Rorate Caeli

Fontgombault Sermon for Maundy Thursday 2019: “You could not keep watch with me for one hour!”

Giotto, The Kiss of Judas, Scrovegni Chapel

Sermon of the Right Reverend Dom Jean Pateau
Abbot of Our Lady of Fontgombault
(Fontgombault, April 18th, 2019)

You could not keep watch with me for one hour.

Dear Brothers and Sisters,
My dearly beloved Sons,

Today, the Church does not spare liturgical splendors, as she commemorates the institution of the sacraments of the Eucharist and the holy Orders. Today, the celebration uniting all the members of the presbyterium manifests very opportunely the communion of all priests with Christ, the one Priest of the New Covenant.

We have just heard St. John’s narrative of the washing of the feet, as a prelude to the institution of the two sacraments, and to the long discourse after the Last Supper. Jesus knows His hour has now come, when He must pass from this world to His Father. It is the hour when He must say His last words, and give His last examples.

Among the latter, the washing of the feet holds a special place. It takes place during the supper, and it is unexpected, for it disrupts the supper’s order. Whereas this act is normally reserved for servants, Jesus makes a point of carrying it out Himself, in favor of disciples who do not understand its meaning. Peter protests. The Lord’s answer is irrevocable: “If I wash thee not, thou shalt have no part with Me.” (Jn 13:8)

Jesus will begin to unveil this part in a few moments, when He gives His disciples His flesh to eat and His blood to drink. In the humble sharing of His life, the Lord makes Himself the servant of His own life within His disciple. Let us remember that the true disciple of the Lord is he who allows himself to be served by the Lord, he who receives His merciful visit. The true disciple is not first and foremost he who proclaims the Gospel, but rather he who, conscious of his deep own destitution, begins, in an intimate and personal relationship with Jesus, by receiving Him in truth into his own life, and allows himself to be guided by Him.

To receive in such a way the Lord is to start off on an authentic path of communion. The Blessed Eucharist is never a right that is due. We might think it would be consistent to abstain from it, making ours Peter’s reaction: God is too great for us to allow Him to come to us under the garments of a servant, of the Redeemer. God is too great for us to eat His flesh and drink His blood. At the beginning of His public life, Jesus had announced that (Jn 6).

This hard-to-hear saying caused many disciples to leave. Receiving Holy Communion must not be a banal act, a commonplace and routine deed, because it is not banal to be in communion with God’s very life. In this sacrament, God rings Himself within our reach, so as to lift us up towards Him. There lies the great mystery. We may not claim that God should wash our feet and feed us with His body and blood. Rather, it is God Who wants it to be this way.

What is crucial is not to argue with God’s will, but to receive it as it should be received. He who communicates to the life of the Lord should also carry out the acts of the Lord, he should live in consistence with Him Who is his life. 

If then I, being your Lord and Master, have washed your feet; you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that as I have done to you, so you do also. (Jn 13:14-15)

In this context of a calling to communion, the absence of the osculum pacis during tonight’s Mass might seem paradoxical. On the same lines, during tomorrow afternoon’s li turgical function, the prelate will not be wearing his ring, a symbol of communion. Jesus has just carried out two founding acts, the washing of the feet, and the gift of the Eucharist. He utters the great discourse after the Last Supper, a calling to unity for the disciples. But in actual fact, He knows that He is alone. The absence of the kiss of peace refers to the kiss of Judas in the garden of Olives, an act of communion with the Master which in fact pointed Him out as the man to be arrested. 

More broadly, wouldn’t the absence of the kiss of peace refer to other betrayals, such as, for instance, that of Peter, who within a few hours will affirm he does not know Him Whom he has been following for three years? And what shall we say of the other disciples? How many of them will be found at the foot of the Cross? And what shall we say of ourselves, too?

For several months now, the Church has been shaken by many scandals, most of which are rather old, and which are smugly drummed by the media into the general public, as if to show the world that the Church is as perverted as any other group, and that therefore God does not exist. It is true that there are victims, children, nuns, seminarians, priests. It is true also that there are predators. Betrayal is not something new within the Church, it dates back to her very first hours, the hour when God offered His communion. It is a risk that God has accepted, as He has created men and women as free beings.

Faced with these scandals, many people within the Church deem they have to communicate, to argue, to prove. They speak, they vie with each other for words. Perhaps we should first listen to the sentence, heard several times from the very lips of the Lord just before He was arrested. Judas has already betrayed Him; soon, Peter and the others will do the same. This sentence resounds as the last teaching delivered to the disciples, as the revelation of the fervor of a spiritual life. We can also hear in it Jesus’ deep sorrow, as well as His loneliness: “You could not keep watch with me for one hour.”

These words are first meant for Peter, but they are also meant for all the disciples, and therefore for us. They remind us of our primary vocation, which is to spend time with Jesus. Christ goes towards His Passion, His hour. It is fearsome, and He knows it. The disciples themselves will also have their own hour. The hour when one must choose between good and evil, between following Christ or betraying Him. How countless are the hours when we did not choose Christ!

The invitation to keep watch with Jesus is to be understood as the words of a mother to her child. To keep watch with Jesus is to be sheltered, fed, educated, led by Him. Today, in a troubled, violent, and untruthful world, this protection is necessary for all Christians, and especially for priests and bishops. To keep watch with Jesus means to turn away from oneself, to turn away from idols made by human hands, to draw from the life-giving fount that the Lord is. During these holy days, let us receive the word of the Lord: “You could not keep watch with me for one hour.”

May our lives become a long vigil with Christ, in the firm hope of the blessed day of our own Passover, when we at last see Him face to face.