If you head up to Westchester, to the town of Hawthorn, you’ll find a cemetery where there are buried a few famous Catholics — one of them is Babe Ruth.
But not far from Babe Ruth, you’ll find the grave of someone less famous, someone who may be unfamiliar to you. His name is Fulton Oursler.
Fulton Oursler was raised in a devout Baptist family. But early in his life, he declared himself an atheist. In his 20s, beginning a career as a writer, he decided to make a trip to the Holy Land, to write about the journey as a non-believer and skeptic.
The trip didn’t turn out the way he planned.
He came back home a believer. A few years later, he met and fell in love with a Catholic woman and became Catholic.
Fulton Oursler went on to make a living writing scripts for radio dramas. In the mid-1940s, he had the idea to turn one of those dramas into a novel about Jesus. He thought it might sell a few copies. It became a sensation — and later a movie.
If you haven’t heard of Fulton Oursler, you’ve probably heard of the book he wrote: “The Greatest Story Ever Told.”
It may be the greatest title ever written — I’ve often wished I’d come up with it myself! But at its heart, it is a paradox, one we find at the center of tonight’s Gospel.
Indeed, it lies at the center of the story of our salvation — the story we are remembering over the next three days.
The paradox is Jesus Christ himself.
The fact is: The subject of a story described as “the greatest” is really someone — God himself — who chose to become “the least.”
Jesus even said, “Whatever you do for the least of these, you do for me.”
St. Paul put it another way, describing how Jesus “took the form of a slave.”
During this sacred Triduum, we see what that means. It begins with tonight’s Gospel.
This Gospel from John tells us how Christ washed the feet of his apostles — God not only taking the form of man, but lowering himself, out of love, to serve.
In its day, the washing of feet was thankless, demeaning, servile, even disgusting.
But Jesus did it. He did it willingly, generously, selflessly.
Christ gave his apostles that gift — and a lesson. “As I have done for you, you should also do.”
He is saying: Serve one another. Care for one another. Be merciful and forgiving to one another. Help to remove the debris of life, the dust of the road. Don’t feel that anything is beneath you. Be less to help others be more.
If that gift were not enough, this night Jesus also gave us something more: the gift of himself. The Eucharist.
And again: The greatest becomes the least.
The Son of God, the most extraordinary figure who ever walked the earth, becomes something ordinary.
He gives himself away as bread. Common food for common people.
And he continues to give himself to us here and now — the savior of the world, coming to us in something as small as a coin.
In doing this, the one who became ordinary for us…makes it possible for us to become extraordinary.
We become his tabernacle — his home, his dwelling place.
He wanted so much to stay with us, he gave us this sacrament, this way of remembering.
And he gave us a way to keep remembering.
In addition to celebrating the institution of the Eucharist, this night we celebrate the institution of the priesthood.
I’m not breaking any news tonight when I say that this last year has been difficult for all of us.
It’s been hard, as well, on priests — those here with us tonight, those around the world who have also been facing lockdown, isolation, loneliness, helplessness. Many priests have also waged personal battles with COVID. It’s been a year of loss. The first priest in the United States to die of COVID was a priest from the Diocese of Brooklyn.
Still, some priests have risked their lives to bring people the sacraments — to bring them, however they can, the Body of Christ, the grace of anointing, the healing of reconciliation.
I’ve been humbled by what I’ve seen and heard and read about during these last months. We have been reminded again and again of The One who came not to be served … but to serve. During these challenging times, we have seen what that means.
Tonight, I’d ask you to pray for priests — those we know and those we don’t — in gratitude and with hope. Though they won’t admit it, many are unsung heroes.
But being unsung is also part of this Gospel message tonight.
Reading about Fulton Oursler the other day, I was struck by one detail: when they did the original radio dramas of “The Greatest Story Ever Told,” none of the actors were identified. They were uncredited.
What mattered wasn’t who they were.
What mattered was the story.
What mattered was telling about the miracle of God’s grace in the world.
This Gospel tonight brings all that home — powerfully and unforgettably.
And it sets the stage for what we are about to encounter over these next three days: a story of surrender and sacrifice, of service and love that goes beyond anything the human mind can imagine.
It is about how God entered human history by becoming little more than a slave — and how his Son has stayed with us, giving himself to us again and again as merely a crumb of bread.
It is the story of how the greatest chose to become the least.
Here is the incredible, heartbreaking, heart-stopping story of our salvation.
And yes: It truly is The Greatest Story Ever Told.