Homily of Bishop Pablo Virgilio David of Kalookan during the Mass of the Lord’s Supper at the San Roque Cathedral in Caloocan City on Holy Thursday, April 1, 2021.
One of our priests in Pampanga was telling me the other day about a young deacon in the archdiocese, whose mother was rushed to the hospital because of severe COVID symptoms. Like most COVID patients, the mother was admitted, but she was not allowed to have a single member of her family to accompany her in the hospital room.
For many Filipinos, this is one of the horrors of being hospitalized for COVID—the idea of being alone on a hospital bed in these difficult moments, and God forbid, also the idea of dying alone and being hurriedly cremated. It must be one of the reasons why our COVID mortality rate is so high in the Philippines—the psychological factor that raises the anxiety level of patients.
Apparently, the young deacon spoke heart-to-heart with the doctor about the family’s concern about leaving his mother alone in such a critical condition. The doctor explained that it was normally not allowed, but within the circumstances, given the fact that their hospital was so under-staffed and their nurses had to look after so many patients simultaneously, perhaps he could consider allowing it, on one condition. Not only would the assisting family member have to take all the necessary precautions including wearing a PPE like a health worker. He would have to be willing to sign a waiver stating that the hospital would not be held accountable in case the assisting family member also got infected.
It did not take much time for the deacon to read the waiver form; he himself signed it immediately and said he was going to do the assisting himself. He is still there at this very moment. The priest who was telling me the story said the deacon had been excused temporarily from performing a deacon’s ministry. I reacted and said, but what he’s doing for his mother now is what the diaconate is really about. When he says “I want to assist my mother, no matter what the cost might be, he’s being a real diakonos, meaning, a servant.”
On this evening of the Lord’s Supper, I thought of the signing of that waiver as a good equivalent to the washing of the feet that we are not even able to ritualize during this pandemic.
I imagine, let’s say, an aunt or an uncle of that deacon saying, “No, don’t do that, you’re risking too much. Lalo na ikaw malapit ka nang maordenahan sa pagkapari. You’ll never know how COVID might affect you if you get infected. Hindi naman siguro mapababayaan ang nanay mo sa hospital. Just pray for her.”
The equivalent of that reaction is Peter. He refuses to be washed by Jesus; and his reason sounds noble. He did not want Jesus, whom he regarded as his teacher and master to so demean himself. As far as Peter was concerned, Jesus was exaggerating.
In those days, good hosts were just expected to make some water and a towel available right at the atrium area of the house so that the guests could wash their own feet upon arrival. It was a presumed gesture of hospitality because people usually wore open sandals and had their feet soiled by the dust along the way.
Sometimes, the more well-to-do hosts would exaggerate the hospitality by getting some slaves to wash the guests’ feet, one by one. What Jesus was doing was not only exaggerated for Peter; it was too demeaning for him.
But was Peter really concerned about Jesus’ dignity? No. He was actually projecting himself—as he has, on other occasions. Remember that time when Jesus said he was on his way to Jerusalem where he was going to be arrested, condemned to death and crucified? Remember how Peter blocked his way and said in Mt 16:22, “God forbid, Lord! No such thing shall ever happen to you.”
Sometimes, even with the best of intentions, we don’t realize that we are actually projecting on others our own instincts for self-preservation. By telling Jesus “I will not allow you to wash my feet,” he was actually saying, “I will never do that myself.”
But Jesus would explain himself to them later on. When he said two chapters later “I do not regard you as slaves because a slave does not know what his master is doing. Rather, I regard you as friends.” I think he also meant it the other way around—that he was doing this for them not as a slave but as a friend.
A slave has no choice except to obey what he is being ordered to do, such as to wash the feet of the guests. (Remember I once told you in another homily how slaves were even ordered to washed the butts of their Roman masters with a sponge on a stick, after a toilet activity?) Jesus is doing this by choice, not as a slave, but as a friend. He is not required to do this, but he does it anyway, as an act of love. Very much like the deacon’s voluntary choice of signing a waiver to be able to accompany his mother.
John is right in his introduction to the last supper scene. He says, Jesus “loved his own in the world and he loved them to the end.” Yes, including Judas; remember, he washed Judas’ feet too. Yes, those very feet that later found their way to the Chief Priest’s home in order to betray Jesus. Jesus also gave him the first morsel of bread, ahead of everybody else. This man who was his friend and counted among “his own” was about to be claimed by Satan. I think Jesus tried to reinforce him for the spiritual battle.
You see, Satan’s whole orientation was the exact opposite of Jesus’. His motto as Lucifer, we are told, in Latin, is “NON SERVIAM.” Meaning, I will not serve. Apocryphal tradition tells us that Satan was a fallen angel whose sin was basically pride and arrogance. His dignity as an angel had gotten into his head.
Apparently, after God created the angels, He created the human beings and declared them to be his most special creatures because they were his IMAGE AND LIKENESS. He therefore commanded Satan to bow before Adam and Eve in order to show respect for God’s image and likeness. But Satan refused to obey, insisting that he had been created before Adam and that he was a more dignified being than this creature made out of clay. His declaration, therefore, was: I WILL NOT BOW. I WILL NOT SERVE ADAM. I WILL NOT DEMEAN MYSELF. And so he fell down from heaven.
Yes, we are dignified creatures and we must not allow others to demean us or to violate our dignity as image and likeness of God. And yet, the irony of it all is, the best way to let his dignity shine out is to voluntarily choose to take up roles that may demean our dignity or even endanger our lives, as an act of love.
I remember how my late mother treated my father. She would make him coffee, prepare warm water in a bucket for his shower, have his towel and underwear ready, even if my father was not asking for it. If my father asked for it, it was in the sweet tone of, “‘Neng, would you mind making me your usual blend of coffee that no one else can make, please?” And she would make the coffee with a smile, “Sure, ‘Deng, coming.”
That is what lovers do. They become slaves to each other. Not by force, but through exaggerated expressions of love. This evening’s Supper which the Lord asks us to keep doing IN MEMORY OF HIM, is a testament of that exaggerated love of God, the God who totally empties himself in Jesus Christ, takes the form of a slave and gives up his life for our redemption. All for love us us.
(I received the sad news just now that Mrs. Janet Tulio passed on at noon time today. She is the mother of the young deacon I mentioned above, Rev. John Cenon Tulio. Please pray for her eternal repose and for the comfort of the family.)