HOMILY FOR THE EVENING MASS OF THE LORD’S SUPPER
THE CATHEDRAL OF ST STEPHEN
I’ve never been a big fan of Rod Stewart. But there’s one song of his that’s always struck a chord with me. It’s called “Sailing”: you may or may not know it – I promise I won’t sing it. The words and the music are evocative, even haunting, because they touch into a deep human desire, the desire to be free. “We are sailing, we are sailing / Home again / ‘Cross the sea / We are sailing / Stormy waters / to be near you / To be free / Oh, Lord, to be near you, to be free / Oh, my Lord, to be near you, to be free”: these words come at the end of the song.
I have no idea whether Rod Stewart had or has religion of any kind, but I hear those words with the ear of one who does have religion and one who knows that at the heart of any religion there’s the search for freedom, a freedom which, according to Christian faith, is found ultimately in Jesus Christ crucified and risen.
Certainly tonight is all about freedom, all the more so as we emerge from lockdown in a time when our freedoms have been curtailed in ways that would’ve been unimaginable not that long ago. So as we sail through the stormy waters of COVID-19 the question of freedom presses upon us more than ever, especially in a country like this which has known exceptional freedoms and which has fought hard to preserve them.
But Rod Stewart is right: true freedom isn’t easily found. It always involves sailing stormy waters, the freedom which comes once we find our way home to be near the One we call Lord, the One who is the liberator. There’s no cheap and easy freedom; and, once found, true freedom is always under threat.
The Book of Exodus tonight speaks from the heart of the Bible’s primal liberation story – the liberation of slaves from Egypt. In a world which says “Once a slave, always a slave” here you have God freeing slaves against all the odds from Pharaoh’s power. This is the hope the Bible offers the world, the hope which knows that slaves can in fact come free.
This is what the Jewish people have been remembering in recent days during their celebration of Passover, the passing over from slavery to freedom through the stormy waters of the Red Sea. It’s what they’ve been celebrating for thousands of years, and it’s the hope that has sustained them though all the tribulations of their history. Observant Jew that he was, Jesus gathers with his disciples to celebrate the Passover on this night, to remember the liberation worked by God which, for Christians, looks to the final liberation that comes in the death and resurrection of Jesus. You can’t understand what we call the Paschal Mystery unless you understand the Passover; and you can’t understand the Eucharist unless you understand the Passover sacrifice and meal. That’s why at this Mass of the Lord’s Supper we begin by listening to the Book of Exodus.
Judas too knew the Exodus story well, had it in his bones. He was looking for the freedom it promises. Presumably that was why he chose to join the group of Jesus’ disciples and why Jesus chose him to be one of the Twelve. Judas had hoped that Jesus would be the one to bring the freedom which he and many others were seeking. But his decision to betray Jesus to the authorities shows that his hope had been dashed. Judas could see that Jesus was doomed and that his execution would mean the death of the hope for freedom that had led him to Jesus. If that were so, then Judas needed to be free of Jesus. “Oh Lord, to be near you, to be free” had been what led him to Jesus until the song fell silent. Then freedom for Judas meant not that he stay near Jesus but that he move as far from him as possible. If he wanted to be free, he needed to be free of Jesus. Or so he thought.
The religious authorities too wanted to be free of Jesus. In their search for freedom or at least peace, they followed a two-pronged policy – obey God’s Law and don’t provoke the Romans. In their view, Jesus failed on both counts: he broke God’s Law and provoked the Romans. Therefore, he had to go – for the sake of the people, as one of them argues. If they wanted to preserve their sense of freedom, then they had to be free of Jesus; they had to get rid of him.
Jesus had to go because he had subverted conventional understandings of what it meant to sail stormy waters to be near God and to be free. And that subversion we see in the two great gestures he accomplishes this evening before and during the Passover meal. First, he washes the feet of his disciples, and then he entrusts to them the bread which is his Body and the wine which is his Blood, presenting himself as the Lamb who is the sacrifice and who becomes the feast.
Both gestures anticipate and interpret the Passion and Death he’s about to suffer; and both point the way of true freedom. Liberation comes to those who – unlike Judas and the authorities – don’t demand that their feet be washed but to those who take a towel, get down on their knees and do what the lowliest servant in the house would do – wash feet that were dirty because they’d been tramping the dusty ways of Holy Land and Holy City. The humility of this looks further to the complete self-emptying of the Body broken and the Blood poured out for the life of the world. Liberation comes not to those who like Judas and the authorities break the Body and draw the Blood but to those who mount the Cross with Jesus, those who know that self-sacrificing love is stronger than every betrayal and violence. They are the ones who sail the dark and stormy waters to be near the Lord in whom they find freedom. The others drown.
The choice lies before us. Do we line up with Judas and the authorities in their doomed search for a freedom they never find? Or do we line up with Jesus who washes feet like a slave and is set free even from the Egypt of death? Do we follow the roaring lion who seems so strong or do we follow the silent Lamb who seems so weak? Do we demand that others wash our feet or do we get down and wash the feet of others? Do we say to the world, “This is my body given for you” or do we say “This is your body taken for me”?
Those who choose to follow Jesus – even into the darkness of Gethsemane and on to Golgotha – are those who sail away from Egypt, sailing home across waters that may be stormy but which are also an ocean of light, sailing home to the Garden of Easter where we will be near you, my Lord, where we will be free.