Homily for Holy Thursday
Tonight, in the 13th chapter of John’s Gospel, Jesus gives us an example of community, service and caring for one another. Later, in chapter 15, at the same Last Supper, Jesus engages another topic – friendship. We need the Church as a whole to be our family. But we also need particular, close friends with whom we can share our interests, joys, and troubles.
The topic of friendship goes back millennia. Aristotle made friendship the culmination of his famous Nicomachean Ethics. The ancient Greek thinker, Cicero, wrote lavishly on the theme. In the “Middle Ages” an English monk named Aelred of Rievaulx read Cicero’s work and decided to blend the Roman statesman’s thought with the wisdom of the Gospel. His insights can help us understand what Christian friendship is and the benefits that it brings.
On a natural level, friendship begins with two people who are drawn to some quality of the other that they find attractive. On the natural level, as the friends go through life, they enjoy each other’s company. They share each other’s fears and confidences. They correct each other.
At some point, Aelred describes how this natural friendship begins to move into a more supernatural relationship. One friend prays for the other, and the love of the friend begins to move into one’s love for Jesus Christ. As their intimacy increases, so their intimacy with Christ also grows. Now the friendship involves two people who are drawn to some quality of holiness or virtue they see in each other. They encourage each other in holiness. Christian friendship develops into a relationship where both persons love Jesus Christ and want to build their friendship on their love of Christ. Thus Jesus becomes, in a real sense, the third person in their friendship – and we move from two individuals – into a community of love.
Some people are hesitant to develop a closer “friendship” with Christ because of what it might cost them. They think that Christ will begin saying “no” to activities they enjoy. If they follow and serve Christ, they worry that Christ might take advantage of them. They are afraid that following Christ will only mean hardship and burdens. And, what about all of those martyrs? Christ might ask me to give up my life for him.
Aelred says that a Christ-friendship always involves human friendship as well. On many levels, this Christian friendship is even deeper and richer than a non-Christian friendship. The spiritual fruit of this friendship include fullness of life. It includes dispelling of all anxiety that, if you are solicitous to one another, somehow you might lose out. It means removal of adversity since bearing hardship and burdens for one another is what Christianity – and Christian friendship – is all about. And, above all, with salvation secured, the destruction of the pangs of fear of death which often trouble us because we now know, we shall both rejoice in the eternal possession of Supreme Goodness.
Aelred is clear that this type of friendship is not possible to share with many people, maybe three or four at most over the course of a lifetime. But it’s important for all Christians to have such deep, Christ-centered friendships that help them grow closer to God.
Audio version of the homily is here: