Jesus shares his Priesthood with the Apostles during the Last Supper

Homily for Holy Thursday

by Fr. Tommy Lane

Thanks be to God for the gift of Priesthood! As we celebrate this Mass of the Lord’s Supper we give thanks to God for the Priesthood and the Eucharist. The Priesthood was born during the Last Supper, as Pope John Paul II reminded us (Letter to Priests for Holy Thursday 2004 §1). There were many priests in the Old Covenant but there is one Priest, Christ, in the New Covenant and he has extended his priestly ministry to us his ordained priests. While some find it difficult to talk of Jesus as Priest, Scripture is very clear that Jesus is the Priest of the New Covenant. A priest is someone who offers sacrifice. There were many animals sacrificed in the Old Covenant by the Jewish priests, but there is one sacrifice offered in the New Covenant, the sacrifice of Jesus in his priestly offering of himself on the cross. Scripture talks of Christ’s death as a sacrifice because he is the Priest of the New Covenant; “Christ loved us and handed himself over for us as a sacrificial offering to God” (Eph 5:2) “you were ransomed…with the precious blood of Christ as of a spotless unblemished lamb.” (1 Pet 1:18-19) During Mass that one sacrifice of Jesus as the Priest of the New Covenant is extended to us through time and made present to us. There is not a new sacrifice of Jesus on the cross during every Mass; it is the same one sacrificial offering of Jesus as Priest on Calvary but extended through time - as in a time warp in a movie - and made present to us now.

We have just listened to an excerpt of the account of the Last Supper in John’s Gospel. It described Jesus washing the feet of his apostles (John 13:1-15). That is only part of John’s account of the Last Supper; John’s account concludes with Jesus’ Priestly Prayer in John 17. During that prayer to the Father, Jesus prays for the apostles, “Consecrate them in the truth.” (John 17:17) Jesus is praying that they be interiorly changed by the truth, that they become like Jesus who is the way, the truth and the life (John 14:6). Jesus is praying that they become sanctified, transformed by the truth. It really carries the connotation that they are being ordained by Christ as his priests.

The name of God, Yahweh, was so holy for the Jews that they could not even pronounce it when reading the Scriptures. Instead they said “Adonai.” But the high priest could pronounce the divine name Yahweh once a year during the Jewish feast Yom Kippur. Jesus, during his prayer for the apostles at the end of the Last Supper in John, prays, “Holy Father, keep them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one just as we are. When I was with them I protected them in your name that you gave me…” (John 17:10-11) There is now some newness in the relationship between the apostles and the name of God. In the Old Covenant the high priest could pronounce Yahweh’s name once yearly and now in the New Covenant priesthood there is innovation in the relationship between the apostles and the name of God.

Part of the ordination rite of priests in the Old Covenant involved washing. (Ex 29:4; Lev 8:6). During the Last Supper, during which the priesthood was born and Jesus consecrated his apostles as the priests of the New Covenant, he washed their feet. While Jesus performs this action to teach his apostles to serve rather than be served (John 13:13-15), could we not say that it also resembles and calls to the mind the washing that preceded the rite of ordination of priests of the Old Covenant? Jesus said to Peter, “What I am doing, you do not understand now, but you will understand later” (John 13:7) and I wonder if later they saw the footwashing in a new sense, calling to mind the washing that was part of the rite of ordination of the Old Covenant. I think we can say that John’s account of the Last Supper contains many hints that Jesus ordained the apostles as priests during the Last Supper (consecration in truth, a new relationship with the name of God, washing. On Easter Sunday evening Jesus concludes giving his apostles the priesthood).

(Some of the ideas in the three paragraphs above are taken from The priesthood of Christ and his ministers by André Feuillet)

Thanks be to God for the gift of the Priesthood! The priests of the New Covenant continue the mission of Jesus the Priest. Please pray for more vocations to the priesthood and support vocations to the priesthood. If a family and parish is one that shows its love for and support for priests can we not expect priests to arise from that family and parish?

Jesus gives us priests so that we may have the Eucharist. Jesus does not want our celebration of the Eucharist to be cut off and separated or divorced from the rest of our lives. Our celebration of the Eucharist is to affect our entire lives. What kind of an effect is it to have on our lives? Jesus washing his disciples’ feet in the context of the Last Supper surely teaches us that the Eucharist is linked with service. Our celebration of the Eucharist should lead us to love all our brothers and sisters in a sacrificial way. Our celebration of the Eucharist sends us out from here to love and serve the Lord in others. Our meeting with the Lord here continues as we love and serve the Lord in others after our celebration here. That is also why it is during the Last Supper that Jesus gave his new love commandment, “I give you a new commandment: love one another. As I have loved you, so you also should love one another.” (John 13:34) St. Augustine, writing about the Eucharist, said that if we receive Holy Communion worthily we are what we receive (Sermon 227) i.e. Christ was sacrificed that you might receive him in the Eucharist and in like manner, Augustine was saying, when you receive Christ in the Eucharist you too are to sacrifice yourself, and in that sense you become what you eat. Just as Jesus took the bread, blessed it, broke it and gave it, when we receive the Eucharist we are to allow ourselves to be taken by Jesus, blessed, broken and given in love for others. In that sense the words of Paul in our second reading tonight become true, “For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the death of the Lord until he comes” (1 Cor 11:26)

Thanks be to God for the gift of the Priesthood and thanks be to God for the Eucharist!

Copyright © Fr. Tommy Lane 2008

This homily was delivered in a parish in Maryland near where I have joined the faculty of Mount St. Mary’s Seminary, Emmitsburg, Maryland.

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