The events recounted in tonight’s gospel took place in an upper room of a building in 1st century Jerusalem. The Upper Room, or the Cenacle as it is known, might well be the most important room in all of Christianity. It was in that upper room that the Last Supper took place, and the Holy Eucharist was instituted. It was in that same room on that same night that Jesus washed the feet of his disciples, inaugurating a ministry of loving service. By tradition this is the same room where the apostles hid after the crucifixion and where the risen Lord first appeared to them; showing them his hands and his side. It was here that he bestowed upon them the gift of the Holy Spirit and later in the presence of the Blessed Mother, tongues of fire rested upon them; and thus in this place, the Church was born. Finally it was from this Upper Room that the apostles went forth to proclaim the Good News. Today we rejoice because nothing that happened in that Upper Room stayed in that Upper Room.
Today in the southwest part of the Old City of Jerusalem, a fourteenth century building occupies the spot traditionally believed to be the place where the building with that Upper Room once stood. Naturally it is a place that Christian pilgrims to the Holy Land seek out. The building, however, also has spiritual significance to Jews and Muslims. The first floor houses a place revered as the tomb of King David and a centuries old mosque is located there as well. For this reason, the Cenacle has been a place of religious and political controversy and only visits are permitted there, Christians are only permitted to celebrate mass there with the permission of the Israeli government and only on special occasions. When I first visited the Cenacle 23 years ago, these controversies surrounding the Upper Room, disturbed me. I did not understand how it was that anyone or any authority could prohibit a celebration of what happened here first. Since that time both Pope Frances and Pope St. John Paul II did receive permission to celebrate mass there and Pope Benedict did lead prayer there during his visit. Just this past fall, with our parish pilgrimage group, I had the chance to visit the room again. For some reason, I felt differently during this visit – the rules were the same but they were presented to me with a different perspective. We were told that it was here in this room that peace is protected and all 3 faiths respected. I thought to myself – maybe the rarity of the celebration of the Eucharist in that place, is for a reason. Maybe it stands as a reminder that nothing that happened in the Upper Room was meant to stay in the Upper Room. And so, it does throughout the world in every church, the servant leadership of priests, the lived encounter with the Risen Christ and his Holy Spirit, the reconciliation of doubt and the Real Presence of Jesus Christ is received daily, not in the Upper Room but in the Cenacle that is the Holy Roman Catholic Church.
In that room, last November, two of our pilgrims presented me with a chalice which depicts the Last Supper. I will use that chalice tonight and those pilgrims are among the people whose feet I will wash tonight. For tonight, the chalice and my fellow pilgrims help us to remember in a most profound way, that what happened in the Upper Room did not stay in the Upper Room. Furthermore, I pray tonight that our parish community will recognize in a new way that our church is our upper room, a Cenacle, itself. Where all that happened in the first upper room happens here. And like that upper room, what happens here should not, cannot and must not stay here.
During his public ministry, our Lord, continually preached and sent disciples forth. When they returned to him, he continued his preaching and teaching sending them out each time. His words had significant power, but in the end, they are not enough. On that night amidst the celebration of the Passover, tension is building. Uncertainty abounds, his betrayer dines with him and the one he has called the rock will deny him. So, on the night before his death on the cross, Jesus went beyond words. With his hands, he washed their feet and with his hands He gave us them the Eucharist.
Throughout human history, physical contact between persons has always said more than words ever could. A gentle touch of a hand, a warm embrace and a kiss of affection move us deeply and significantly and they remain with us longer. In the washing of his disciple’s feet Jesus preaches the profound truth of the Eucharist. This sacrament is his flesh touching ours. He embraces us as we literally consume Him within us. With His physical and divine embrace Jesus gave his apostles and us what we need to take what happens in the Upper Room out to a world that needs this encounter with him. Thankfully what happened in the Upper Room did not stay there, had it remained a private party for a select few, we would not know Christ.
Because we have been privileged to know and experience what happens in the Upper Room we are called to be evangelists and missionaries. We are called, as Bishop Barres has continually said to us, to share in the dramatic missionary growth of the church. We may be uncomfortable with this mandate, feeling we are not gifted in eloquent speech, do not posses sufficient knowledge of the faith or are inhibited by our sinful imperfection. Yet what the Lord gives us and teaches us in the Upper Room is all we need.
The other ten people whose feet I wash tonight have shown me through their service that they understand that what happens in the Upper Room, should not, cannot and must not stay in the Upper Room. Two of them serve Fr. Daniel and I here in our home at the rectory. Two give service to the liturgies of the Lord's house here in our church. Four are members of a family who have made service a part of their family’s life, in scouting, in showing care for those who serve us in the military and through the time they spent helping to rebuild communities on the south shore after Hurricane Sandy. Lastly, two of them are parents who serve by giving their son to the church so that he may be formed to serve as a servant leader in priestly ministry. It is in these many ways that you and I can and should be a part of making sure that what happened in the Upper Room and what happens in this Upper Room, our Holy Family church, will not stay here.
Our world needs a dynamic encounter with Jesus Christ. It needs to know the divine embrace of Jesus. It longs to experience leadership of servants, ministers of mercy, gifts of the Holy Spirit, certainty in doubt and the real true presence of a savior. Like the apostles we are privileged to encounter Christ in this our Cenacle, our Upper Room, our church. Tonight, as we celebrate the institution of what is expressed not in words but in sacrifice, let us recommit ourselves to living lives committed to the assurance that what happens in this upper room will not stay here; but be lived every day and so share in the building of God’s Kingdom.