This is my body given for you. If someone said that to you out of the blue, you might well be taken aback. Leaving aside the immoral meaning the phrase might have, to give your body to someone should mean that you first love them with your deepest heart and soul. The gift of your body to another person is then the crowning act of the depth of your love. That is what marriage means. It is also what consecrated chastity and consecrated celibacy mean.
And so, when Christ gives us his body and blood, it comes not just as something physical but with the utter totality of his divine and human reality. It means he wants us to receive his power, wisdom, love and life.
And to prove how well he loved us with his deepest heart and soul, he took on a body in the first place. He passed over from heaven to earth. We could not cure ourselves of our mortality, but he could, and he did so in his body. By dying, he passed over from the earth to the realm of the dead, to free from captivity the souls of those who believed in him. He took them with him when he completed his Passover by passing over from the realm of the dead to the kingdom of heaven. In this, he fulfilled the true meaning of the priesthood. He sacrificed not a dead animal, but himself. His sacrifice was accepted by the Father not with a fire coming from heaven to consume his body, except in the sense that this symbolizes the Holy Spirit taking possession of the dead body of Jesus and raising it to life.
Jesus did not just love us. He fought for our healing and happiness. He fought for us. He sweated blood and wept tears and endured suffering and humiliation out of love for us, and he did it for the purpose of freeing us from eternal death. That is a freedom not just for our souls, but for our bodies. He restored eternal, immortal life to our bodies by his own destruction of death in his body and by the restoration of eternal life to his body in the resurrection. The Holy Spirit who enlivens the risen body of Jesus is destined to give life to ours as well.
But there was another passing over of Jesus. He passed over in his risen body and blood into the sacrament of the Eucharist. St. Leo the Great says that the visibility of Christ has passed into the sacraments. This can be no truer than for the Eucharist. The Eucharist fulfils Jesus’ promise to be with us until he returns in glory. It reveals his immense compassion for us because he knows how much we need his presence and consolation until that return. It also fulfils his own deep divine desire to be united with each and with all of us on every Sunday and even every day to reassure and to strengthen us on our pilgrim way.
That is why the priest exists. The Eucharist is his life. The Eucharist is his way of life. Wherever the Eucharist is, there is the priest. His mission is primarily to “do this in memory” of Jesus, not only for himself, but for the “many” whose sins are to be forgiven. The priest does not just perform this as a function. I find it an astonishing thing when I realise and remember that by ordination I am commissioned not just to do the priestly things of Jesus Christ, but that I have been conformed in the very make-up of my being to be Christ the priest for his beloved flock. As Jesus took the bread and made it his body, as he took the wine and made it his blood, he takes the humanity of the priest and remoulds it to be capable of acting in Christ’s own person for the specific tasks of ministry entrusted to him. By Christ, the priest is “taken” (called) and “blessed” (ordained) and, in the process, he must be prepared to be “broken”, to leave his own self at whatever cost, and to be “handed out” or given without reserve for the spiritual sustenance of Christ’s people.
But the priest is not confined to the sanctuary, however much that may be his primary place. He is to act in the person of Christ in the exercise of charity beyond the sanctuary. This is the meaning of the washing of the feet. Certainly, all Christians are called to live in charity, but the washing of the feet is focused on the apostles and on those who share their ministry, including priests. By washing their feet, Jesus is saying to the community: this is how your priests must behave because this is how I have behaved, not as master but as servant, not in pride but in humility. They, too, must give themselves completely and expend their energies totally – even, if needs be, to the point of the ultimate sacrifice.
The witness of charity of the priest will strengthen the faith of his people in the Eucharist, for it means that he is living out what he is handing out. Seeing his humble service, Jesus wants the people to see in the priest his own pastoral love. Pastoral love means love which shepherds, or leads, the people to eternal life through the fearless and faithless preaching of Christ’s word and the administration of the sacraments. A life of charity outside the sanctuary will make the priest’s ministry inside the sanctuary more authentic, more credible and more effective. But he must always remember that the source of his charity, the measure of his charity and the purpose of his charity is solely Jesus Christ who has called him to work with him for the salvation of souls.
Eucharist, priesthood and charity. These are really three ways of saying Jesus Christ. These are the gifts Christ gave to his Bride on this holy night on which he was betrayed and entered willingly into his Passion. Accept them, then, with open arms and hearts. Receive generously what is given to you so lavishly. Treasure them, for by their grace you will yourselves be able to say on the day you leave this world, “Lord, this is my body given for you.” Then, your Holy Communion will be complete. Then, your Last Supper will give way to the Wedding Feast of the Lamb.