The institution of the Eucharist and of the priesthood took place at the Last Supper. It took place within the context of a Passover meal about which we just read in the First Reading. This meal commemorated the core experience of the people of Israel, their deliverance from slavery in Egypt.
This ritual called for the sacrifice of a lamb. It was a remembrance of what God had done in the past but over the years it became also the proclamation of deliverance yet to come. This was because the people gradually came to realize that their liberation as slaves in Egypt was not yet true or complete liberation because their history continued to be marked by slavery to sin. So they began to look forward to a deeper, fuller, and more lasting salvation.
This is the context in which Jesus introduces the Eucharist.
The lamb of the Exodus was a male in the prime of its life, unblemished. The blood of this lamb, sprinkled on the doorposts and lintel of the house, was sufficient to save the Jews from the avenging angel of God, which killed the firstborn of the Egyptians.
The blood of this lamb brought them out of slavery in Egypt into the freedom of the Promised Land. It is significant, too, that this lamb was eaten, strengthening the people for the journey ahead and binding them together as God’s people.
At the Last Supper, the first Mass, Jesus reveals that he himself is the true sacrificial lamb who takes away the real slavery of the world, the slavery to sin. He is the spotless, unblemished lamb in the prime of his life and he sets the people free definitively, once and for all, and offers himself as their food of life.
By substituting himself for the paschal lamb in the context of the Jewish Passover Meal Jesus shows us the meaning of his death and resurrection – true and everlasting freedom and life for all.
In this way Jesus fulfills the Old Covenant and establishes the New Covenant of Love.
By his command to “do this in remembrance of me” he asks us to respond to his gift and to make it sacramentally present. Not only does he ask his Apostles to make his gift present by celebrating the Mass, but he also asks us to do what he did and give ourselves in love to one another. This will require of us a readiness to enter into his sufferings and to offer ourselves as victim in the concrete circumstances of our life.
In this way the Eucharist begins the process of our transformation as truly as the bread and wine are changed into his Body and Blood.
Tonight we celebrate also the essential relationship between the Eucharist and the sacrament of Holy Orders. This connection originates from Jesus’ own words in the Upper Room: Do this in memory of me.
On the night before he died, Jesus instituted the Eucharist and at the same time established the priesthood. However, every priest shares in the priesthood of Christ, today is the Priest’s Day. All the Priests around the World celebrate their day on Holy Thursday and thank God for the gift of priesthood they share.
It is always Jesus, who is the priest, victim and altar, who offers himself to the Father. No one can say “this is my body” and “this is the cup of my blood” except in the name and in the person of Christ, the one high priest.
The Church teaches that priestly ordination is the indispensable condition for the valid celebration of the Eucharist. This means that without a validly ordained priest there is no Eucharist – no real presence of Christ, no offering of the Sacrifice, no Holy Communion. [In this day when many people consider other so-called ‘masses’ of other denominations no different from the Catholic Mass we need to remember this teaching of the Church.]
As a result, priests should be conscious of the fact that in their ministry they must never put themselves or their personal opinions in first place, but Jesus Christ. Any attempt to make themselves the centre of the liturgical action contradicts their very identity as priests. The priest is above all a servant of others, and he must continually work at being a sign pointing to Christ, a docile instrument in the Lord’s hands.
This is seen particularly in his humility in leading the liturgical assembly – avoiding anything that might give the impression of an inordinate emphasis on his own personality. The Mass is ordered to make us like Christ. This is not news to us. Every day we are called to live the Eucharist, become bread for others. Serve each other’s as Jesus did.
Today’s Reading from the Gospel told us that during the Last Supper, Jesus did something very unusual. He got on His knees and washed the feet of His disciples. What tremendous humility we see in this act of Divine love. The greatest Teacher of all times, our Lord God Himself, humbled Himself as a servant of His children. Loving His children of the world until the end, He wanted to do something special by which He would be remembered. He wanted to leave them an example to live by.
When Peter protested against Jesus washing his feet, Jesus told him, “You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand.” And when Jesus had finished washing the feet of the disciples, He said to them, “Do you know what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and lord – and you are right, for that is what I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.'”
Today’s readings have two spiritual messages for us that cannot be separated. First of all, the Feast of Holy Thursday is in remembrance of the institution of the Sacrament of the Holy Eucharist and the Sacrament of Holy Orders.
The second message is: To be pleasing to the eyes of God as shining spirits in Christ, we must humble ourselves as Jesus humbled Himself. In our living faith in Christ, we must be prepared to serve others.
On this night when we celebrate the institution of the Eucharist, and the institution of the priesthood the church offers us readings about Christ giving us himself in the form of bread and wine, and reading about washing of the feet.
But the message, I think, is the same. Tonight, God gets down on his knees for us. Tonight, He lowers himself. Tonight, He becomes a servant to the world — as humble as a slave, as meager and plain as a crumb of bread.
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.”