Over the next three days, I want us to meditate on an important word. In Greek, paradidomi, the original language of the New Testament. Paradidomi – it means “being handed over”, and it is a word the Bible uses, especially to describe what happened to Jesus. Literally, Jesus “was handed over”
Significantly, the first “paradidomi” was the sacrifice at the original Passover as described in our 1st Reading (Exodus 12:1-14) The perfect sheep or goat – ‘without blemish’, is handed over as a sacrifice for the people. Its blood will mark their homes so that the angel of death will pass over them. This then becomes their founding moment. The moment when they are set free from slavery in Egypt to be the People of God.
The actions and imagery of this first sacrifice, the slaughter of the lambs, will shape and model all Jewish practice. So, as the Passover sacrifice was celebrated by Jesus just before his passion, it shaped his understanding of his actions as Saviour of the world.
Then from our 2nd Reading (1 Cor 11;23-26) we heard of the ‘handing-over’ that Jesus enacted, and it is clear that the earliest Christian communities in Palestine and Syria understood this, and faithfully carried out Jesus’ instructions, to meet him and be one with him precisely by repeating his words over the bread and wine.
‘This is my body, which is for you; ….This cup is the new covenant in my blood…… Until the Lord comes, therefore, every time you eat this bread and drink this cup, you are proclaiming his death.
We Christians are not therefore just remembering a past event at Mass, we are there at the Passover with the Lord, who literally handed-himself-over to the world, to his enemies for death, and to his Church, as the one, perfect and sufficient sacrifice, oblation and satisfaction for the sins of the whole world. We do not call to mind a dead event. We are Passover people, remade and reshaped by the handing over of our Lord and Master. We are ‘made’ by his self-sacrifice, his being handed over.
But if we are to be those of the handed-over community, totally one with the Lord, how do we understand it? In tonight’s Gospel (John 13:1-15) we experience his washing of the feet of his disciples, precisely as a prelude to his being handed over to death. It was the job of the lowliest slave, the most marginalised in any household. Slaves had no rights, no choices. They could be bought and sold at the whim of their owners, physically and sexually abused at their whim, and even killed without recourse to any justice. Jesus takes this role upon himself, a prefiguring of the helplessness which will be his during the grinding agony of his passion.
How do his followers react? First they say it’s not a suitable task for their Master and Teacher; and then go overboard in the opposite direction, as Peter says, “not only my feet but my hands and head as well” – his entire body. Peter, representing the 12, totally fails to understand what Jesus is doing, or what this implies for his followers. Above all, we note that Jesus also washed the feet of Judas Iscariot, his betrayer, the one who organised his “handing over.”(See Matthew 26:2 and 27:2)
Think for a moment of the actions of every Catholic priest, from the Pope down, who washes feet on this night. It is an ungainly task, difficult for the old and wobbly, embarrassing for those whose feet are to be washed. It is also traditional for the priest to kiss the washed feet. Let us meditate for a while on that experience – of humility for the priests – and the experience of those being washed.
Very few grown adults nowadays are ever washed by someone else. So this is a moment of extreme vulnerability. They “hand-over” their body to the priest. Those washed are also ‘given-over’ into the hands of others. Like tiny children, or the totally incapacitated, they become fragile, vulnerable. So this time must be for all of us, not just for those having their feet washed, as it was for Jesus, a time of great significance. With God, all our barriers are down. Like a slave, we have no means of hiding or protecting ourselves. We too are among those ‘paradidomi’ – handed-over ones. It is a humbling time, to be close to Jesus – to enter into his passion and death in a way that is personal and profound.
Then, at the end of Mass, we are reminded that this was a free choice. In the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus could have changed his mind. He could have slipped away before Judas came with the soldiers, and gone back to the comparative safety of his home area of Galilee in the north. But no, what he has chosen to do when he washes the feet of his friends, he puts into action, allowing his arrest to take place.
So we remember tonight the agony of all this. We aim, as best we can, to be one with him in his death, so that we may be one with him in his Resurrection. We aim, as best we can, to offer ourselves to him, to hand over our lives to him, so that our life is a life of service to others – to love the Lord our God with all our heart and mind and soul, with all our being. He gave us our lives, and we try, as we follow Jesus, to hand over our lives – to him.
We have just heard in our 1st reading from Isaiah (52:13-53:12.) some searingly beautiful poetry and appalling imagery “Who could believe what we have heard… without beauty, without majesty (we saw him) … a man of sorrows and familiar with suffering. Yes ours were the sufferings he bore, ours the sorrows he carried.” These words originally referred to the suffering of exiled Israel, but are now used by the Church to image the suffering of Jesus, as we once more reflect on the meaning of this paradidomi, this handing-over, which is the suffering and death of Jesus. To abuse; to suffer; to be the sacrifice; the scapegoat for the sin of the world; we can, we must, with the crowds, be appalled by what happened to him and so we choose to be taken on this agonised journey with him which achieves our redemption.
It is a picture of suffering with which we are all now very familiar from our TV screens and is lived out daily in countries at war. The victim, here, Christ will always be fragile, alone, and by the time the world has done its worst, “Without beauty, without majesty. So disfigured did he look that he seemed no longer human.”
But we are people who like to control our own destinies – the idea that someone else and especially God the Son should do this for us and on our behalf is difficult for us. We don’t think that we actually need to be redeemed! Surely our sins aren’t that significant? But Isaiah, writing for Israel 2600 years ago, did understand that we do in fact require someone, the perfect sacrifice to be handed-over, to stand-in for the failings of us all, of our world. “On him lies a punishment that brings us peace….”.
Just when we rightly despair that the world will ever get any better, we see in the final lines of our poem what the truth really is; what we cannot achieve, this Suffering Servant of God has gained for us.” For surrendering himself to death and letting himself be taken for a sinner, while he was bearing the faults of many and praying all the time for sinners.
And then we heard the great reading of the whole story of his Passion from St John (18:1-19:42.)
Have you ever stopped to think what a contrast there is in this account, between Jesus and the vast majority of the others who play a role in this great drama? The handed-over one, the one remember who in John’s gospel is the Word of God the Father, made flesh; the one responsible for the entire creation and the one who is himself One with the Father; utterly open to the mind of the Father, and whose heart and soul is totally transparent to God, becomes the victim of human spite and aggression.
I am struck by the slow build up of petty abuse and cruelties: Judas’ betrayal; Peter’s futile attempt at defence; the fear of the soldiers rapidly followed by the slap in the face of one of the temple soldiers. We get the mean spirited denial of Peter. Then we meet the Jewish temple authorities with their refusal to enter the Praetorium – lest they become defiled and ineligible to celebrate Passover. Well, we don’t want to be contaminated, do we! Then we get Pilate’s conviction that Jesus has no real case to answer, and his three-fold declaration of his innocence, only to be pushed aside when the Jewish authorities threaten to report him (well known as a corrupt official), to Caesar, at which point; to save his own miserable skin; this man, Rome’s representative and power in Palestine, crumbles and allows Jesus to be crucified.
Pilate, defeated but redolent with malice responds by getting the Jews to admit the power of Rome and renounce their ancient Davidic birthright, we have no king but Caesar, and he will rub in their ultimate dependency by refusing to alter the ironic inscription on the cross, The King of the Jews.
Cruelty is always like this, isn’t it? It begins with the minor slap, and then turns into a full scale assault on a wife or child; the boys night out that ends with the drunken attack on an innocent bystander; war zones where the petty power of the soldier with the gun has the power to rape or kill at random; acts of violence undertaken in groups where no one takes responsibility and everyone is so easily led – be it book-burnings by the Nazis, the horrors of the Reformation, or the Rwandan genocide. Those paradidomi, handed over into such hells have no voice, no one speaks for them.
In the end of course, the soldiers responsible for the crucifixion were ‘merely doing their duty’, faceless irresponsible, grey characters, their deed so awful, and here so briefly described by John, “They crucified him”, a phrase encompassing excruciating pain and hours of slow agonising death. We note that the only loyal onlookers are women – of no importance, and John, merely a kid They didn’t count.
Then, the merciful and inevitable death; after which everyone can afford to be generous. Jews facing Preparation Day for Passover want things cleaned up; Pilate can grant the body to Joseph because it no longer matters; and our two, Joseph and Nicodemus; previously clandestine followers, are given the dead body and can bury it in lavish style. Finally, buried with spices sufficient for the burial of a king, the King of the Universe gets his due. Finally he is handed over into the arms of his grieving mother and into the arms of God, the God who alone will recognise that this is the perfect sacrifice that redeems the world.