To know what true love is, only the Truth Himself can tell us. And that is what these three holy days which have just begun, the sacred Triduum, are all about. Each of these days tells us what the three mains forms of love are. They reveal love’s style, they depict love’s shape. They tell us how love ticks, what it does and what it delivers.
Today, Holy Thursday, Truth teaches us that to love means to give. Tomorrow, Truth teaches us that love as gift is costly, it is a sacrifice. And on Saturday night, Truth teaches us that love, by gift and sacrifice, generates a life that is greater than death.
So, tonight, we learn that to love is to give. In the Gospel, we hear that Jesus “had always loved those who were his in the world, but now he showed how perfect his love was.” In other words, he loved to the end. If to love is to give, then to love to the end means to give to the end, and not just to the end understood as time, but as the total gift of self.
At the Last Supper, Jesus makes the total gift of himself to us in three ways. Firstly, he gives us himself in the sacrament of the Eucharist, his body, blood, soul and divinity. Secondly, he gives us himself in the sacrament of the Priesthood. Thirdly, he gives us the key to understand how to receive the Eucharist and to exercise the Priesthood in the washing of the feet.
The Eucharist defies the grasp of the mind and yet it satisfies the hunger of the heart and body. Now is not the moment for theology. Christ simply said, “take and eat, take and drink, this is my body and my blood.” In the context of the Passover meal, commemorating the Exodus, the apostles will have sensed that what Jesus was doing meant something completely new, something momentous. They may have sensed something foreboding in his words “body given up” and “blood poured out.” But, most importantly, in the solemnity of that holiest moment of their Jewish tradition, in the intimacy of their companionship with their beloved Jesus, they will have grasped with their hearts that, as his very own beloved, he was loving them to the end, perfectly. The sheer cost of his words would only transpire the next day, and once they had recovered from their abandonment of him, their hearts would eventually grasp with even greater wonder precisely what he meant by loving them to the end.
And it’s the same for us. What our minds cannot understand about the Eucharist, about the Mass, our hearts do in fact somehow intuit, for we know that we too are his own, his beloved, and that his words and his sacrament are also for us. He loves us, too, to the end, in the totality of his divine and human love and in the totality of our being.
The Eucharist speaks to the sacredness of the Body. The human body is a gift and exists to be given. The Son of God assumed a body and sanctified it by his presence in order to give it to us. In his risen Body he now assumes a simple piece of bread so that through it he can unite his glorious body without our mortal bodies and give them his life. Our bodies are the stage in which the drama of our lives unfolds, especially our moral and spiritual lives. Our bodies deserve and demand respect firstly from ourselves, for they are God’s gift to us. In them we can come to know his other gifts to us, especially the gifts of faith, hope and love by which we receive the very body of the Lord and conform ourselves more and more to him in body and in soul. Says Jesus, “He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life. I live and him and he lives in me.” The Eucharist is such a bold act of divine intimacy with man that it evokes a holy sense of awe. What Adam and Eve had sought to take from God by eating of the tree, is handed over to us in the Eucharist, the sweetest fruit of the Tree of the Cross.
But to ensure that the gift of the Eucharist would, like the miracle of the loaves, be available to all who would believe in him across the centuries to come, Jesus gave us another sacrament of his love, even more incomprehensible in some ways than the Eucharist. As he took bread to give himself, so he takes men to be the ones who would, in his power and in his name, be living sacraments to carry on his priestly ministry; their primary task is to do in memory of Jesus what Jesus himself did when he took the bread and the wine. These few words, “do this in memory of me” are Christ’s institution of the ministerial priesthood. As is clear, the priest is only a priest by the choice, call, consecration and power of Christ. Priesthood is not a right but a gift. The priest’s primary mission is the Eucharist.
Once ordained, the Eucharist is the meaning of his life. It is not an external function he performs, as if it could be performed by anyone else. It is not a priority in his life, as if it could be replaced by some other. It is not a part of his life, as if there were other parts that could compete with it or fall outside its claim. For the priest, the Eucharist is his life. All other priorities of whatever kind, and all other dimensions of his life whatever they may be, stand or fall in relation to his life as servant of the Eucharist. And, as with Christ, it is a life to be given to the end to those whom the Lord in his providence gathers around him when he approaches the altar to “do this in memory” of that same Lord. It will cost him. It must cost him. It is his glory that it costs him not less than everything.
In these gifts of the Eucharist and the Priesthood, there is no cause for human boasting. And Christ emphasizes this point to the apostles at the Last Supper with the washing of the feet. Christ’s gift of himself to us is resplendent with divine humility. The dress and task of washing the feet of pilgrims dirtied on their road to Jerusalem were assigned to the slave of the house. That Jesus would want to be perceived as a slave follows when we keep in mind the words of St. Paul which we will hear tomorrow: “Although he was in the form of God, Jesus did not count equality with God as something to be envied. He emptied himself, taking the condition of the slave, and being as all men are, he was humbler yet, even to accepting death on a Cross.” Hence, receiving the Eucharist requires of us some attempt at least to imitate the humility of Christ. That means an emptying of self. It means truthfulness about ourselves and, as St. Paul puts it elsewhere, a discernment that there is nothing in us wholly unworthy of the humility of Christ in the Eucharist.
Similarly, the priest. Like anyone else he must discern his own soul before he approaches the altar and receives the Eucharist. But in his priestly life, humility must be his hallmark. He has to be truthful with himself and with the Lord. He has to lay aside his own preferences and ideas or any temptations to manipulate the Gospel or the sacraments for gain, for popularity or for his own commodity. Just as the Eucharist does not belong to the Catholic but the Catholic to the Eucharist, so the priesthood does not belong to the priest, but the priest to the priesthood. Both Eucharist and Priesthood are there for us, but they demand of us that we respond to Christ. We cannot change or interpret them to suit ourselves, but must change ourselves to conform to what they demand. Herein lies true humility. Christ places himself vulnerably in our hands and at our feet. What heart could even consider taking advantage of him? What priest could boast without deserving mockery?
Having given us himself in the Eucharist, in the Priesthood and in the Example of Humility, Jesus has taught us that to love is to give, totally and humbly. On this holy night of love, let us take to heart his words, “I have given you an example so that you may copy what I have done to you.” Beloved Lord, fill us with your love that we may do as you command and give ourselves totally in return to you.