HOMILY AT THE MASS OF THE LORD’S SUPPER
Chapel of St Vincent’s Hospital, Kangaroo Point
9 April 2020
All the churches are closed and the cathedral stands empty. But the hospitals aren’t closed and, although a hospital like this may not be full at the moment, it may be a different story if COVID-19 gets worse. Hospital people are speaking of a surge some time not too far down the track which could last for weeks or even months.
For a long time we’ve taken our healthcare system for granted. But with this new crisis we’ve come to see that even it has its limits and a fragility of its own. But it also has massive strengths, and it’s those we recognize by coming here tonight. We not only recognize these strengths … we give thanks for them. And we do so at a time when we’re coming to see our own fragility as never before.
The most distinctive part of the Mass of the Lord’s Supper is usually the washing of feet, commemorating what Jesus did before the Last Supper. This was a customary gesture with a quite practical purpose, performed usually by the lowest of the slaves, which is why Peter finds it so confronting when Jesus comes to him. Tonight however we can’t wash feet. We’ll wash hands which is a feeble substitute – anesthetic perhaps in this sanitising moment. But we’re here precisely because we can’t wash feet. Because in a hospital the feet of the world are washed every day and every night. So the foot-washing may not happen in the cathedral but it does happen here. Nothing can stop it; it must go on. Doctors, nurses, administration staff, cooks, cleaners, launderers and God alone knows who else in this place – all of them foot-washers like Jesus.
Nor can we celebrate together on this night the gift of the Eucharist, as we normally do looking back to the Lord’s institution of the Eucharist at the Last Supper. So we come here, because hospitals are Eucharistic – especially at a time like this. In this place, lives are put on the line for the sake of others. Bodies are broken and blood poured out for the life of the world. Life-giving sacrifices are made; and that’s what the Eucharist is about.
If the sick can’t come to us, we go them. So all the sick are gathered with us here in this chapel. If their loved ones can’t go to them, we come in their name. So all the loved ones of the sick gather with us here in this chapel. If the doctors, nurses and other hospital staff are too busy to come to us, then we come to them tonight; and they gather with us in this chapel as we look to the life that’s bigger than death and thank them for their service of that life, which is surely service of God, a Eucharistic service.
Like foot-washing, the care of the sick in a time of crisis isn’t glamorous. There was nothing glamorous about what Jesus did before the Last Supper; nor is there about most of what happens in this hospital. Much of what’s involved in care of the sick is hidden; we take it for granted. Yet it’s what makes the world go round. It’s the washing of feet – the care of the sick and dying – which makes this place a new kind of cathedral, holy ground as hospitals always are. I say holy ground because the Risen Christ himself works these corridors, he’s in the theatres and the wards, in every corner of the hospital, removing his outer garment, tying a towel round his waist and tending the sick and the dying, whatever it takes.
People die in this place. The shadow of death falls over it, just as it did over the Last Supper with betrayal and execution in the air. But this hospital stands as a monument to Easter, the life that’s bigger than death, just as the Last Supper not only looked back to the Passover meal but forward to the great feast of life that would never end, the marriage feast of the Lamb. St Vincent’s Hospital is a temple of life, because here feet are washed; and it’s the foot-washing that leads to life, even when it’s the feet of the dying and the dead. The service becomes the sacrifice for the life of the world.
It’s the washing of feet and all that it symbolizes that opens the door to Easter, to the triumph of life over death. If we do no more than go through the ritual motions in an empty cathedral, then there can be no real Easter. But if we can learn from the foot-washing that goes on day and night in this hospital, then the Church may be more like “the field hospital” which Pope Francis says we are to be. “The thing the Church needs most today”, he writes, “is the ability to heal wounds and warm hearts; it needs nearness, closeness. I see the Church as a field hospital after battle. It is useless to ask seriously injured people if they have high cholesterol or how their blood sugar levels are. You have to heal their wounds”. “A field hospital”: what a deep and powerful chord that image struck not only in the Church but far beyond. And that same chord sounds deep and strong as we gather in this chapel on this holy night.
Tonight we come to this hospital, to this Upper Room where feet are washed and wounds are healed. We come to learn anew what it is to be the Church in a time of affliction like this and in this eerie, plague-ridden landscape where things may never again be as they were. As we set forth into the three days of death and resurrection, we come humbly and gratefully to learn more of what it means for the community of disciples to be “a field hospital”, the foot-washers of the world, a body broken and blood poured out for the life of the world. Amen.