Here is a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger. It might seem strange to you that I would recall the words of the angels on that first Christmas night, on a Holy Thursday night in which we mark not the birth of Christ but the institution of the Eucharist and the priesthood. We are as far away from Bethlehem and the shepherds, the angels singing, and the wise men and the star and the stable and Herod as it is possible to be. We are far from Bethlehem and the crib and Mary & Joseph, we are in Jerusalem in the middle of the night with an adult Jesus and his firm friends. We are far from the tranquillity of Bethlehem, we are have transferred instead to the stifling hot and claustrophobic upper room where Jesus is with his disciples before the storm is about to break, eating the Passover meal and then washing their feet. Why then recall these words?
Because in this place God is about to give another sign, a sign for all to see, a clear and astonishing sign, a sign for all the ages. The sign is in this Passover meal that they share and in this gesture of washing the feet of his disciples.
It is a sign that goes alongside the sign of a baby wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger, it is a sign given to us like Christ’s death on the cross
The world thinks that God does not care about it any longer. The world thinks that God has turned his back on us, hides his face from us. The world thinks that God has left us to our own devices and washed his hands of us.
But God gives us signs that he does care for us, that he has not turned aside from us, that he has not washed his hands of us. Here are the signs: in the sending of his son, in the tiny fragility of a baby. In allowing him to be mis-treated, in his cruel death. God gives us a sign. He gives us a sign that he has come down from heaven, right down, into our world and into our lives and shared our lives with us: in the life of the homeless child of Bethlehem, in the life of the child hunted down and fleeing to Egypt, in the life of ordinariness and daily toil at Nazareth, in the life of Jesus scorned and mistreated and put to death at Jerusalem – he gives us a sign. A sign that he is with us in the darkest night, in the most troubled of times, in the ordinariness of life, in life’s testing time, in moments of brokenness and sickness he is with us. He gives us the sign, a sign that is eternal and permanent and that he will not take back.
And as if to underline that he gives us a sign that he will always be with us here it too again is the sign in the mystery of this meal (here is my body, here is my blood, whenever you do this you do it in memory of me) and in the lives of those who will take up a ministry of service and a share in his priesthood. Here is the sign always and forever until the ends of the time that God has not turned away from the world, does not hide his face, has not lost interest in us, has not given up on us. “He loved the world so much that he gave his own son, so that we may life”.
Here is the sign for all to see: he came on earth for us, he suffered and died for us and he rose again. And he leaves in this mystery of the Eucharist, the sign and sacrament of the cross for us, and in these people who will share in the mystery of his life, he offers another sign of his presence always, for all time and in every place until the end of time.
Even here there are some who do not see the sign, don’t get it, don’t grasp it. Did he not say it would be thus. It would be like sees scattered and land in all sorts of surfaces, some promising some not so promising. There will people who see and not see, people who hear and not hear, people who are given it but who will neither receive it nor take it. But it doesn’t mean that he loves them any less, he gave his life even for those who rejected him.
On this night we renew or faith and trust, that sense that we have seen the sign. A baby wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger, the life of God come on earth, his suffering death, his resurrection and new life. We have seen the sign and understood it. And in the mystery of the Eucharist we have lived it through our lives. The mystery of God is here with us we can see it and touch it and be close to it. We don’t have to climb mountains to find him, travel to depths to see him, he is here before us in this simplest of mysteries before our very eyes.
And for us who are priests he gives us a sign too. He gives us a sign to join him in this ministry, to serve others, to wash the feet of others, to serve and not be served, to offer our lives for him and with him and in imitation of him. We have seen the sign and have followed him. We could not have known it, but we too would also would be given a share in the mystery of the cross. The cross which burns and crushes, the cross which purifies. and follow him, but we would soon learn.
Here in this Church tonight and every day is the sign. The sign that he will not take back. The sign that will not be cancelled. Here in the bread and wine is the promise of his body and blood, to be near us until the end of time.
There is the sign a baby wrapped in swaddling clothes, a dying man on the cross, an empty tomb, a sacred meal set for us with bread and wine.