Part Four – Holy Thursday
Holy Week and The Paschal Mysteries: Preparing the Sacramental Way of Grace and Salvation
In the Gospel today we focus on the moment of the Last Supper when Jesus washes the feet of the disciples. While at the same time we recall that on this night Jesus celebrated and transformed the Jewish Passover Feast, leaving us the treasure of the Eucharist, ‘God with us’ and the gift of the Priesthood. He invited his Apostles to receive the “living bread that came down from heaven;” and they remembered his promise, “if anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever; and the bread also which I will give for the life of the world is My flesh.” He commanded them to continue to do the same, in remembrance of Him as they themselves become what they touch and must give what they have received. We recall as well that we were witness to the betrayals of Judas and Peter. We are reminded of our own betrayals. Peter and the other apostles couldn’t stay awake with Jesus in prayer, even as he pleaded with them to be united and to lift him up during his agony. We are reminded of own soft commitments, our inability to understand the mind and ways of God, and how easily we give up, get angry, blame God for our troubles and our failures. Far too many of the children of God are living their lives according to the wisdom of man and not formed according to the mind of Christ.
Although He prays “Father, if you are willing, take this cup away from me; still, not my will but yours be done.”Luke 22:42, Jesus embraces His ‘cup’. He embraces the will of His Father, even as he knows that those for whom He gives His life as a ransom, are not worthy. He does so, because he also knows that in this sacrifice, he creates the way to make us worthy; to reconcile us with God and heal our souls. Today’s liturgy combines both a sense of triumph and tragedy of a love so intense that Jesus was ready to sacrifice his own life for it. "Greater love than this no one has than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends." John 15:13
Most Catholics are aware that Holy Thursday recalls and celebrates the institution of the Eucharist. But what some miss is that Holy Thursday also celebrates Jesus’ institution of the ministerial priesthood. The ministerial priesthood of the new covenant was established by Jesus when he asked his apostles to continue the ministries that he began. At the last supper when Jesus instituted the Eucharist, he told his apostles, “Do this in memory of me” Luke 22:19. According to the Council of Trent, Jesus’ command, “Do this in remembrance of me” was the moment of instituting the apostles as priests and that if anyone says Jesus did not ordain that they and other priests should offer his body and blood: let him be anathema Council of Trent, session 22, ch. 1.
Other scriptural affirmations of their ministerial Priesthood begun on this night, are also plentiful. Such as when the risen Jesus appeared to the apostles in the Upper Room, Jesus said, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you” John 20:21, and to equip them for their commissioning, Jesus breathed on them and said, “Receive the holy Spirit” John 20:22. Before Jesus ascended to heaven, he instructed the apostles, “Go, make disciples of all nations. Baptize them. Teach them” Matthew 28:19,20. Jesus, the Good Shepherd, asked Peter to continue his shepherding duties when he said, “Feed my lambs, tend my sheep” John 21:15,16. Jesus’ final words of instruction to his apostles were, “You will be my witnesses … to the ends of the earth” Acts 1:8.
However, the beginnings of the ministerial priesthood are found in the Old Testament. Melchizedek was a priest of God, the first to offer bread and wine Genesis 14:18. Then beginning with Aaron, the Levites were set apart for priestly service Numbers 3:5-10, and they were consecrated for this sacred duty in a carefully prescribed ordination ritual Exodus 29; Leviticus 8. The Levites presided over the affairs of the Temple and served as mediators in the offering of sacrifice on behalf of sinners. The priesthood of the First Covenant anticipates Jesus, the one and only eternal high priest, “the one mediator between God and the human race” 1 Timothy 2:5, and ordained priests participate in his priesthood.
Offering sacrifice is a duty that belongs to priests Leviticus 9:7, 14:12; Hebrews 8:3. When Jesus commanded to “Do this” he was literally, according to the Greek, saying “offer” in the sense of offering a sacrifice. We are further affirmed in this understanding in Exodus 29:36-41 of the Septuagint, which was the Greek translation of the Old Testament used by Jesus and the apostles. This word poieo is used five times in reference to Moses offering sacrifice as part of the ritual for ordaining Aaron and his sons as priests. As well, the use of poieo in Leviticus 9:7 makes it clear that Moses transferred this priestly duty to Aaron and his sons. We cannot imagine that Jesus intended in that moment anything other than a new ministerial priesthood begun with his Apostles. However, we also have the second part of his command, “in remembrance of me”. The word remembrance as it is used by Jesus, translates in Greek as anamnesis. Anamnesis has sacrificial meaning in both the Old and New Testaments. The sacrifices of peace offerings in Numbers 10:10 are said to “serve you for remembrance [anamnesis] before your God.” Anamnesis is also used in Hebrews 10:3 in reference to the Old Testament sacrifices that serve as a “reminder” year after year. It would follow then that Jesus has in mind this scriptural understanding when he uses the word anamnesis.
What about the washing of the feet of the apostles by Jesus? In fact, this moment is more than just a demonstration of having a servant heart like Christ, that all of us should have. There is a reason that, historically, during this Mass, only the feet of 12 men are washed and we do lose an important aspect of the institution of the ministerial priesthood when we democratize this moment. It is true that this moment can be properly applied to the servant aspect of the royal priesthood which we all share, but that isn’t the main focus here.
In the Old Testament the ritual washing of Aaron and his sons played a prominent role in their ordination ceremonies. For example, God gave Moses these instructions: “Then you shall bring Aaron and his sons to the door of the tent of meeting, and shall wash them with water, and put upon Aaron the holy garments, and you shall anoint him and consecrate him, that he may serve me as priest” Exodus 40:12-13. And more specifically, “And he set the laver between the tent of meeting and the altar, and put water in it for washing, with which Moses and Aaron and his sons washed their hands and their feet; when they went into the tent of meeting, and when they approached the altar, they washed; as the Lord commanded Moses.” Exodus 40:30-32 As well Leviticus 8:7 describes how Moses carries out these washings before he dresses Aaron and his sons with priestly garments.
These Old Testament references to the Levitical Priesthood help us to understand that Jesus is embedding his action within this context, as he did many other times. Yes, any disciple of Christ can read this passage and glean that Jesus’ washing the apostles is an example of humble service but in this moment between Jesus and the Apostles following upon the command to “do this in remembrance of me”, we see the humble way in which they are to serve and to exercise authority as Priests of Jesus Christ. Priests who will be necessary in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.
In response to Peter’s refusal to have his feet washed, Jesus answers, “If I do not wash you, you have no part in me” John 13:8. The Greek word for “part,” meros, echoes the “portion” that Old Testament priests were to have in God and God alone. The Lord said to Aaron, “You shall have no inheritance in their land, neither shall you have any portion [Greek, meris] among them; I am your portion [Greek, meris] and your inheritance among the people of Israel” Numbers 18:20. Which means that Levi has no portion [Greek, meris] or inheritance with his brothers; the Lord is his inheritance, as the Lord your God said to him Deuteronomy 10:9. Connecting this then to the exchange between Peter and Jesus as he prepared to wash his feet, it is not unlikely that Jesus meant that by saying Peter and the others would have no part in him, signals the apostles’ priestly status, and have a unique share in Jesus as Aaron and the Levites had a unique share in God, also affirming the divinity of Jesus… consistent with so many other moments during His three years of ministry.
Tonight, we celebrate the creation of two Sacraments, means by which we receive necessary graces, provide remedy for venial and mortal sin and the mandate to go, to teach, and to make disciples.
Fr. Blair Gaynes has been in the Diocese since 2008.