In my last post I mentioned that the priesthood of Christ—and the privilege of certain men to share in this priesthood—is the primary condition for the Mass being a holy sacrifice. Let’s go back to the Last Supper and see what happened in addition to the institution of the Eucharist on that holy night.
John’s Gospel gives us a very different story of the Last Supper than the Synoptic Gospels. Instead of the institution of the Eucharist, John tells us the story of Jesus washing the disciples’ feet. All of my life, I had been taught the moral application of this story. “Jesus was so humble that he washed his disciples’ feet; we need to follow his example and serve others.” This is certainly a valid reading of the text, but—dare I say it?—a secondary reading. The primary import of Jesus’ actions in this passage is not to give us a nice moral example to follow, but is rather to anoint the twelve Apostles to his priesthood.
An interpretive jump? I don’t think so.
The washing of the disciples’ feet recalls how Moses was commanded to wash the feet of Aaron and his sons in order to consecrate them to the Levitical priesthood. Exodus 40 says that God told Moses to “anoint [Aaron] and consecrate him, that he may serve me as priest… [so Moses] put water in [the basin] for washing, with which Moses and Aaron and his sons washed their hands and their feet”. Further, when Jesus tells Peter in verse 8 that “If I do not wash you, you have no part in me,” the word translated “part” is the Greek word meros. This alludes to the “portion”, meris, which the Levites had in the Lord God alone. Thus Jesus fulfils the type of the Levitical priesthood by anointing the Twelve for priestly ordination through washing, explaining that this washing is necessary so that they may have a part in him.
And who is he? The Great High Priest, as we talked about last time. The priesthood to which Christ anoints the Twelve is Christ’s priesthood.
Hebrews tells us that Christ is the only priest of the New Covenant. Nevertheless, even Protestant Christians find no inconsistency between understanding Christ as the one priest of the New Covenant, and the fact that we are all made priests in this covenant. Consider the Apostle Peter’s words in his first letter:
“…like living stones be yourselves built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ…you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, that you may declare the wonderful deeds of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.” (1 Peter 2:5, 9)
So what is the nature of this priesthood, in which we all share? Well, first of all, we offer “spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.” Our sacrifices are not acceptable to God based on our own merits, but they are made acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. Also, our priesthood is for the purpose of presenting God’s sacrifice to the people, rather than the other way around. “You are…a royal priesthood…that you may declare the wonderful deeds of him who called you…”
All of this is true of the priesthood of the ordained, as well.
The Church is the Body of Christ. Christianity is an incarnational religion; we take seriously the significance of the body, the fact that humans are not pure spirits but exist physically. Every Christian is called to bring the Gospel of Christ to the world and to offer up prayers and our bodies as “living sacrifices” to God. The priesthood of the ordained—the men you see consecrating the Eucharist at Mass—incarnates a specific element of the Gospel; namely, Christ’s sacrifice on the cross, made present for us in the Eucharist. Christ, at the Last Supper, instituted the ministerial priesthood and thereby gave authority and power to the Apostles and those whom they chose as their successors to act in his name, in persona Christi, to bring to earth throughout all of time his one unique sacrifice on the cross, through the Eucharist. This is why, on the one hand, bread and wine do not turn into the body and blood of Christ when just anyone tries to consecrate them, and why on the other hand they actually do become the body and blood of Christ when an ordained priest consecrates them. Christ has given certain men a unique role in bringing his grace to the world.
And this is precisely what the Catechism says:
“The redemptive sacrifice of Christ is unique, accomplished once for all; yet it is made present in the Eucharistic sacrifice of the Church. The same is true of the one priesthood of Christ; it is made present through the ministerial priesthood without diminishing the uniqueness of Christ’s priesthood: ‘Only Christ is the true priest, the others being only his ministers.’”
Catholic priests act for the good of the people on behalf of God; they bring Christ’s sacrifice, his forgiveness and his mercy, to us in a physical tangible way, so that we can see, hear, touch, smell, and even taste his grace.