Holy Thursday: Sacramentum and Exemplum - Archived

by Msgr. Robert Siler
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Holy Thursday 2014

Exodus 12:1-8, 11-14; Corinthians 11:23-26; John 13:1-15

The Most Reverend Joseph J. Tyson
Bishop of Yakima

(Haz clic aquí para leer en español la homilia
del Obispo Tyson para Jueves Santo)

Peace be with you!  There’s an ancient Athabaskan Indian legend told by novelist Velma Wallis who lives on her ancestors’ lands in rural Northern Alaska.  The legend tells the tale of two old women, Sa’ and Ch’idzigyaak, who are turned loose by their tribe.  They were turned loose to fend for themselves during a particularly cold and brutal winter.  The caribou flocks had thinned.   Seal meat was rare.   The tribe found itself constantly migrating from place to place in search of food.  The two old women complained about the constant movement.  They complained about their health.  And because they were old and arthritic, they had to be carried from place to place.  All in vain.  Food was scarce everywhere.  Finally, more out of exhaustion than anger, the two complaining women were left on their own.  The tribe could carry them no more.

Left to their own they had only themselves.  They could no longer complain for no one could hear.  They overcame their arthritic stiffness and created little traps.  They hunted animals, cooked food, made clothing and tents.  The following spring, their surprised tribe found them well.  The two old women overcame their feelings of betrayal.  The tribe overcame its own sense of shame about leaving the women to die.

I start this Holy Thursday homily in this manner because in every culture and in every age we see terrible death in the face of hardship, suffering and persecution.  This is true today in the Central African Republic, in Syria, in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Sad to say, it’s also true today with gang violence right here at home.

Yet this is what makes the opening section of our Gospel from St. John so very powerful and very poignant.  John begins the account of the washing of the disciples feet with these words:  “Before the feast of the Passover, when Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart out of this word to the Father, having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.” (John 13:1)  In effect, with the washing of the feet, Jesus wants his unjust death to be an act of love – agape – in the Greek original.

Can you do that?  Can you make – not just your final death – but all the unjust deaths of daily life an act of love?  That’s a question I ask myself.  Will my life and will my death be a sacrifice of love?

(Click “Read more” below to continue reading the Bishop’s Homily)


In meditating on these texts, the Church “Fathers” saw two dimension in this washing of the feet: “sacramentum” and “exemplum.”  “Sacramentum” sounds like the word sacrament but in this Gospel the Church Fathers didn’t necessarily mean one of the seven sacraments but rather the entire mystery of Christ in his life, death, resurrection and ascension.  The “washing of the feet” is meant to capture this entire sweep of salvation is one lowly act of service.  By taking into his hands those very tired, dirty and calloused feet from first century travel, Jesus desires to make a gift of himself to people on the move in every age – the poor and the oppressed – those in the desert and those in the artic north – those who live complex lives – and those who suffer from famine.  That means that before we talk about any ethics and any morality, Jesus as Christ launches a movement – Christianity – that is first and foremost “sacramentum” – pure gift of God.

This “gift” leads to the second way in which the Church “Fathers” read this washing of the feet: that of “exemplum” and that “exemplum” is summarized in the commandment we would hear were we to read just a little farther into tonight’s Thirteenth Chapter from St. John’s Gospel: “Love one another as I have loved you.”  (John 13:34)

This command is not simple imitation.  No.  Having made a gift of his very self summarized and embodied in this humble act of feet-washing, Jesus calls us to more than imitation – he calls us to be partners – allowing him to free us to become a gift for others.  How hard it is to grasp the counter-intuitive truth that our greatest happiness lies – not in what we get out of life – but in what we give.  Ours is a world of consumer acquisition, but in this simple act of giving, Jesus leaves us an “exemplum” not based on a moralizing ethic, but on an insight that happiness stems – not from what we get – but what we give.  Happiness in this life and the next will grow precisely not from what we have – but who we are – children of God whose very feet are bathed in the mercy of Christ.

Why is this so hard to grasp?  Well, that brings me back to Velma Wallis and her book “Two Old Women.”  When Velma Wallis first published that ancient Athabaskan tale in 1993, some of her tribe shunned her.  They believed that the truth of the legend would leave the impression that the Athabaskan people were lacking compassion in the face of hunger.

Yet the truth is just the opposite:  There is no true compassion – no true love – no “agape” that does not first and foremost flow of God.  As Jesus pours water over the feet of his disciples in “sacramentum” he’s pouring fourth an “exemplum” of love and mercy that comes directly from God.

Without God our love will always remain incomplete, our resentments unhealed, our histories unresolved.  But with God our attempts at love – especially with the betrayal of the cross – can become the pathway for our self-gift and thus our witness and our example of Christ at work in the world.  Peace be with you!