Thursday, April 5, 2012

Apart from genuine and loving service, the rituals, doctrines & rules of religion mean absolutely nothing. (Radical thoughts on a most radical day)

There’s a great deal of concern that’s sometimes expressed about where today's generation of young people is going to end up in terms of its religion, faith, and participation in the life of the church.

On some occasions, I’ve heard older folks, even some of my colleagues at university wonder out loud whether the younger generation will still consider itself religious, or whether it would continue to value the faith handed down to it.

It does make me wonder myself sometimes, especially since there does seem to be a general indifference we see among young people when it comes to the church, to religion, and to faith. It just doesn’t seem as important to them as it is to their parents and grandparents. Indeed, every new generation seems less devout than the previous one.

A couple of spring breaks ago however, I experienced something that didn’t only give me a great deal of hope, but somehow made me realize that perhaps those of us who are older and who often find ourselves worried about the religiosity of young people, might actually be missing something each time we think about the faith of the younger generation.

A few weeks before the break, I kept getting text and email messages from a good number of my university students who wanted to meet and talk. A few approached me right after class and were asking for appointments. I thought they wanted to talk about their grades—everyone seems to want to get an “A”, or as one student said: “At least an A-.”

All I can tell you is that every single one of those appointments before spring break left me astounded, at times even overwhelmed. These students were asking for recommendations to groups that would take them to New Orleans (this was after hurricane Katrina), Appalachia, even South America. They were going to do volunteer work, skipping the traditional party break to help build homes, assist people who needed help, or just be with people.

They wanted to talk as well because they believed what they were doing was so much a part of their faith, but they didn’t quite know how exactly to make the connection, aside from remembering that—as one of them said to me—“Jesus said we should love our neighbor as ourselves”. During one of our theology classes, one of them said to me: “I think what we’re doing is good. And it was great to be able to help build homes in New Orleans. I just don’t know if it was a properly religious thing”.

“A properly religious thing”. I thought it was a very interesting idea. What’s a properly religious thing anyway? Is it prayer, the rituals of the church, the doctrines we believe or the religious rules we obey? Or is it something more than that? Something bigger perhaps—something that includes all these things, and much more?

Jesus’ action in today’s Gospel, and the ritual we are to witness at the liturgy of this day, gives a definite, final, and absolute answer to that question: Is serving other people a properly religious thing?

Why did Jesus wash his disciples’ feet? You see, over and over again, the disciples kept missing the point he was making. Again and again, they failed to understand the message Jesus wanted to convey.

Only a few days before their Passover meal, James and John had their mother go to Jesus and request that they sit at his right and his left when he finally inaugurated his Kingdom. This led to a big dispute among the disciples. Days before that, Jesus had called Peter “Satan” for trying to persuade him to abandon his mission. And a few moments from this scene, Judas will go to the high priests, frustrated that Jesus didn’t turn out to be the Messiah he imagined him to be.

These men wanted to define Jesus, his work, his life and his message in terms of something so narrow. For them he was the Messiah, the promised King of Israel, a powerful religious and political leader. That summed up for them what Jesus was.

In washing their feet, Jesus opens their eyes and makes them realize, once-and-for all, what he is really about. His action sums up for all time, and for all of us, what it means to believe in Jesus, what it means to have faith in him, what our religion is about. It’s one simple word: “service”. For as he tells them: “What I have done for you; you must in turn do for one another”.

Service is at the heart of our faith, our religion. It is at the core of everything we do because “service” is the most concrete manifestation of faith. In another part of the gospel Jesus calls it by the name more familiar to us. He calls it “love”.

Jesus washes his disciples’ feet in order to show in the most concrete way possible, what it means to love; it is service, it is giving oneself in all generosity to those whom we love.

Our celebration today is a reminder to all of us. Serving one another in love, especially the poorest and neediest among us—is as much a part of our religion and our faith, as the ritual we are about to see. As I told my students after spring break, pounding those nails and building those homes were as much a part of our religion as their coming to church on Sunday.

That is what tonight’s foot-washing is all about. To serve others, out of love for them and love for God is a properly religious thing.

Apart from loving service, most especially to those most in need, the rituals, doctrines, and rules of religion mean absolutely nothing.

As St. Paul says in words so familiar to all of us:

“Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not love, I am like a sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal. And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries, and all knowledge; and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not love, I am nothing”.

"The Kingdom of Heaven is a condition of the heart." (Friedrich Nietzsche)