Fr. Charles Irvin
Exodus 12:1-8, 11-14; 1 Corinthians 11:23-26; John 13:1-15
In June, not too distant from now, I will have been a priest for thirty years, and I will have been your pastor for ten of those thirty years. I ask your indulgence this evening because I want to reflect a bit on what it means to be a priest. It is apropos, I think, particularly since this is the day when Holy Mother Church celebrates the origins of the Priesthood, finding them in the great high priestly sacrifice of Jesus Christ and in His commissioning of His apostles to “do these things in remembrance of me.”
This was called “Maundy Thursday” in medieval England, “Mandatum Thursday”, from the root meaning found in the Latin word which means “I give”. This is the hour in which our Lord gives Himself to us in the giving of Himself to our Father. It is an hour in which we should take time out and reflect, pondering the awesome truth of God’s giving of Himself in total and humble love to us mere mortals.
In this night’s stillness we see God on His knees, washing our feet and giving Himself over to us in utter powerlessness. In it God says to you: “I give you my self… I give you my body… I give you my blood… and I wash your feet… because I love you.”
These are precious moments… moments filled with all of the tenderness and at the same time the greatness of something that is utterly simple and at the same time awesomely transcendent. It is at once human and yet divine.
With you I am a Christian, for you I am a priest. In my training in the seminary I came across some wonderful words written by a famous and loved Cardinal, a former Cardinal Archbishop of Paris named Cardinal Suhard. He wrote:
“Every Christian, especially the Christian priest, must
be a witness. To be a witness consists in being a living
mystery. It means to live in such a way that one’s life
would not make any sense if God did not exist.”
A priest is most a priest when he humbly and without self-centeredness or self-consciousness washes the emotional and spiritual feet of those who come to him with the dust and the dirt of this world’s road clinging to them. He is a fully a priest when he hands over his time, his comfort and all of his energies for the care of God’s people – without counting his costs in doing so.
The priest is most a priest when he stands for the honor of God, when he will not compromise our Faith or the ways of our Faith simply in order to please people or to be “with it” in following the latest fad. He is a priest when he does this without counting the cost found in the loss of human respect for him. He cannot hand people human stones when they need the Bread of Life.
We all want to be liked – but at what price? The priest cannot sell out the honor of God for thirty pieces of whatever the going rate is for human respect.
The priest is most a priest when he hands over his life, his own personal preferences and his own personal convenience or wishes so that he might devote himself to caring for those who come to him, as they came to Jesus, in their need. A priest is most a priest when he gratefully accepts what’s placed in front of him for his daily bread and is content with what God has given him. A priest is most a priest when he forgets what he’s going to get out of being a priest and simply, without regard for acclamation and human notoriety, does what God calls him to do.
The priest is most a priest when he himself lives the sacrifice of Jesus Christ in his own personal life. He celebrates in his own life, in an unbloody way, Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross. A priest is most a priest when he stands in front of you here at God’s altar and joins his words into Christ’s saying: “This is my body, take it. This is my life blood, drink it. My life belongs to no one else but you. My life is yours because I give it all to you.”
St. Ignatius of Loyola, the famous founder of the Jesuits, once composed a prayer which has been a favorite of mine throughout these past thirty-four years. His prayer goes like this:
“Lord, teach me to be generous;
teach me to serve you as you deserve:
to give and not count the cost,
to fight and not heed the wounds,
to toil and not to look for rest,
to labor and not ask for reward….
save that of knowing that I am doing your will.”
This is Mandatum Thursday… the day God says to us: “I give. I give to you all that I am even before I thought of creating a world. I give you all that I ever was. I give you all that I ever shall be. Let me wash your feet… let me touch you. Let me marry myself to you. Let me give you my Body, give you my Blood, give you my very life, give you my Holy Spirit.
This is a day of tremendous hope… a day that tells us that we have a future because we have a past, a past in which God has given Himself to us in a marriage that can never be broken. Today is a day when the Lord tells us that life matters very much. Today is a day when the Lord tells us that life with Him matters so much that it’s worth dying for.
This is the Last Supper because it is the original one that is still going on, that continues on down through the epochs of human time and that spreads out over the whole human world. There isn’t time or room for another. So it remains the Last (and only!) Supper we’ll ever have with God. Today is the day when we become immersed, baptized once again in that baptism the Lord longed to enter in order to begin God’s new creation, in order to enter into God’s New Covenant with us, into His new presence which we wants to share with ordinary men and women, not just saints. Today is the day when the Incarnation of Christmas is brought to completion, and divinity becomes one with your humanity and mine in the Wedding Feast of the Lamb.
This is Maundy Thursday… “I give Thursday”. It is simple and yet awesome at the same time. It is the day when we, filled with the power of Jesus Christ, say to God our Father: “I give. I give all of my love to you because you have given all of your love to me.”
With you I am a Christian. For you I am a priest… so that you and I can take our hands and join them together and we can walk through the Garden of Gethsemani into the Garden of the Resurrection and share together in Christ’s life forever, both in this life and in the next.