1 Corinthians 11:23-26
Many people will say that Pentecost is “the Birthday of the Church,” and there is, indeed, a good argument for that moniker as it relates to that particular feast. However, I would argue that the real “birth of the Church” is something that we can be said to be celebrating and commemorating on this very night. For it is in the Eucharist that Christ truly makes Himself present to His People, and there can be no Eucharist (or Apostolic Succession) without Holy Orders, and both of those Sacraments were instituted on that very first Holy Thursday night.
In our second reading, from the first Epistle to the Corinthians, Paul gives us the basic formula for the celebration of the Eucharist, and he says that what he received from the Lord, he now hands on to us, and he then writes words that are very familiar to us, because we hear them as the words of institution at every Mass. Paul says something else, too, at the end of this passage…he says that as often as we “eat this bread and drink this cup,” we “proclaim the death of the Lord until he comes.” That proclamation of the Lord’s death, and ultimately, of His Resurrection, is the primary mission of the Church. It is the very heart of the Gospel message, and without that message, and the Truth of that message, there is no reason for us to be here tonight.
We come to this place, on this night, because the Universal Church commemorates the reality that on the very night that Jesus was handed over to death, He gave us the Sacraments that would insure the proclamation of the Gospel and the continuation of the Church until the end of time, the Eucharist and Holy Orders. He gave these Sacraments to very imperfect men, all but one would show themselves to crack under the pressure of the hours that would follow this night with Jesus.
In tonight’s Gospel, we hear part of a much longer discourse (John 13:1-17:26) which St. John records as having occurred at the Last Supper, one in which Jesus lays out the reality of what is about to happen to him, that he would send the Holy Spirit, that the Church would grow and that he has overcome the world. He also gave us the basic requirements of the Christian life in this discourse. It is no coincidence, practically or theologically, that Jesus lays out the basic commandments of the Christian faith on the last night of his life, at a Passover meal where the Eucharist and Holy Orders came into being. What were those most basic commandments of the Christian faith and life? “If you love me, keep my commandments,” a statement which came with the promise of the coming of the Comforter or Paraclete, the Holy Spirit. The second “new commandment” of Jesus given at the Last Supper Discourse was “love one another as I have loved you.”
How much, then, did Jesus love us? He loved us so much that he literally emptied himself and took the form of a slave for the sake of our salvation. He loved us so much that he died that we might live and that we might be able to approach Him. Jesus loved us so much that before he left his disciples on that very first Holy Thursday night, He left them and us with the gift of the Eucharist, the gift of his very self. Furthermore, Jesus empowered them with the ability to confect and celebrate the Eucharist and hand that gift on to others. Jesus gave us His very Body and Blood under the form or the auspices of bread and wine. He also left the gift of the Sacrament of Holy Orders so that the gift of Himself could be given to countless millions upon millions of people throughout human history, by men who are empowered to act in His stead and in His person, however ordinary or imperfect they may be.
The reality that Holy Orders began at the Last Supper isn’t lost on us deacons, either. Jesus’ act of washing the feet of his disciples is the ultimate act of diakonia, of service in humility, and the ultimate example of how Christ expects the ordained members of his faithful to behave. In the Mediterranean and near Eastern world in which Jesus grew up and began his ministry, horses, though they were available, were still primarily the province of the wealthy. Most people went everywhere on foot, and most people in that climate wore sandals. People’s feet were generally filthy, so much so that it was expected that people would have a basin of water in their homes for anyone who came in to wash their feet coming or going. Recall the Jesus chided Simon the Pharisee for not even extending him the hospitality of a basin to wash his feet. (cf. Luke 7:44-50) However, to have your feet washed by another person, let alone for that person to bend over and wash your feet was considered an act that a house servant or a slave would do, yet this is what Jesus did. What’s more, He told us to do it for one another.
This spirit of service is exactly why the diaconate and the priesthood are intimately tied together, and indeed why every priest is first ordained a deacon. Every man who has been validly ordained in the Church is first ordained to the ministry of service above all else, and the reason for this is so that every ordained man might constantly be reminded of the most important truth that can be remembered by any of us in ministry: This is not about you.
Why is there so much scandal in the Church today? I’ve learned that plenty of people can give their opinions about the root causes, and the answer to that question. However, the truth of the matter can be boiled down to one simple reality, and that is that too many people in positions of authority and power have forgotten that this is not about them. This truth doesn’t just apply to the clergy, but to everyone of us who are followers of Jesus Christ. If the only reason we are here, and the only reason we count ourselves as part of the Church is because of ourselves, we have the wrong idea of what the Christian life is all about. With all sincerity I can share with you that I daily ask God to forgive me where I fall short of selflessness, in those parts of my witness and ministry where there is selfishness of mind and heart within my Christian life.
On the night that he was betrayed and given over to death, Jesus left the Eucharist and Holy Orders. He left a lengthy teaching to his apostles about how to live the Christian life, what it is all about, and what He is all about. In just a few moments we will do as He did and wash the feet of a few of those who count themselves as disciples or followers of Christ. It’s a beautiful rite, but it is one that we should never take for granted as something we do only once a year as a remembrance of a far-off event that was important to our faith. Rather, we should take from this rite the example that it is meant to convey. “For I have given you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.” (cf. John 13:15)