Just For Show

You may listen to Father Mullen's sermon here.

A year ago on Maundy Thursday, a certain bishop in Rome set tongues wagging, heads spinning, and hearts skipping a beat or two when he arrived at the Casal del Marmo Penitentiary Institute for Minors and washed the feet of twelve inmates there, including two women and two Muslims, as part of his observance of this holy day.  No pope had ever apparently washed the foot of a woman in this ceremony before.  Quoted in the New Yorker, the famous physician and champion of social justice, Paul Farmer, had this to say about that: “If it’s just for show, I say keep showing it.”

Francis has been keeping people on their toes during his first year or so as pope.  There’s the car he won’t be driven in, and the papal apartments he won’t live in.  There is the rumor that he sneaks out at night to minster to the homeless and the hungry.  There was the public embrace of the disfigured man whose face was covered with tumors.  There is his famous question when asked about his attitude toward gay people: “Who am I to judge,” he asked.  This is a lot to take in.  And because we are accustomed to looking at leaders with skepticism and maybe even cynicism – especially the clergy – it is natural for us to ask whether or not Francis really is sincere about all this, whether or not it is all just a front; to wonder if it isn’t really all about PR; to ask, in short, if it’s all just for show.

And although I have no special insights into this pope, and certainly no privileged information, I feel quite certain that I know, more or less, the answer to that question – is it just for show?

The answer is this: of course it is.  All this posturing, this angling, these pre-meditated demonstrations are just for show.  The pope doesn’t need to show us any of this, but for some reason he has chosen to.  I am sure that he is doing it all just for show, and with Paul Farmer, I say, keep showing it, Francis, keep showing it.

I know that it is just for show because I, too, wash feet on Maundy Thursday.  (And I feel very progressive to have washed women’s feet long before any pope had done it!)  I wash feet on Maundy Thursday.  And because my predecessor here taught me to do it this way, I do it the same way the pope does – with a kiss of the foot when I am done drying it.

I assure you that no meaningful cleaning of feet takes place in the ritual.  Francis, did not scrub in- between the inmates’ toes, and get the dirt out from under their nails.  He did not take a pumice to the rough heels of these men and women, or rub creams into their cracked, dry skin.  Neither will I provide these services here this evening.  This is not a pedicure – this is for show. This is profoundly for show.

And don’t be fooled – not even by the case for humility that I will read to you before I stoop down to wash feet here tonight.  This act is not primarily about a show of my humility or of the pope’s.  Mine needs a lot more than ten minutes of exercise in full public view, and his humble, but very public, act was clearly born from a long lifetime of much more private humility.  Yes, this washing of feet is just for show, but the show is not primarily about my humility or the pope’s. 

This is for show because the world needs desperately to be shown what God is really like.  The world needs to be shown what Jesus was trying to show his disciples about love and friendship and service and humility.  And so we do all this just for show – because we have gotten so many of the wrong ideas about God.  To be fair, a reasonable number of those wrong ideas have come from popes here and there, so it’s good for a pope to be actively about the business of showing us this other reality of God – the humble, costly, sometimes dirty love of Jesus.

Are there plenty of the people in the world who still believe women don’t deserve the same love and respect of God that men do?  You bet there are!  And someone needs to show them how wrong they are!

Are there plenty of people in the world who believe that Christians and Muslims are natural enemies of one another?  You bet there are!  And someone needs to show them how wrong they are!

Someone needs to show that God loves everyone – that there isn’t a soul on this earth, no matter how tortured, lonely, unhappy, or broken, that God doesn’t love.  There isn’t a face so ugly that God doesn’t seek to smother it with kisses.  There isn’t a religion so opposite that God doesn’t wish to find a way to embrace its followers. 

I could say these things all day long, but it doesn’t have the same effect as when I try to show it.  And since this is really love we are talking about, well, you know that as important as it is to say “I love you,” sometimes saying it isn’t enough – sometimes you just have to show it too!

Tonight is a night that is very much just for show.  Why do we doggedly keep the commandment of Jesus to take, bless, break, and share bread and wine in his Name?  Is it just because he said, “Do this?”  Only in part.  It is really because we see how in doing it we are showing the love of God in Christ – who gave his life for us: his Body and his Blood.  We sort of know how to talk about these things, a little, but awkwardly, and it gets confusing.  But what we really know is… how to do it for show: how to come together and show one another what Jesus meant, even if it is hard to explain.  And that’s what tonight is all about – and the next three days, for that matter – it’s about doing for show what we can only partially talk about.  And showing it is better anyway.

Jesus, after all, could whisper or shout answers to my prayers in my ear all day, and eventually I would have to say to him in exasperation, “At some point Jesus, you are going to have to stop telling me the answers to my prayers and start showing me!”

So there’s tonight.  This is Jesus using me, and you (especially your feet) just for show.  We put aside the words for a few minutes (hard for us to do) and we do this just for show, just to show what Jesus meant when he said, “Love one another as I have loved you.”  And if a pope can wash the feet of inmates, and Muslims, and even women, then it seems like Jesus may actually have quite a lot to show us.

I read in the papers that this year Pope Francis will be washing feet at a center for people with disabilities.  And it looks as though he plans to wash the feet of women again, along with some people who are certainly not Christians (and maybe not even Catholic!).  And I want to join Paul Farmer in telling him: keep showing it, Francis, keep showing it!

But I realize that the one to whom that remark is really directed is Jesus - whose love has saved my life and changed the world.  I know that I really mean my words for him: keep showing it, Jesus, keep showing it.

For I know how much pain, confusion, loss, regret, corruption, and betrayal there is in the world.  I have some idea how adrift so many of us are when we look for love and for hope, and for the right way to treat one another, and the right way to live.

And I know how this simple lesson from Jesus  - who insisted that he wash the feet of his followers, and told them that he was not so much their Master as their friend, and taught them that he had only one new commandment which was to love one another as he loved them – I know how much this simple lesson can mean, even though it is extremely hard to learn: love one another.

And I know that even Jesus, on the night before he was crucified, when he stooped down to wash his disciples’ feet, was doing it just for show.  He needed to show them what he meant, why he lived, and why he was about to die – because he was and is love incarnate.  So he did it just for show.

And that’s my prayer tonight: keep showing it, Jesus, for heaven’s sake, keep showing it!


Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen

Maundy Thursday 2014

Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia

Posted on April 17, 2014 .