“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 13:14)
This evening we gather to celebrate two momentous events that touch our lives every single day. On this blessed night in which we begin the Holy Triduum with the Mass of the Lord’s Supper, we celebrate the Institution of the Eucharist and the Institution of the Priesthood. Both are essential for our lives as Catholics and both are uniquely linked: without the priesthood there is no Eucharist. Tonight we will not only hear the words that we hear every Sunday, “Take and eat,” but we will also visibly see what our Lord did for his disciples the night before he died when he knelt before them and began to wash their feet. Last Sunday in the second reading we heard of Jesus humbling himself. If it was not enough that he became one of us, if it was not enough that he gave us his body and blood both at this table and on the cross, tonight we hear of our Lord literally becoming like a slave when he washes the feet of his disciples. Peter’s response, instead of refusal, could’ve been the response of role reversal that St. John the Baptist had when Jesus approached him for baptism, “you should be baptizing me.” Instead of refusal, Peter probably should’ve said, “Master, I should be washing your feet!” But this was not the example Jesus wanted to give. He wanted to leave them a model of service: “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.” Serve one another. Love one another. If you want to be the greatest, you have to be the least.
The washing of the feet is a humbling experience in the life of the priest, but one that brings us great joy because, like the Eucharist, it links us in such a unique way to the actions of our Lord. As priests we are called to serve all, to feed all, to anoint all. After the washing of the feet tonight, the oils that were blessed and consecrated in the Chrism Mass will be presented. This action unites us in a special way with that Mass that we celebrated with our Archbishop on Tuesday morning where we, your priests, renewed our priestly promises to God and to you our holy people. These oils that will be presented serve as a reminder of our priestly ministry to anoint you with the oil of gladness as the Archbishop reminded us on Tuesday, and Pope Francis so famously reminded all of us in one the most epic homilies of his Pontificate which he delivered during the Chrism Mass just two weeks after being elected. Pope Francis reminded us back then: “A good priest can be recognized by the way his people are anointed: this is a clear proof. When our people are anointed with the oil of gladness, it is obvious: for example, when they leave Mass looking as if they have heard good news. Our people like to hear the Gospel preached with “unction”, they like it when the Gospel we preach touches their daily lives, when it runs down like the oil of Aaron to the edges of reality…And when they feel that the fragrance of the Anointed One, of Christ, has come to them through us, they feel encouraged to entrust to us everything they want to bring before the Lord: “Pray for me, Father, because I have this problem”, “Bless me Father”, “Pray for me” – these words are the sign that the anointing has flowed down to the edges of the robe, for it has turned into a prayer of supplication, the supplication of the People of God…The priest who seldom goes out of himself, who anoints little – I won’t say “not at all” because, thank God, the people take the oil from us anyway…”
And it isn’t only in anointing us that the priest gives of himself, but every time at stands at that altar to offer the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass and pronounces the very words of Christ: “Take this…for this is my body which will be given up for you. Take this…for this is my blood.” It is not only Christ but the priest himself who offers his own flesh and blood for the sanctification of his people. This is what we celebrate tonight: the unity of the priesthood and the Eucharist, the unity of the priest to his people, and the unity of the people to this Most Blessed Sacrament for it is Christ among us, Christ feeding us, Christ serving us made present through the anointed hands of a priest. Pray for your priests so that we may model the Good Shepherd more and more. That we may, as Pope Francis says, take on the odor of sheep, and if we sometimes fail in anointing you with the oil of gladness, take it from us, rip it away from us. We too are sinners and at times forget how sacred the task is that has been assigned to us. This is why tonight is so important. This is why we fall to our knees to wash your feet, for it not only serves as a reminder to you of Christ’s humility, but a reminder to us of how unworthy we are to participate in the priesthood of Our Lord Jesus Christ. We are called to share with you the oil of gladness. What a life! What an adventure! What a joy to be a priest!