Bishop Glen John Provost
Bishop of Lake Charles
April 8, 2009
Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception
The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me.” Isaiah 61:1
At this Chrism Mass, I would wish to share with you, my brother priests, a reflection on the mystery of what we, as priests, will do on Holy Thursday evening. We will kneel before our parishioners and wash feet in imitation of the Lord Jesus Christ. I think the connection between this gesture, the blessing of oils, the life of priestly service, and the Church is vitally linked to the Pascal Mystery. Jesus Christ “has made us into a kingdom, priests for his God and Father” (Revelation 1:6), and we personally can never appreciate enough the significance of the priestly character.
The washing of the feet of the disciples is an extraordinary event. Commentaries, including our Ordo, interpret the washing as a gesture of service. This is as it should be. Our Lord himself will say, “As I have done for you, you should also do” (John 13:15). It is consistent with everything else Our Lord did in service to others. However, there is much more. We must not lose sight of the context of the washing of the feet: when it takes place and whose feet are washed.
The washing of the feet takes place “before the feast of Passover” (John 13:1). This would make it Thursday, the evening before the day of preparation. The washing of the feet is an act of preparation for the Passover. Jesus is preparing to “lay down” His life. He has promised that this is what He will do. “I lay down my life in order to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down on my own” (John 10:17). This statement and the washing of the feet are connected because the verb used for “to lay down” is the same verb in Greek (τίθησιν) (John 13:4) used when Jesus removes his outer garments. He is not merely taking off his garment. He is laying the garment down, as He will lay down His life.
Jesus is taking on the role of a servant. For this reason many have seen a deep significance between the washing of the feet and the beautiful passage from Isaiah that will figure in our Good Friday liturgy. “If he gives his life as an offering for sin, he shall see his descendants in a long life, and the will of the Lord shall be accomplished through him” (Isaiah 53:10). In this sense, we are dealing not only with a work of service but also a sharing of His mission with His disciples whose feet He washes.
This connection is implied in the exchange between Jesus and Peter. Peter says, “You will never wash my feet” (John 13:8). And Jesus answers him saying, “Unless I wash you, you will have no inheritance with me” (John 13:8). Note the word “inheritance.” The washing of the feet is a lesson in humble service, but it is an invitation to an inheritance as well. And what is that inheritance? The very phraseology that Jesus uses, “you will have no inheritance with me”, is a formula found in the Old Testament exclusively applied to the priest.
When consecrating priests, God tells Moses to “wash them with water” (Exodus 29:4; see also Leviticus 8:6 and Numbers 8:6-7). The action of washing was a gesture of partaking. Just as Moses washed the priests of the Covenant, now Jesus washes the feet of the priests of the New Covenant. The host was expected to welcome his guests by offering them water and towels to wash their feet, so Jesus is welcoming the disciples into His service. That Jesus washes the feet himself, only points the more to His sharing with His disciples His personal mission. And what is His service? It is His priesthood. I do not think I can emphasize this too greatly. “I have given you a model to follow, so that as I have done for you, you should also do” (John 13:15). The model in question is His priesthood. He is soon to give His life as a ransom for the many. He is the ultimate servant, the sacrificial victim, fulfilling the Suffering Servant of Isaiah (Isaiah 52 and 53)). The act of washing another’s feet points to the humiliating death that Jesus will endure for others. The disciples are to share in it as part of Jesus’ priestly inheritance.
In short, Jesus says to Peter, if you do not accept my washing your feet, you will reject the redemptive humiliation of the cross. In doing so, you will not share in my priesthood.
As humans, we must always be reminded of the reason Jesus came into the world. He came to offer a sacrifice for sin. In doing this Jesus acted as a priest. The difference is that in the sacrifice of Christ the Priest, He becomes the sacrifice. The priest and the sacrifice are one and the same. Thus, as priest, Jesus comes to suffer and to die. And there is more.
God commanded Moses to wash Aaron and his sons, the first priests of the Covenant. Now Jesus washes the feet of the new priests of the New Covenant. It is a covenant sealed not with the blood of bulls but with the blood of the Priest himself. This New Covenant is sealed with the blood of the Lamb; “… through the blood of Jesus we have confidence of entrance into the sanctuary by the new and living way he opened for us through the veil, that is, his flesh, and … we have ‘a great priest over the house of God’” (Hebrews 10:20-21).
There are many liturgical actions that can speak of our priesthood in Jesus Christ. However, when we kneel before someone to wash feet in the same ceremony in which we celebrate the Eucharist of the High Priest who first washed His apostles’ feet, then the context tells us a great deal about who we are. The washing of the feet is no ordinary act of service. This is not simply a call to give of ourselves to others. The action of the washing of the feet within the Eucharistic mystery is the invitation that all priests receive to become one with the sacrifice they offer.
We must not read the Gospel selectively. We must see the washing of the feet not only as an invitation to service but also, and more specifically, as a call to service with a priestly identity. The service is Jesus Christ working through us in His priesthood.
Not a day goes by that I am not reminded of the brokenness of the priest, but not a day goes by that I am not aware as well of the “inheritance” which priests share in Jesus Christ. We are so fragile, yet it is God who uses our fragility to do what He wants, if we let Him. And perhaps here is the connection with the washing of the feet. To have a part in His “inheritance”, we must wash feet—not only as service but as priesthood. Why do I make a distinction? Because in service I can give of myself and still be acknowledged. In service I can still enjoy “self care” and take pity on myself for “burn out.” But in priestly service, I have made the gift of self part of the sacrifice of the cross. Here I have a share in the “inheritance.” When I have accepted the fact that Jesus shares a priestly “inheritance” with me through my brokenness and not through my power or my self-pity, then and only then, will those I serve see Christ in me.
At this Chrism Mass, as we renew our priestly commitment, let us be aware of who we are. The priestly character is revealed in Word and Sacrament. As priests, we can say: “The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me” (Isaiah 61). With this anointing, as priests, we should rejoice in our “inheritance” and with Our Lord repeat the words of the Gospel: “Today this Scripture passage is fulfilled in your hearing” (Luke 4:21).
Bishop Glen John Provost