Thursday, April 1, 2010

Holy Thursday and the Priesthood

It is Holy Thursday in the Year for Priests. To me, the real heart of the Year for Priests was not the Feast of St. John Vianney, nor was it the very successful 2nd National Congress for Priests. The very heart of this year for Priests is today, Holy Thursday, because it was on this day when our Lord established the Holy Eucharist and Holy Orders at the last supper. By taking bread and wine and saying: “This is my body…This is the cup of my blood,” Jesus established the Eucharist as a sacrament. When he commanded his apostles to “Do this in memory of me,” he ordained them as priests, for the only way to perpetuate the Eucharist is through the priests who would offer the Sacrifice of the new covenant in the same fashion our Lord Jesus did.

As we open the sacred Triduum of Christ’s passion, death, and resurrection, my mind is raised to the Eternal Priesthood of Jesus Christ. I have said it before that it is in the light of Christ’s eternal priesthood that we should see his passion and death, lest it becomes simply a narrative of violence and suffering. The letter to the Hebrews, which explores the wealth of Christ’s priesthood, describes our Lord’s passion as his entrance into the Holy of holies in the very fashion a high priest does in the Old Testament.

The letter to the Hebrews introduced a new way of understanding the Old Testament as a book that speaks of Christ. The previous tradition had seen Christ as the fulfillment of the Davidic promise: He is the true King of Israel. This kingship of Christ we honored last Palm Sunday. However, the author of the letter to the Hebrews discovered a citation which, until then, had gone unnoticed: “You are a priest forever, according to the order of Melchizedek” (Psalm 110:4). The letter to the Hebrews tells us that Christ did not only fulfill the Davidic promise of the real king of Israel and of the world but also he fulfilled the promise of the real Priest. Jesus, Son of the living God, is both king and priest. “The whole of the religious world, the whole reality of sacrifices, of the priesthood that is in search of the true priesthood, the true sacrifice, finds in Christ its key, its fulfillment.” (Benedict XVI, Lectio Divina with the priests of Rome, 18 February 2010)

Christ is Priest because he is the one Mediator between God and man. To be a mediator means to be a bridge. “This is the mission of the priest: to combine, to ling these two realities that appear to be so separate: the world of God … and our human world. The priest’s mission is to be a mediator, a bridge that connects, and thereby, to bring human beings to God, to his redemption, to his true light, to his true life.”

To be this mediator, the priest must be on God’s side. Only in Christ is this requirement fully brought about for he is God made man. He is not only on God’s side. He is God himself. The reason why he became man is so that he may become for us the true bridge, the true mediation. All other priests must have an authorization from God. They must receive the sacrament which is the divine act that makes men priests in communion with Christ. The sacrament is very important for without it, no priest could be priest. “No one can be priest by himself; God alone can attract me, can authorize me, can introduce me into participation in Christ’s mystery…This aspect of divine giving, of divine precedence, of divine action that we ourselves cannot bring about and our passivity – being chosen and taken by the hand of God – is a fundamental point…We must always return to the Sacrament, to this gift in which God gives me what I will never be able to give; participation, communion with the Divine, with the priesthood of Christ.” On account of this, the priest must first of all be a man of God, “he must know God intimately and know him in communion with Christ…Our being, our life, and our heart must be fixed in God.” The Mass, the breviary, personal prayers are elements of being with God, of being men of God.

However, if he simply remained Divine, Jesus could not be priest for a priest necessarily must be human. The priesthood of Christ is precisely in his humanity for if he were not man, what body can he offer in sacrifice? “Christ, in coming into the world said: Sacrifices and Offerings you take no delight in, but a body you have prepared for me. And so, here I am. I come to do your will.” In his Incarnation, Christ, who is of the Father, became man, and becoming man, he is priest: “The Son of God was made man precisely in order to be a priest, to be able to fulfill a priest’s mission.” Thus, the letter would say: “There is but one mediator between God and man, the man Jesus Christ.” In his humanity, Christ is priest. Thus, at the last supper, when he established the new and eternal sacrifice, he took bread and said, “This is my body.” He took wine and said, “This is my blood.” It cannot be otherwise. It was his body that he offered. It was his blood that he shed.

The washing of his disciples’ feet is a wonderful portrayal of the true meaning of the Incarnation. The job of washing feet of guests is so demeaning a gesture that Jews would not assign this task to a Jewish helper. He would assign it to a gentile slave. Thus, when our Lord began washing feet, Simon Peter refused. He could not bear the sight of his Master and Lord humiliating himself – doing what cannot be performed by a Jew. “But if I do now wash your feet, you cannot have any part in me,” Our Lord tells him.

Such is the humiliation of the incarnation, the humiliation of the eternal priesthood of Christ. Though he was in the form of God, Jesus did not deem equality with God…Rather he emptied himself and took the form of a slave. And it was thus that he humbled himself, obediently accepting death, death on the Cross. And it is precisely in Christ’s priesthood that humanity finds its exaltation. At last, Christ enables us to offer God something that is worthy of Him. The truth about our humanity is that it cannot be understood apart from God in whose image and likeness we have been created. “In him we live, we move, and have our being,” so said St. Paul. In as much as the human being is the only creature God created for Himself, man is most truly man when he offers God worship. It is in the priesthood that the human being achieves the very purpose of his existence which is to know, love, and serve God and to find ultimate fulfillment and happiness in Him. It is in Christ’s priesthood that man is able to offer God what truly befits him. When the letter to the Hebrews said, “Sacrifice and offerings you take no delight in,” it meant that no sacrifice of the Old Testament nor of any gentile religion was truly worthy of God. That is why Christ offers his body. This offering alone is the only genuinely perfect worship in which God is most truly pleased. Christ’s sacrifice alone honors God in the fullest sense.

What great and profound mysteries Christ gave us on this night. Tonight he gave us the true priesthood. Tonight he gave us the true sacrifice. In the true priesthood, he makes us truly man: Homo religiosus, worshipping man. In the true sacrifice, he puts in our hands the one perfect offering that alone is worthy of God: the Mass. How rich have we become on account of this night! “How can I repay the Lord for his goodness to me? The cup of salvation I will raise. I will call on the Lord’s name!” What more can we do before the gifts of the Priesthood and the Eucharist? Tonight, let us raise the cup of salvation in thanksgiving. By no other means can we repay the Lord for his goodness to us!

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