Thursday, April 17, 2014

"And though I have all faith, so that I could move mountains, yet have not love, I am nothing”. (Reflections on loving service, on the day Jesus washed his disciples' feet, John 13:1-15)

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

On some occasions, I’ve heard older folks, even some of my former colleagues at university, wonder out loud whether the younger generation will still consider themselves religious, or whether they’d value their faith. It does make me wonder myself sometimes.

For one, there seems 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 few of spring breaks ago though, 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 couple of 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 kid 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 about to witness at this evening's masses, give 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 get across. Just 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 had imagined, or wished, 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 wanted to open their eyes and make them realize, once-and-for all, what he is really about. His action summed up for all time, and for all of us, what it means to believe in him, 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 Saint 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)