Tonight, the church begins the three-part Liturgy known as the Triduum. Our celebration begins with this Mass of the Lord’s Supper, in which Jesus bestows upon his church the gifts of Eucharist and Priesthood.
The Eucharist is the perpetual celebration of the Paschal Mystery – of the passion, death and resurrection of Jesus. Through the Eucharist Jesus shares his Divine Life with us, offering the grace and possibility that we be transformed more fully into him- into another christ (St. Catherine of Siena) – that we are equipped for his work of proclaiming the Gospel of Salvation to the world, through our words and actions.
Every Lent, we read a large portion of the Book of Exodus, with much attention given to the work of God through Moses. As I was praying with this text in my chapel one day, I had a vivid image of God calling to Moses from the burning bush, (Exodus 3: 1-22) and I immediately was led to connect this account to the moment a priest stands at the altar during every Mass.
The Letter to the Hebrews says: “Our God is a consuming fire.” (Hebrews 12:29)
The Eucharist becomes this burning fire in the midst of the Church, approached and consumed by believers, yet never consumed in and of itself. The Eucharist is the perpetual banquet of love from which we draw the fullness of charity and of life. (Opening Collect) This ‘consuming fire that is God’ in the Eucharist, accompanies us, as the column of cloud and fire accompanied God’s people through the desert after he led them forth from their captivity in Egypt to the Promised Land. (Exodus 13:21)
The priest, in the person of Christ, stands at the altar, as Moses before the burning bush. The priest is not only called by Christ to serve God’s people, but he is also to allow himself to enter the burning fire of God’s love in the heart of Jesus. The priest is much like Daniel who was cast into the fiery flames of the furnace. (Daniel 3:1-100) Placing his trust in God, the flames do not harm him, but rather become the atmosphere of walking and conversing with God. In this furnace of God’s love, the priest is forged into another Christ sent to serve God’s people. Within the ‘consuming fire’ of God, every priest is called to allow this love to burn away all selfishness, pride, envy, fear, doubt, unhealthy attachments, in short, all that is not of God.
The priests whom I admire the most, and try to immolate in my life as priest and bishop, are those who give themselves so generously to God’s people, who are ‘free for availability’. Alas, I’m still trying. Much like Moses and Christ himself, the priest is one who finds his identity in relation to God, is courageous and puts his confidence in the promises of God.
And finally, Jesus the High Priest reveals much about the nature of priesthood in his gesture at the last supper by washing the feet of his disciples. Someone recently wrote me about this important symbol of the humility of Jesus, saying that this moment when Jesus washes the feet of the disciples is not given enough attention in the church today. He said that this act of Jesus should have also been made a sacrament. Well, it was, and it is called the priesthood. If people do not see that, then clearly, we as priests have much to learn and implement in the ways of humility and service. But I think this person who so appreciates this moment during the Last Supper desired it to be a sacrament for all in the church to not just receive, but to practice. This I’m sure was on the heart and mind of Jesus who after this humble act of service said:
“Do you realize what I have done for you? You call me ‘teacher’ and ‘master,’ and rightly so, for indeed I am. If I, therefore, the master and teacher, have washed your feet, you ought to wash one another’s feet. I have given you a model to follow, so that as I have done for you, you should also do.” (John 13:12-15)
As we now revisit the self-abasing charity of Jesus, who lowered himself to the condition of a slave, as the Priest and the Sacrifice that is our Life and Salvation, let us call upon the Lord in similar fashion to St. Catherine of Siena:
“Oh delightful Love! Oh Fire! Oh deep well of charity! Oh incomprehensible exaltedness!” (Prayer 19)
Cloth us in your love, enflame us with the fire of your charity, shine the light of your face upon the darkness of our lives. Feed us with the Body and Blood of your Son, so that we may become another christ in the world, humbling ourselves before our neighbor as the master served his disciples.
Lord Jesus, before your passion, death and resurrection you said: “I have come to set the earth on fire, and how I wish it were already blazing.” (Luke 12:49)
Grant us this grace – the fire of your Holy Spirit – that each member of your Body may be so transformed by the fire of your love, that we may renew your church and spread your kingdom far and wide.
Jesus, through your Mother Mary, you took on our humanity. Your Divinity gave our humanity it fullest, brightest expression. Through your Mother’s intercession, may your divinity living within us through the ‘consuming fire’ of the Eucharist assist us to renew once again the fullness of charity and of life in the human family today.