In the popular and controversial movie “The Passion of the Christ” the virgin Mary asks a powerful question on Holy Thursday evening.
She has just awoken from a dream on the very night her son Jesus is captured and taken to his executioners, and asks Mary Magdelene,
“Why is this night different than any other night?”
Tonight we commemorate the institutions of the eucharist and priesthood and begin the sacred Triduum. This night is about love, sacrifice, solidarity and suffering.
“Why is this night different than any other night?”The question is perhaps best answered in what Jesus is doing in today’s Gospel passage, or better yet, what Jesus is commanding us to do this Holy Thursday.
He’s demanding us to adhere to a new model of leadership that goes against the grain of our current culture in the United States and in much of the world today.
It’s a model often criticized by those who want decisive leadership from people who are “in charge.” The world says we need strong leaders.
Christ’s model is servant leadership. And His model of leadership was so threatening to the powers of His day that,
“He was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; by His wounds we are healed.”
As we prepare ourselves for the coming of Easter, and as we go through these painful days of betrayal, denial, and anguish, I offer these words from a favorite author about Holy Thursday.
These words should help us all to wrap our heads around what Jesus is calling us to do.
The words come from prolific Catholic writer Henri Nouwen.
Here’s what he had to say about Holy Thursday:
“The servant leader is the leader who is being led to unknown, undesirable, and painful places. The way of the Christian leader is not the way of upward mobility in which our world has invested so much, but the way of downward mobility ending on the cross . . .
It is not a leadership of power and control, but a leadership of powerlessness and humility in which the suffering servant of God, Jesus Christ, is made manifest.
Jesus sends us out to be shepherds, and Jesus promises a life in which we increasingly have to stretch our hands and be led to places where we would rather not go.”
A parent’s love is perhaps the most powerful model of servant leadership.
In a bittersweet moment in “The Passion of the Christ,” Mary sees her son struggling with His cross on the streets of Jerusalem, falling a third time.
She’s terrified by what she sees, nearly frozen in fear. But in that moment she remembers a time when Jesus as a little boy fell down, hurting himself, and goes running toward her son to comfort Him, goes running toward the cross.
As she tenderly embraces Him, saying, “I’m here,” Jesus says, “See, mother, I make all things new.”
In another scene, another mother Veronica comforts her daughter troubled by the horrifying scene of Christ being marched to his death. In that moment, she pours a glass of water for Christ and brings it to Him in the streets, brings it to the cross, taking off her veil to let Him to wipe off his bloodied face. As she takes away the cloth, she sees the face of Christ imbedded on it.
Then there’s Simon, the Cyrenian, who tells his child to stay put and wait for him as he’s forced by Roman soldiers to help Jesus carry the cross. His compassion for Christ grows as he watches this innocent man led to his execution, mocked and ridiculed by most along the way.
In this most Holy Week, these parents are modeling for us what a servant leader looks like: to go to “places where we would rather not go,” to selflessly serve the needs of others, to help others carry their crosses, to love with an unending reservoir of love and compassion. This is the way of Christ.
As a reflection, I’d like to share part of Henri Nouwen’s Holy Thursday prayer. I pray it will have meaning for us all.
“I am looking to you, Lord. You have said so many loving words. Your heart has spoken so clearly. Now you want to show me even more clearly how much you love me.
Knowing that your Father has put everything in your hands, that you have come from God and are returning to God, you remove your outer garments and, taking a towel, you wrap it around your waist, pour water into a basin and begin to wash my feet, and then wipe them with the towel you are wearing …
You look at me with utter tenderness, saying, ‘I want you to be with me. I want you to have a full share in my life. I want you to belong to me as much as I belong to my Father. I want to wash you completely clean so that YOU and I can be one and so that you can do to others what I have done to you.’
I am looking at you again, Lord. You stand up and invite me to the table. As we are eating, you take bread, say the blessing, break the bread, and give it to me. ‘Take and eat,’ you say, ‘this is my body given for you.’ Then you take a cup, and, after giving thanks, you hand it to me, saying, ‘This is my blood, the blood of the new covenant poured out for you.’
Knowing that your hour has come to pass from this world to your Father and having loved me, you now love me to the end. You give me everything that you have and are. You pour out for me your very self. All the love that you carry for me in your heart now becomes manifest. You wash my feet and then give me your own body and blood as food and drink.