Before the Prioress washes the sisters' feet at the Mandatum (shortly before Holy Mass) she gives a sermon to help us prepare for the great liturgy we are about to enter into. Below is the sermon Sr. Mary Martin gave today.
My dear Sisters,
Christ for our sake became obedient unto death, even death on a cross. We will be repeating this sentence, adapted from St. Paul, over and over again in the next couple of days. In the pre-Vatican II liturgy the repetition began tonight at the Mass of the Lord’s Supper and it is from there that Sr. Maria took the chant responsory which we will sing tomorrow and Saturday at the Office.
The ancient tradition of the Church was not misplaced: Christ’s obedience, which in fact began with his incarnation, begins “unto death” tonight, and not just in the Garden of Gethsemane. It begins here, in the action we are commemorating now, of washing the disciples’ feet. As St. Ephraim the Syrian put it: “Those who serve the Son on high [the angels] saw that he served on earth – washed feet, cleansed souls. Blessed be his submission!” Christ, who, in obedience to his Father, emptied himself of the glory of the godhead and took on the nature of a slave, tonight acts out that servitude. The angels in heaven see it in wonder and awe but the disciples see it as something shockingly misplaced: “Lord, do you wash my feet?” Jesus has to nurse them along patiently; they do not know either the fullness of his glory or the depth of his humility. He finally gets them to understand this as an example for them to imitate. But it is so much more than that!
His next act of self-emptying obedience is the gift of himself in the Eucharist. Under the form of bread and wine he allows himself to be consumed by his disciples, unworthy though they are, and all those who would follow them until the end of time. The very act of the gift, like the very act of washing their feet, makes them worthy. By this gesture he prophetically announces and initiates the final self-emptying that will take place on the cross tomorrow and seal the salvation of the “many” for whom he sheds his blood. With Jesus, all is gift, for which no return is adequate except that of total acceptance, and we, like the disciples, are not even capable of that. “Lord, do you wash my feet?”
In the garden, we see Jesus’ obedience at its most painful. The peacefulness and gentleness crumble and fall away into an almost unbearable agony before the prospect of cruel suffering and death by torture. He reaches out to his closest human companions, but in vain. They are like all of us, once again incapable of understanding as human friends so often are. Jesus must go on alone, doing with naked determination the will of his Father, who at least he feels is listening. By tomorrow even that feeling will have been stripped from him and nothing will be left except obedience unto death. “Son though he was, Christ learned obedience from what he suffered…”
“Therefore God raised him high…” and will raise us with him. Let us pay attention and let us strive for the total acceptance that is our only adequate response.