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Holy Thursday 2023
Homily presented at St. Vincent de Paul Parish, Albany, New York
For many years I had a place at the family Seder meal led by my friend Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman. Each year he would write a contemporary Haggadah (narrative) to mark the feast of Passover. Jews keep Passover so as not to forget what it means to be freed from bondage.
The main story is the Exodus — a passover from slavery to liberation. For the Israelites the narrative became a memorial feast, a time of remembrance, which all generations shall celebrate. (Ex 12:1-8, 11-14)
For Jews the powerful memory (zikkaron) of the Passover makes it possible for them to identify with that event in their own lives. It is not just a story about their ancestors. It is their own story. Each year it takes on new meanings always including the story of the Holocaust and this year, rising anti-semitism and the slow eradication of liberty and justice in Israel and Palestine.
Why is that Jewish story important for us to hear tonight? Why do we tell it? Why should we not forget it? Jesus of Nazareth was Jewish. He was born a Jew, he lived as a Jew, and he died as a Jew. During the time of Passover in Jerusalem he wanted to have a last meal with his followers before his execution. 
At that “last supper” Jesus did not start a Christian religion to replace Judaism. Scholars continue to probe if he himself actually intended to create a Christian liturgy of the eucharist or to institute an all male priesthood. Knowing that it was the custom at that time, women, children, and strangers would have been present in the room as shown in the 16th century painting by Tintoretto.  They were all there — women, children, men. Perhaps Jesus called all of them to a priestly ministry of service!
For the Jews gathered with Jesus at that supper the bread on the table reminded them of the bread of affliction carried by their ancestors who hastily fled Egyptian captivity. (Deut 16:3) Jesus, remembering the Exodus, held the bread in his hand and identified with it in such an emotional way that he called it his body! Not the bread carried by his ancestors but his own body.
At the end of the meal he raised the cup of blessing. It reminded the Jews of the sprinkling of the blood of young bulls on the people to confirm their covenant with God (Ex 24:8) and the forgiveness of their sins. (Lev 5:9-10)
Today, we think of all the broken covenants with God: blood spilled in Ukraine, school shootings, migrants reaching across their own Red Sea in search of a promised land, our failure to act when injustice prevails. Jesus identified with that cup of wine and called it his blood shed for all! But then he said something most important for us to think about tonight: “Do THIS in memory of me.” What’s the THIS?
John’s gospel is the only one that describes the washing of the feet. (John 13:1-15) In this familiar story Jesus once again turned the status quo upside down. In all humility, by washing dirty feet of everyone in the room — children, women, and men — he modeled what it would be like if every person on this planet were respected and not be shunned because of who they are. Gay, straight, trans, male, female, young, old, able, not so able. Imagine if every person were respected because they are human beings.
This is the THIS Jesus spoke of: Feed the hungry. Refresh one another’s being. Visit incarcerated persons. Comfort the sick. Console one another in times of trouble. Lend a hand to outcasts living on life’s edges. Open doors of possibility for those who are vulnerable. Teach children to know the difference between right and wrong. Practice loving kindness to all. Acts of social justice and mercy cannot be separated from our worship of God. One action cannot be done without the other action.
Scholar Hal Taussig commented on tonight’s second reading: The apostle "Paul presents ‘the body of Christ’ to the Corinthian assemblies as a concept and as an image of social and spiritual connection.” (1 Cor 11:23-26) 
Washing one another’s feet here tonight is an expression of our communion and our responsibilities for one another. It is a practice session for what we must do to repair the world (Tikkun Olam) and to stop any authority from depriving us of our human rights. It is a responsibility that we cannot ignore.
Jesus, who never forgot the Exodus experience of his ancestors, identified with it. He was going through it like his ancestors went through. His entire life was all about passing over from grief to joy, from anxiety to hope. In this sense, Christians have come to know Jesus as a passover. He is the blessing cup (Psalm 116). He is the bread of life. (John 6:35)
Whenever we enact the liturgy of the eucharist as a priestly people (and we do it together) it is not only a remembrance (anamnesis) of who Jesus was and what he did. It is now our story. We are called by our baptism to identify with that paschal mystery as our own. We are his body. We are his blood.  Jesus said: “For now I have given you a model to follow, so that as I have done for you, you should also do for one another.” (John 13:15)
1. Note that John’s gospel says that the meal took place before the Feast of Passover.
2.Tintoretto’s The Last Supper (1592-4), which hangs in the Basilica di San Giorgio Maggiore in Venice, depicts women, beggars, and others in the same room with the apostles.
3. Taussig, Hal. A New New Testament. (New York: HarperOne, 2015), 263.
4. Augustine of Hippo said in a 5th century homily quoting Paul in his letter to the Corinthians.“You are the body of Christ, member for member." (1 Cor. 12:27)