Holy Thursday in the canned vegetable aisle

Homily for Holy Thursday
(Scriptures for today's Mass)

Audio for homily

Just a few days ago I was at Market Basket.

I hadn’t planned to go food shopping,

I was at a nearby shop buying some new shirts,

but I saw a big sign in Market Basket’s window

that told me that Libby’s canned vegetables were on sale

and I like Libby’s canned carrots  and so I went in.

And it was in the canned vegetable aisle that I saw him.

That’s when I saw him.

An elderly man, dressed in a rather mis-matched way,

that suggested to me that his clothes closet

was probably limited in choices

and that he likely no longer had a wife at home

to advise him on fashion.

He was standing in front of the Libby’s canned vegetables,

holding the Market Basket circular with both hands

and carefully turning his gaze back and forth

from the shelves to the paper.

He looked disappointed - as was I.

Not all of Libby’s vegetables were on sale and, in fact,

the carrots were not marked down.

The man I was watching seemed distressed.

I guessed that his favorite vegetable wasn’t on sale either.

He folded his circular and as he pushed his carriage past me

I noticed there were only a few items in it, all canned.

And I wondered if he ate only canned food

and if he had anyone to sit at table with him

and how much he might have to depend on sale items

to stay within a meager weekly budget for groceries.

And because in the last few weeks my Holy Week homilies

have been on my mind constantly

it occurred to me there

in the canned vegetable aisle at Market Basket

that here was a man

who might welcome someone to stoop down

and - wash his feet.

And I became keenly and embarrassingly aware

of all the clothes already hanging in my closet

and the new shirts sitting in my car -

and of all the food in my refrigerator and kitchen cabinets -

and of all the people with whom I break bread

and raise a glass and share a table -

and of how free I am of worry

about the cost of dining out or paying the grocery bills.

And of how there are so many wonderful people in my life

who, in so many ways, wash my feet

with their care for me, their concern for me, there compassion

and their companionship.

The old man made his way down the supermarket aisle

but he has remained in my mind and heart for several days,

even to this night.

For centuries, there have been those who seek Holy Grail,
the cup Jesus used at the last supper.
Others claim to have a piece of the cross on which Jesus died.
Many treasure what they believe to be Jesus’ burial shroud.

I’ve been thinking this week

that if I could find or have some relic,

some memento of Jesus’ life,
I would like to have the towel he tied around his waist
and used to dry his disciples’ feet after washing them.
• Imagine holding in your hands
the towel Jesus held in his hands…
• Imagine having the towel that dried the feet of the apostles,
even of Peter who protested his Master’s servant gesture...
• Imagine tying around your own waist a towel
woven with the love and humility of Jesus,
the love and humility of our God,
who did not hesitate to come on bended knee to serve us,
we who, by every standard,

are undeserving of such love...

Of course, the danger in having that towel, Jesus’ own towel,
would be that I might frame it,
keep it under glass, or in a cedar chest,
or, worse yet, under lock and key.

And if I did that,
might Jesus not come and say to me as he said to Peter,

“Austin, don’t you realize what I do for you,

what this towel is all about?”
Well, I do understand what the towel is about,
it’s just that I don’t always have it tied about my waist
and do for others what the Lord has done for me.

I don’t think I had my towel with me at Market Basket.

I thought later of ways I might have helped the man I saw.

I could have waggled my way in front of him in line

and payed it forward: “Put that guy’s food on my tab.”

I might have gone to the service desk, bought a gift certificate,

found the man and made up a story

of why I wanted him to have it…

But I didn’t even engage him in conversation.

And now I wonder how hungry he might have been

not just for Libby’s vegetables, but for someone to talk to.

If I had my towel with me that day,

it must have been rolled up and stowed away,

somewhere else.

So now I ask myself and I ask you:

who in our families, who at work, who at school,

who in our neighborhoods, who in our parish

would welcome the water and towel

of our care, our concern,

our compassion, our companionship?

It’s so much easier, so much neater, so much cleaner
to make a souvenir of Jesus’ love for us
what he wants us to do is to carry a towel with us

and  to use it to serve those whose lives and needs

cross our path every day of the week.

Jesus instructs us, he commands us

to gird ourselves in the towel of Christian service,
and to keep our eyes and hearts open

for those who would welcome our washing their feet

with care, concern compassion and companionship.

The towel Jesus hands us in the gospel tonight
isn’t a trophy meant for display

but rather a tool meant for working and for serving others.

That Jesus gave us this towel at the last supper,
on the eve of his suffering and death,

draws us, as does the Eucharist,
to the humble service Jesus offered
not only when bent down at his friends feet

- but even more -

when he was lifted up, on the wood of the Cross.

The humble service to which Christ’s towel calls us
is but an introductory lesson on the self-giving love
he teaches us from the tree of his Cross.
The Eucharist,

whose institution we remember and celebrate this night,
the Eucharist is the perfect sign of Jesus’ humility
for in the bread and cup of this altar
we receive the sacrifice he offered for us

in his suffering and death on the Cross.

A towel is for tying around one’s waist

and wiping dry another’s feet, another’s tears.
The Eucharist is for us to eat and drink,

to consume,
in the hope that it will consume us
and make of us humble servants of Christ and one another.

This night, then, the Church invites us
not only to receive the sacrament of Christ’s sacrifice
but also to wash one another’s feet, in humble service,
to do for others what he has done for us.

You are invited to watch as feet are washed
and towels dry them.
You are invited to have your feet washed and dried
and to wash and dry someone else’s  feet.

It can be embarrassing, it can be awkward, it can be difficult -

but what we do tonight is easier

than starting a conversation with a lonely old man

in the vegetable aisle at Market Basket.

This is dress rehearsal tonight for the real stuff

that we are called to live.

Whether we come forward or not,

and that’s your choice,
let us tie the Lord’s towel around our hearts
and pledge to do for others

what he has done for us.


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