is troubled.
He, who is usually so confident and divine in John’s gospel,
is disturbed that his hour has come.
He tells the Greeks and us
that unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies,
it remains just a grain of wheat;
in other words, he has come to die,
he has come to be the grain of wheat
that will become food for the world.
He is the one who has come to serve and be obedient
and who asks us to do the same.
Both the gospel and the letter to the Hebrews show us a Jesus
who learned obedience through suffering,
who offered prayers and supplications with loud cries and tears.
That’s not an image we see in paintings very often—
a Jesus sobbing in prayer for his people.
But that’s what we hear today: loud cries and tears;
a grain of wheat about to fall to the earth and die.
It’s a difficult Jesus to look at,
because that is who we are called to imitate.

We’re preparing for the holiest times of the year.
Today’s liturgy challenges us to seek the Christ who really is,
to get beyond images of our youth and get to know the real Christ,
not Christ as we want him to be.
In these remaining two weeks of Lent,
we’re asked to take some time to ourselves and ask
is there an aspect of Christ we have been avoiding?
Is there a part of Christ’s life and mission that we would rather not see?

There’s another famous painting of Jesus,
one that you probably won’t find in anyone’s house.
It’s disturbing, ugly, and very hard to look at.
It’s called the Isenheim Altarpiece,
and it was painted by Matthias Grunewald around 500 years ago.
It’s made up of four panels, but the main scene is the crucifixion,
and it would be hard to find a more gruesome portrayal of Christ’s death.
In this crucifixion scene,
Grunewald paints Jesus with his hands gnarled and twisted,
facing up as if clawing to pull the spike out of the wood;
and his feet are all twisted together in an almost impossible position.
The body of Jesus is full of wood splinters and thorns.
But maybe the worst thing about the image is the color of Jesus’ flesh.
It’s a sickly green color, covered with spots, like it’s rotting.
It really is a hard painting to look at.
I’m not doing it justice at all, trying to describe it you.
It isn’t a painting that you just look at;
it’s a painting that you experience.

That’s the Jesus that is speaking to us today,
the Jesus of the Isenheim crucifixion.
The suffering servant who prays for us with loud cries and tears.

When we imagine Jesus, when we think of Jesus,
are we imagining who we want Jesus to be,
or are we willing to discover who Jesus really is?
It’s essential for us to really know Jesus
so that we can be his disciples.
“Whoever serves me must follow me,” Jesus says,
“and where I am, there also will my servant be.”
We are called to be that grain of wheat that falls to the ground and dies.
And when we look at a painting like the Grunewald Crucifixion,
when we see that disturbing scene of Jesus on the cross,
we get a better understanding of what it takes to be a follower of Jesus.
Maybe that frightens us.
Maybe we’d rather just look at the Jesus who knocks at the door,
who carries the lamb on his shoulders,
the Jesus of our childhood images.

But we don’t need to be afraid of what we’ll find
when we approach the real Jesus,
even if what we see is the Isenheim Altarpiece.
Because with Jesus, there’s always more than what meets the eye.
With Jesus there’s always hope in the midst of horrible suffering.

You see, what’s even more unusual about the Isenheim Altarpiece
is that it wasn’t painted to hang in a museum.
It was painted for the front of the altar in a monastery church,
the Monastery of St. Anthony in Isenheim, Germany.
That’s one of the things that makes this painting so famous.
It was used in a church.
Can you imagine coming to Mass here
and seeing this disturbing crucifixion scene in front of us
week after week?
Why would Grunewald paint such a horrific picture for a church?
It seems sadistic, perhaps.
But with Christ, suffering never has the last word.
Historians tell us that the monks of the Monastery of St. Anthony
specialized in hospital work,
especially for patients suffering from ergotism,
or what came to be known as “St. Anthony’s Fire.”
Ergotism was a horrible condition that occurred
when people ate grains or cereals that contained a certain fungus,
and it was almost like a plague during the Middle Ages.
It caused the skin to rot and shed,
and patients often had to have their limbs amputated.
People came to the Monastery of St. Anthony to be treated for ergotism,
and while they were there, they would go to Mass.
Grunewald painted his crucifixion scene for them.
The crucified Jesus of the Isenheim Altarpiece
has the symptoms of ergotism.
When the patients of the monastery came to Mass
they saw a God who suffered with them.
Where we see horror, they saw hope.
They saw a God who loves them.
And if God can take on that kind of suffering
and transform it into resurrection,
then our suffering can be transformed into resurrection.
That is the hope of Easter.

The challenge of today’s liturgy in these closing days of Lent
is to move beyond the images of Jesus
we’ve carried with us since childhood
and see the real Jesus;
to meet the Jesus we have been avoiding,
the Jesus we haven’t been seeing,
even if the sight is disturbing,
so that we, too can see in him the hope of Easter.

On Lent and Avoiding the Star Wars Effect – Homily for the First Sunday of Lent 2015

Luke Skywalker on TatooineEvery year on the First Sunday of Lent,
the gospel takes us into the desert
where Jesus was tested for forty days.
And we follow Jesus into the desert for these forty days of Lent
so that our hearts can be transformed, so that we can be ready
to enter fully into the Mystery of Easter.
This means being careful of the Star Wars Effect.

When the original Star Wars movie came out in 1977,
every kid my age wanted to see it.
It was the first movie my dad took me and my two brothers to see.
It was a groundbreaking film in many ways.
The film makers made spaceships fly,
brought alien creatures to life, and built alien worlds.
There was one setting in particular
that was extremely difficult to create:
the desert planet Tatooine
where the hero Luke Skywalker lived.
To bring this desert planet to life,
the film makers went to Tunisia, in North Africa.
It took eight weeks for bulldozers and tractors
to reshape the land,
to transform the desert of Tunisia into the iconic sets
where Luke and Obi-Wan would meet for the first time,
where Jawas and the Sand People lived.
The actors and crew spent two and half weeks
in the heat, wind, and sand of the Tunisian desert.
But the harsh conditions paid off,
as Star Wars became one of the most successful films of all time.

During Lent we are driven into the desert.
Not to make a movie, but to make a change in our lives.

Just as Jesus spent forty days in the desert among wild beasts,
tested by Satan,
the forty days of Lent are to be our time in the desert.
We come to the place of heat, wind, and sand.
We have been driven here by the Spirit, marked with ashes.
This is our time of testing, of facing our demons.

The desert experience
has been a part of salvation history
from the very beginning.

Moses fasted for forty days on Mt. Sinai
and he received the tablets of the covenant.
And when the Israelites were unfaithful to the covenant,
Moses broke the tablets,
but then fasted for another forty days in penance,
until God wrote the tablets again.

The prophet Elijah walked through the desert
forty days and nights to find God on Mt. Horeb.

The Israelites wandered forty years in the desert
before reaching the promised land.

And today we see Jesus as the perfection
of the desert experience.
Immediately after his baptism he is driven into the desert
where the wild beasts are, where Satan tests him.

Through our baptism,
we join with Jesus in the desert and confront our demons.

The desert is a necessary part of an authentic spiritual life.

The solitude of the desert of Lent
gives us time to spend with God in prayer.
Our fasting helps us recognize what habits and attitudes
have been holding us prisoner.
In the desert we can draw on the strength of God
to be angels who minister to the poor and needy among us.

Jesus returned victorious from his time in the desert
to announce, “Repent, and believe in the gospel.”
The word “repent” is a translation of the Greek word metanoia,
“a change of heart.”
Jesus says,“Change your heart and believe in the gospel.”
We go to the desert of Lent so our hearts can be changed.

But they cannot change if we give in to the Star Wars Effect.

Star Wars was so successful that it led two sequels.
And each of those movies required exotic, alien locations.
In The Empire Strikes Back, film makers created the ice planet Hoth
by filming on an actual glacier in Norway.
In Return of the Jedi a thrilling speeder chase took place
on the forest moon of Endor
by using footage from the Redwood forests of California.
But with each movie,
the films relied less and less on real locations,
and more and more on sound studios and special effects.

In fact, when a new series of Star Wars movies was made,
twenty years after the original movie,
almost all of the sets and backgrounds were created digitally.
The actors stood in front of a green screen waving light sabers
pretending they were on location
while a computer added the backgrounds later.
They appeared to be in the desert,
but they were in the safety of the sound studio.

Now that might make good sense if you’re filming a movie.
It’s easier on the actors, it’s less expensive,
and it gives the film makers more freedom
to create the worlds they want.
But even in a movie with the best digital effects
you lose something of the grittiness or the texture
of a real location.
The second Star Wars series looks more sterile,
more artificial than the first series.

And as we come to Lent year after year,
it’s tempting to stand in front of a green screen,
having the appearance of entering the desert of Lent,
but not really entering it;
having the look of participating in Lent,
but not really going through the difficulty of being in the desert,
of facing our personal demons,
of having to tolerate the heat and sand.
It’s easier, it’s less costly to our comfort, it give us more freedom,
but it’s less authentic, too.
It’s less real.
And most importantly, there’s no room for a change of heart.

And so as we enter our first full week of Lent,
it would be good for us to consider
whether or not the desert we have entered into
is the real desert that Christ experienced,
or whether it’s a superficial green screen desert experience.

The challenge before us this Lent
is to avoid the Star Wars Effect,
the temptation to a superficial experience of the desert.

When we look at what we have decided to do for Lent,
are we simply standing in front of a green screen,
having the appearance of being among the wild beasts
and demons,
having the appearance of fasting,
or have we truly committed to going into the desert?

“This is the time of fulfillment,” Jesus says.
That doesn’t simply mean,
“Lent has rolled around on the calendar again.”
The word for time in this passage is the Greek work kairos.
Kairos is different from chronological time,
calendar time, day-after-day time.
Kairos is the opportune time, the moment when God acts.

God is acting right now, driving us into the desert.
This time of fulfillment is the opportune time
for us to overcome the temptation to a superficial green screen Lent,
and really enter the desert this year
so our hearts can be changed.

And if we truly enter the desert,
we follow in the footsteps of Moses, Elijah, and the Israelites;
but more importantly we walk in communion with Jesus.

And just as Jesus survived the testing in the desert,
he will survive death.
His early victory over Satan in the desert
foreshadows his great victory over death on the cross.

We are tested in the desert of this life,
but our communion with Christ assures us of victory.
The more we walk with Christ,
the safer we are, the more we share in his victory.

This is the time of fulfillment,
the time to enter the desert of Lent,
to change our hearts,
and believe in the gospel.