Fr. Joe Nassal, C.PP.S. authored a Holy Week Retreat that we will present here on the province website. Each day will be added the morning of the presentation.
There are discussion questions for the retreat at the end of the text on this page.
Prayer in a Pandemic
(To be prayed each day)
God of Life,
this Holy Week we stand under the shadow
of the cross of Covid-19.
Each day, the numbers of those infected rise and the death toll climbs.
It is a time of fear and
confusion as we cry out to you in our distress.
As your heart breaks at the suffering of your people,
you bend your ear
and hear our prayer.
As we walk this holy way,
help us to empty ourselves
to make a space for your paschal mystery.
Open our eyes to see you,
our ears to hear your voice.
You do not abandon us
but send your Son, Jesus,
to walk this road with us.
With our fragile faith,
You give us the courage
to remember how
You accompany us
along the way,
to remind us we are not
alone but stand together
under the weight
of this cross.
Holy Week 2020 Retreat: Conference 5
Radical Hospitality: Taking the Lowest Place
Exodus 12, 1-8, 11-14
1 Corinthians 11, 23-26
John 13, 1-15
Readings Available at http://www.usccb.org/bible/readings/040920-lord-s-supper.cfm
This is the Passover of our God. It is a night to gather the folks—this year, because of shelter in place, we gather alone together, count our blessings, and pray for better days. We gather around the table, break some bread and raise a glass of wine and toast to those who have washed our feet in the past, all those who are washing the feet of others today—all those who continue to serve us during this coronavirus crisis, those in the medical services, of course, but also the grocery clerks and those who stack the shelves, those who deliver food and bring the mail, those who check in on elderly neighbors, those who collect our recycling and our trash—so many who are washing the feet of others during this time of crisis.
These are the foot washers who in the manner of Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, “rose from supper and took off his outer garments. He took a towel and tied it around his waist. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and dry them with the towel around his waist.”
To stop the spread of the coronavirus, we have been washing our hands a lot lately. But on Holy Thursday, we wash feet. Instead of making our profession of faith, we practice it. It is a remarkable ritual that reflects the true spirit of ministry—often messy, difficult to coordinate, clumsy, awkward, tentative, and yet tender.
A key truth in the story about washing the feet is that Peter resisted initially. “Master, are you going to wash my feet?” Jesus told him he might not comprehend what he was doing “but you will understand later.” But Peter’s resistance to having his teacher wash his feet is strong. This is the servant’s role. Jesus is literally turning the tables at the Last Supper no less forcefully than he did when he did the spring cleaning at the temple turned over the tables of the moneychangers. But this table turning is gentle, a soothing bath for the feet.
“You will never wash my feet!” Peter says. Ah, Peter, wonderful Peter, always putting his unwashed foot in his mouth. Jesus tells him the truth: “Unless I wash you, you will have no inheritance with me.” Jesus threatens to cut off Peter’s inheritance, to leave him out of God’s will. So, Peter takes his foot out of his mouth and says, “Master, then not only my feet, but my hands and head as well.”
Jesus turns the tables and tells the truth. We have to come clean. “Whoever has bathed has no need except to have his feet washed, for he is clean all over; so, you are clean, but not all.” Jesus knew his betrayer was at the supper that night and would soon hand him over. It is time to come clean.
Letting Go: The Things We Carry
Washing feet is an act of radical hospitality. It is an act of service and love. I recall a Methodist bishop saying to his congregation, “Often the word ‘hospitality’ evokes the image of soft, sweet kindness, tea parties or coffee and cookies, bland conversation and a general atmosphere of coziness and politeness.” He acknowledged that “in our culture and in our church the concept of hospitality has lost much of its power. But for Jesus, hospitality meant welcoming everyone—friends and strangers—as if they were holy.”
Perhaps one of the blessings that will come forth from this time of crisis is that we will reclaim the true meaning of hospitality because we are seeing in the foot washers today who are on the front lines ministering to those who are sick with Covid-19 that such radical hospitality is not without risks. Grocery clerks and bus drivers have died from the coronavirus because they continued to serve others. As the Methodist bishop said long before we ever heard of Covid-19 or coronavirus, “You see, the risk we face in welcoming all persons is not that they will take something away from us, but rather we will be called to give our lives away.”
Radical hospitality means we let go of our prejudices, our fears, and our control. “If we practice radical hospitality that Jesus commands us to, we will be the ones changed and transformed. That is the real risk. But it is also the real reward.”
This is why the ritual we celebrate on Holy Thursday is more than a ritual but a living memory of what Jesus did on the night he was betrayed. “Do you realize what I have done for you? You call me “teacher” and “master” and rightly so, for indeed I am. I, therefore, the master and teacher, have washed your feet you ought to wash one another’s feet. I have given you a model to follow, so that as I have done, you should also do.”
We do this in many and varied ways. For example, we often associate hospitality with a spirit of welcome and an open door. Mark Nepo tells the story about a friend who decided to paint the family room. Robert awoke early one morning to make a list of all he needed to get the job done and then went to the hardware store to buy the paint, drop cloths, brushes and wooden sticks to mix the paint. When he returned home, Robert “mixed the paint outside and waddled to the door with a gallon in each hand, the drop cloth under his arm, and a wide brush in his mouth.” Not wanting to put anything down, he tried to open the door. “I was so stubborn,” Robert said, “I had the door almost open when I lost my grip, stumbled backward, and wound up on the ground, red gallons all over me.”
Robert is not alone. Even though our arms are full—whether we’re carrying paint or packages from the store, groceries or gifts, luggage or laundry, or wood for the fireplace—how many of us stubbornly believe we can still open door? If we can just get that door open an inch then with an elbow here or a foot there, we can swing the door open and carry all that we have without making a second trip. I’ve done this often. I try to keep the door open with a knee or a foot or a shoulder instead of making several trips.
But we do this not only with what we carry in our arms but also with what we carry inside our hearts. If we carry too much resentment, we cannot open doors. If we carry too much pain, it’s difficult to open doors. If we carry too much work, too much hurt, too much arrogance, it’s hard to get a hold of the handle and open the door. “We cannot hold on to things and enter,” Mark Nepo writes. “We must put down what we carry, open the door, and then take up only what we need to bring inside.”
“Can I help you with that?” supermarket and discount store clerks ask when we have lots of bags to carry to the car. My ego usually responds, “No thanks, I can handle it.”
Like Peter, I resist having my feet washed or receiving a helping hand. Ego resists emptying. It is humbling to have one’s feet washed.
In the Service of Love
“Can I help you with that?” It is a simple question but sometimes it takes on profound implications. New York has been one of the places where the coronavirus has hit the hardest. There have been many stories of the heroic witness of foot washers during this crisis. The people of that city—and the people of New Orleans, another community that has been hit particularly hard by the virus—are cities that know how to come together in times of enormous suffering. The city of New York rose from the ashes of the terrorist bombings of September 11; the people of New Orleans rose from the devastation of Hurricane Katrina.
The kind of heroic spirit we are seeing today recalls for me a story I heard a few years ago and was reminded of recently on a podcast. A 50-year-old construction worker and Navy veteran, Wesley Autrey had his hands full—he was holding the hands of his two daughters waiting on a subway platform in New York City. But he saw a young man on the subway platform have a seizure and fall onto the tracks. The headlights of the oncoming training were visible in the tunnel. Wesley Autrey had a split second to make a decision. He let go of his daughters’ hands, jumped on the track and lay on top of the young man, pushing him down between the rails. Four cars rolled over them, the bottom of the cars touching the tip of the Autrey’s cap, before the train could stop. Autrey yelled from beneath the cars to tell his daughters he was okay.
Wesley Autrey let go of his daughters’ hands to save a stranger. He let go of his most precious gifts to save someone he didn’t know, a 20-year old film student at the New York Film Academy who “had only bumps and bruises” from the fall on to the tracks. In response to a question from reporters, Wesley said, “I don’t feel like I did something spectacular; I just saw someone who needed help. I did what I felt was right.”
When we seek to live in right relationship with one another, washing the feet of others as an act of hospitality in the service of love means we are willing to jump into the breaches for no other reason than because it is the right thing to do
This is the love we celebrate on Holy Thursday. We become the living memory of what Jesus did the night he was betrayed. Jesus invites us to pay attention to the needs around us by letting go of whatever we are carrying so that we are free to serve one another with radical hospitality and love. As Henry Nouwen wrote in Reaching Out, hospitality “means primarily the creation of a free space where the stranger can enter and become a friend instead of an enemy. Hospitality is not to change people, but to offer them space where change can take place.”
Radical Action of Eucharist
Washing the feet of his disciples on the night he was betrayed, on the very night he gave his disciples his very self in the form of bread and wine, affirms how the Eucharist is a radical action that nourishes and challenges us to live as loving servants.
One of the stories that reminds us how the Eucharist was given to us on the very night that Jesus was betrayed comes from a writer who as a young boy in 1944 stood with his mother and saw a parade of German prisoners of war being marched through the streets of Moscow. Russian soldiers and police cordoned off the crowd of mostly women that lined the streets. It was mostly women because the Germans had killed their husbands and fathers and sons and brothers in the war. So, this young boy listened as the women shook their angry fists at the enemy soldiers. He saw these women with their backs bent and stooped from carrying the burdens of loss on their shoulders straighten up to shout insults at the proud and arrogant German generals at the head of this parade. The police could barely contain these angry women from running out into the streets and beating the generals.
But then the young man watched as the crowd grew silent. The angry glare of these women turned to a stunned stare as they saw the wounded soldiers trudging behind the generals. These men were thin, unshaven, exhausted. Dirty, bloodstained bandages covered their wounds. They hobbled on crutches or staggered with comrades barely alive clinging to their shoulders and backs. The streets were silent save for the thumping of the crutches along the cobblestone.
Then an elderly woman, in torn and broken boots, pushed her way through the crowd and past the soldiers and police guarding the street. From the folds of her worn coat she pulled out a crust of black bread wrapped in a handkerchief, and pushed it awkwardly into the pocket of one of the enemy soldiers. Then, from every side, women ran toward the soldiers, no longer shaking angry fists at their enemy but holding bread or whatever they had and placing it in the hands of these weary, wounded warriors. Now they were no longer the enemy. They were fathers and husbands and brothers and sons.
This courageous act of taking a piece of bread and giving it to the ones who were responsible for the death of your loved ones is what we celebrate this Holy Thursday night. For this night Jesus takes bread, breaks and blesses it, and gives it to all—to those who would betray him, deny him, and flee from him in his moment of need—with the words, “This is my body.”
If Peter had difficulty understanding Jesus turning the tables of who wash feet and who have their feet washed, then imagine his confusion when Jesus says, “This is my blood.” Peter was well versed in the Passover ritual we read about in the first reading from the book of Exodus and this part wasn’t in the script.
When those women broke through the line and offered the wounded, hungry soldiers who were their enemies their bread, they did what Jesus did on night he was betrayed. With a piece of bread, he said, “This is my body.” With a cup of wine, he said, “This is my blood.” He washed the feet of his friends and enemies and said, “As I have done, so you must do.”
The Power of Memory
On Holy Thursday we celebrate the power of remembrance. In this time of social distancing, we gather alone together to remember the event that took place when a young rabbi gathered with his friends and closest followers to remember the Passover of his ancestors.
In all three readings, the importance of memory is underscored. In the first reading from the book of Exodus, the instruction to remember is clear: “This day shall be a memorial feast for you.” Paul tells the Corinthians in the second reading about the memory he has received which he has “handed on to you” that “on the night he was handed over” Jesus gave us Eucharist with the ringing reminder, repeated twice just in case we missed it the first time, “Do this in remembrance of me.” And after Jesus washes the feet of his disciples, he tells them, “I have given you a model to follow, so that as I have done for you, you should also do.”
This is the night when we kindle the memory of the servant Jesus and how he creates communion out of chaos. This is the night for remembering and celebrating. But actions speak louder than words. Jesus seems to say on this night before he died, if you can’t remember what I say, remember what I do and then do it. This three-fold action of Eucharist—breaking bread, passing the cup, and washing feet—is to be carried out by everyone who claims the name of Christ.
One year when I was presiding on Holy Thursday, I remember how cold the water was when we washed feet. Though the sacristans prepared for the ritual with warm water, by the time we were ready to wash feet, the water was cold—probably because I preached too long! There was something appropriate having cold water for the ritual because it reminded us one of the reasons we don’t wash another’s feet is because we get cold feet.
In his book, Stories from the Shadows: Reflections of a Street Doctor, Dr. James O’Connell recalls walking into New England’s oldest and largest shelter for the homeless with a “sense of invincibility” that accompanies one who has just completed “four years of medical school and three years of residency.” But he was told by the head nurse, Barbara McInnis, that at the Nurses Clinic, each visit began with a foot soak. The waiting area had ten chairs, all occupied by shelter guests soaking their feet in buckets of warm water that contained an antibacterial. “This ritual was instituted by the nurses not only for comfort and hygiene, but also as a sign of service and respect,” Dr. O’Connell writes. “Barbara informed me that my apprenticeship would begin with a couple months of learning the art and skill of soaking feet. She set aside my stethoscope and doctor bag. No medical questions, no chief complaints, no review of systems, no diagnosing. Just tend to the feet and ask what else you can do to help.”
For two months, Dr. O’Connell soaked the feet of the guests who came to the clinic. Following what Jesus did on the night he was betrayed, soaking the feet of the homeless at the shelter “inverts the usual power structure and places the caregiver at the feet of each patient and far from the head. This gesture of respect for the literal and figurative personal space of each homeless person is critical and a marked contrast to how I was taught to take charge during clinical encounters,” Dr. O’Connell said. “After wandering the city for hours, suffering exposure to the extremes of weather, and then standing in a series of queues awaiting entrance to the shelter, a bed ticket, and the evening meal, homeless persons relished the chance to sit and rest while someone cleansed and soothed their feet.”
Taking the First Step
I want to conclude with a story that I tell often but never ceases to challenge me. Avis Crowe is a contemplative who has worked for years in justice and peace ministry. She has also served as a hospice volunteer and with her husband started a ministry of hospitality. In an article for Fellowship magazine several years ago, she recalled a story from the Quaker tradition that occurred in New Jersey in the 1700s.
Two families were farmers and neighbors, and belonged to the same Quaker Meeting. Their farms joined one another, separated by a stream. This stream rose above both pieces of property, then flowed through the younger farmer’s land before becoming the dividing line between the two. The younger farmer decided to divert the stream so he could use the water to irrigate a portion of his land. This angered the older man, who visited his neighbor and objected to his action, for it took needed water away from his fields.
The younger farmer was unyielding. In the Quaker tradition, the older farmer brought the issue before the Friends Meeting asking for their help in settling the dispute. The Meeting was unable to find a solution, so the matter moved on to the Quarterly Meeting, then to the Yearly Meeting. Still there was no resolution. As the issue worked its way through the very slow channels of meetings, the relationship between the two families deteriorated to the point where they stopped speaking to one another. The wall of silence became an impenetrable boundary between the two farms.
Then one evening an itinerant preacher stopped at the older man’s farmhouse, asking for lodging for the night. This was customary in those days, and the family was pleased to welcome the stranger. As they shared a meal together, the farmer spoke of the conflict with his neighbor and his increasing frustration. He asked his visitor for advice. The preacher was thoughtful, then responded with a simple statement: “More is expected of some of us than others.” With those word ringing in his heart, the farmer retired for the night.
The next morning the older farmer gathered a basin, a towel, and a bar of soap. He walked purposefully down the path, crossed the stream, and knocked on his neighbor’s door. The young farmer’s wife was startled by the appearance of the one who had become the “enemy.” When the farmer asked to see her husband, she replied that he was still in bed. Undeterred, the unannounced visitor declared he wished to go upstairs, whereupon the woman led him to the bedroom.
The two men confronted one another: the one sleepily astonished at the surprising encounter, the other bent on carrying out his mission. “Friend, I have come to wash thy feet,” he announced, which he proceeded to do. Then he left without further conversation.
Later that same day, the young farmer brought his family across the stream to visit. The wall of silence between them had been breached, the relationship between the two families restored. In a renewed spirit of cooperation, the two found a way to resolve their differences.
“More is asked of some of us than of others.”
The one who is betrayed washes the feet of those who would deny him, betray him, and flee from him. He did it because “more is asked of some of us than others.”
So, if more is asked of some of us than other, what is asked of you, what is asked of me, what is asked of us in this time of crisis?
At the Crossroads: Reflections at the Intersection of Life and Death
- Where does the suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus find a place in your personal story?
- How does the coronavirus pandemic reflect the paschal mystery?
- What does it mean to you to be holy? Who are some of the people in your life you see as “holy”?
- The world stands under the cross of the coronavirus this Holy Week. But what personal crosses do you stand under at this time in your life? Listen to the whisper of the wood of your crosses; listen to your losses. What do you hear? What are they teaching you?
- What sorrows have left scars upon your heart?
- Who are the fallen, the forsaken, and the forgotten in your life?
- What have you learned from those who have fallen under the weight of their crosses and losses?
- Our mistakes and missed opportunities are our best teachers. What have you learned from your own stumbles, fumbles, and falls?
- Recall an experience when going through the door of the cross led you deeper into the heart of the paschal mystery.How have you experienced God’s presence in your suffering?
- Who has shared the gift of tears with you recently? Reflect on experiences in your life when another has invited you into her Garden of Gethsemane? What was that experience like for you?
- Whose feet have your washed recently? Who has washed your feet?