In life, there are things that go so well together that we can’t think about one without thinking about the other. For Americans, mashed potatoes and gravy, peanut butter and jelly. For us Africans, it’s egusi soup and fufu, rice and beans, salt and pepper. But tonight, at a very high level, we celebrate something so inseparably linked that we can’t perform one without the other. It is the mystery of the Holy Eucharist and the sacred priesthood. The Holy Eucharist is what makes the Catholic Church different from all other churches on earth. Without the Eucharist, there is no church. It is the source and summit of our faith. And without the priesthood, there is no Eucharist. One wonders why it has to be the last thing that the Lord celebrated with his disciples before His passion.
The very last words of Jesus after he had washed the disciples’ feet seem most striking:
“Do you realize what I have done for you? You call me ‘teacher’ and ‘master,’ and rightly so, for indeed I am. If I, therefore, the master and teacher, have washed your feet, you ought to wash one another’s feet. I have given you a model to follow, so that as I have done for you, you should also do.”
Jesus is conducting a self-emptying act here. It is an act of humility so we will have a model to follow. This washing of the disciples’ feet was a shocking action. Sometimes when we read these accounts in Scripture, we can miss the implications they would have had on first-century people. Peter was scandalized to see his master, the Lord of the universe put on an apron, kneel down before his disciples, and wash their feet. And he exclaimed, “You will never wash my feet.” The washing of feet in the time of Christ was a duty relegated to slaves. It was the lowest duty. Slaves would wash the feet of those entering the household.
This makes sense when we read St. Paul’s letter to the Philippians describing Christ, “Who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God something to be grasped. Rather, he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, coming in human likeness; and found human in appearance, he humbled himself, becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross.” Jesus was pouring himself out in total humility, taking the lowest position, the action of a slave. In this action, Jesus was showing the disciples, his newly ordained priests, what their hearts should be.
THE INSTITUTION OF LOVE
This is a lesson to every person and highlights the paradox of the gospel. The concept of a matching gift in the business world is that a charitable donation is offered by a corporation that matches an employee’s donation to an eligible nonprofit organization. Most often it is dollar for dollar. Thousands of companies across the United States (and some companies internationally) offer matching gift programs to their employees as part of a corporate giving philanthropy. The gift is usually available, only needing the other half simply to double it.
Jesus offers himself completely. He is not asking us to do anything in return for him, not as payback because his love is exhaustive, "Jesus loved his own in the world and loved them to the end" (Jn. 13:1). He never stops loving. The master becomes the servant, takes up our sufferings, and accepts to die on the cross. Jesus loves us even when our feet are dirty. He washes them. Even when we smell, he takes the blame for our failures upon himself. He bends so low for us.
All that Jesus requires from us is that we do the same for others. He declares, "I have given you a model to follow. …as I have done for you, you should also do” (Jn.13:15). Jesus makes loving easy. He gives himself to us and matches every act of love we perform.
THE INSTITUTION OF THE BLESSED EUCHARIST
The Passover was a meal-sacrifice through which God intended to strengthen bonds of unity between Himself and the Hebrew people. Through it also, God strengthened the bonds among the members of the family and their community. God said to Moses, "If a family is too small for a whole lamb, it shall join the nearest household in procuring one and shall share the lamb in proportion to the number of persons who partake of it" (Ex.12:4). The Jews shared the Passover meal as a sign of God's love remembering the promise, "When I see the blood, I will pass over you" (Ex.12:13). Therefore, the Passover meal becomes a memorial for the Jews to commemorate their freedom from Egypt. It is a memorial of God's love.
Saint Paul recounts that tradition as received from the Lord as a great memorial. This is recapitulated in the actions of Christ who takes the bread and the cup to announce before his disciples, "This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me." "This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me" (1Cor.11:24-26). St John Paul II said that he went to mass every day and celebrated mass every day because he was entering the school love. He said the eucharist was the school of love for all vocations: married life, single life, priesthood, consecrated life. He shows us what love looks like. It’s sacrificial and pours itself out. Through the Eucharist, we’re all called to holiness. This is the great sacrifice on the Cross, Christ’s "body and blood", his whole person, broken and poured out as libation for us.
The depths of God’s love is inconceivable. We can receive him into our bodies and become one with him for a short time after holy communion. This invites us to reverence the Holy Eucharist. Don’t just receive communion and race out the door. Christ desires to commune with us. Who can comprehend this? St. Pio once said, “It is easier for the earth to exist without the sun than without the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass!”
INSTITUTION OF THE SACRED PRIESTHOOD
At the Last Supper, Jesus commands, "Do this in remembrance of me." He institutes a priestly ministry and inaugurates the eucharistic assembly. Christ presides over the Eucharistic assembly at Mass. The priest only represents and acts in the Person of Christ. The priest does what Christ did, uses Christ’s words, "Take this and eat," "Take this and drink" to consecrate the bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ. The holy Mass is therefore a celebration of the Lord's Passion.
The call of the priest is to be poor, chaste, tried in suffering and consecrated to God, inspite of our faults and failings. What an incredible mystery. The priest forgoes a family and a career so that you can receive grace and obtain heaven. A priest may have problems. He may have temperamental issues or sometimes be short of patience. Remember that the priest is first, human like the rest of us. But he gives up everything to serve the church and is living his vocation to the best of his ability. I implore you to please pray for priests. Christ is bringing you to heaven through the hands of the priest. We should all thank God for the priesthood.
In today’s Evening Mass of the Lord’s Supper, the priest, in doing what Jesus did, washes the feet of the members of the parish community. Jesus asks his disciples, “Do you realize what I have done for you?” Do we realize what Jesus has done for us through the priesthood? Through the sacred priesthood, Jesus gives us the Blessed Eucharist. Jesus gives us his body to eat and his blood to drink. Jesus gives us the community, the Church. Through the sacred priesthood, Jesus absolves our sins, our dirt, our entire mess. In the priesthood, Jesus shares our human nature in a special way. Do we realize what this means? Do we realize how much love God is available through his priests?
As we start the Triduum today, the three days of intense preparation for Easter, Christ invites us to carry out acts of love. Once we are done at the Church, we go home. It is our turn to wash each other’s feet because we all share in the priesthood of Christ. Being there for family members and members of our community is important at this time. A member can be dirty. A member can smell. A member can derail. A member of the family can be caught up in the cycle of addiction and failure. Christ is asking us to be like Him. He is willing to match every single act of love. For each person’s foot you wash, Jesus matches it with another. This is the mystery of Christ’s Jesus’ sacrificial love on the Cross; for every act of love we do, He gives a matching gift.