We generally stay away from our dear St. Matt’s on the big holy days. It’s so very crowded. And Dawn is, as mentioned earlier today, a little thing, and she doesn’t like big crowds. So we go to St. Peter’s on Capitol Hill.
It’s at 2nd & C Streets Southeast, just across the street from the Library of Congress Madison Building, so it’s only like sixteen blocks from our house. Normally that’d be an easy bike ride, but we’ve already ridden like fifty miles today. So we drive. I’m worried about parking, but we happily find a spot along Folger Park just three blocks away.
We’ve been to St. Peter’s before, once or twice. I think maybe Good Friday three years ago? I remember being very disappointingly uninspired. Not so today. We have the pastor Father Byrne tonight. I don’t remember him from before, but I like him very much. For his homily he talks about what it’s like to be a priest and how much he loves being a priest. It’s not remarkably Holy Thursday-ish, but it is wonderfully honest and heartfelt.
And the church itself is beautiful. As is often the case, it’s the result of a few iterations. The exterior and stained glass are from around 1890, and the interior is from 1941. The only trouble I have is finding the font of holy water as we’re walking in. One of the ushers sees me looking around bewildered and knows exactly what my problem is. She points me to the tiny cups on the backs of the last row of pews.
The most amazing thing of the night is the cantor. They’ve got a choir here, and they’re okay, no St. Matt’s Schola Cantorum or anything. But the cantor is this amazing tenor. I assume he’s the music director Kevin O’Brien, but who knows for sure. He’s lovely to listen to all the same.
And the homily about being a priest, about serving, does actually serve well for the feet washing on Holy Thursday. Of course I always think back to Holy Thursday in 2003, when I was one of the nervous folks up there getting my foot washed. I think maybe I’d feel a little more at ease with friendly Father Byrne, after the homily about how much he loves serving as a priest. Back in ’03 it was His Eminence Cardinal McCarrick. Yikes.
But it’s good stuff, the washing of the feet.
Before the feast of Passover, Jesus knew that his hour had come to pass from this world to the Father.
He loved his own in the world and he loved them to the end.
The devil had already induced Judas, son of Simon the Iscariot, to hand him over.
So, during supper, fully aware that the Father had put everything into his power
and that he had come from God and was returning to God,
he rose from supper and took off his outer garments.
He took a towel and tied it around his waist.
Then he poured water into a basin
and began to wash the disciples’ feet
and dry them with the towel around his waist.
Poor St. Peter, as usual, misses the point.
He came to Simon Peter, who said to him,
“Master, are you going to wash my feet?”
Jesus answered and said to him,
“What I am doing, you do not understand now,
but you will understand later.”
Peter said to him, “You will never wash my feet.”
Jesus answered him,
“Unless I wash you, you will have no inheritance with me.”
Simon Peter said to him,
“Master, then not only my feet, but my hands and head as well.”
Jesus said to him,
“Whoever has bathed has no need except to have his feet washed,
for he is clean all over;
so you are clean, but not all.”
At the end of the mass comes the greatly moving part, where the Blessed Sacrament is removed from the Tabernacle, which remains open and empty. It always makes me think of Cordelia’s sad monologue from Brideshead Revisited.
They’ve closed the chapel at Brideshead, Bridey and the Bishop; Mummy’s requiem was the last Mass said there. After she was buried the priest came in — I was there alone. I don’t think he saw me — and took out the altar stone and put it in his bag; then he burned the wads of wool with the holy oil on them and threw the ash outside; he emptied the holy water stoup and blew out the lamp in the sanctuary and left the tabernacle open and empty, as though from now on it was always to be Good Friday. I suppose none of this makes any sense to you, Charles, poor agnostic. I stayed there till he was gone, and then, suddenly, there wasn’t any chapel there any more, just an oddly decorated room. I can’t tell you what it felt like.