And there is something of this evident in the Liturgy of Holy Thursday, which commemorates the institution of the Holy Eucharist and the Priesthood, but which couches it in the context of the mandatum novum, the “new commandment” of love and service, and signified by the foot washing.
These three things are distinguishable in our minds, but in reality they are so together as to be one. And we need to be careful not to separate them in our minds.
To illustrate this danger, consider how, within our minds, we are able to distinguish things that are, in reality, inseparable. For example, think of a candle flame and how, in your mind, you can distinguish the heat of the flame from the light of that flame. But in reality you could not take a knife and separate the heat from the light and put them in different places. In reality they are so together as to be one.
And this is how it is with our triple mystery this night. Though we can distinguish them, they are meant to be so together, as to be one. Without the priesthood there is no Holy Eucharist. And without love there would be neither priest nor Eucharist. And we are asked by the Lord and the to ponder all three tonight, but to remember that they are meant to be one reality.
The Lord gathers his first priests, institutes their priesthood, washes their feet and and gives them his Body and Blood. And then he says “Do this in remembrance of me.” Do what? Surely, celebrate the Eucharist. But the Lord also surely means that they are to wash the feet of others. For, in establishing their priesthood he says to them, I have given you a model to follow, so that as I have done for you, you also must do (Jn 13:15). Yes, it is all connected, the new law of love and service, the priesthood and the Eucharist.
Lets go a little deeper
St. Augustine says, reflecting on Proverbs 23:1 says, If you sit down to eat at the table of a ruler observe carefully what is set before you, then stretch out your hand, knowing that you must provide the same kind of meal yourself. (Tract in Iohannem 84:1-2)
And in this gloss on the proverb is a reminder to every priest and every soul who would approach the Eucharist: we must provide the same kind of meal, a matching gift.
It is true we cannot give all Christ gave and did, we have but five loaves and two fish. But the fact is we are called to provide the same kind of meal, a meal of love, of self sacrifice that is will to wash the feet of others.
In the Old Testament priesthood, the priest and victim were distinct. Perhaps the priest offered a lamb, or turtle doves of a bull. But the victim was distinct from him.
But in the New Testament priesthood, the priesthood of Jesus Christ, the priest and victim are one and the same. Jesus offered himself as the sacrifice.
And every priest who would gather with Jesus our king and ruler ought, as St Augustine says, observe carefully what is set before him, realizing that he must provide the same meal, a matching gift.
Thus, when the priest who stands at the altar says, “This is my Body” the first meaning is that it is Jesus Christ who is speaking these words through the priest.
But it must also be somehow true that the Priest, as a man, is also saying to his people, this is my body. He must be willing to way to them, without simulation, I, your priest also give you my very self in sacrificial love and service. I will wash your feet. I am willing to die for you if necessary. I will spend myself in your service. My body, my life, is yours.
Yes, the priest must be willing to provide the same meal as the Lord, a matching gift. The priest and the victim are one and the same. And thus, the priesthood, Eucharist and the mandatum novum of love and service are ultimately one reality.
And what is true for the priest is also true for the faithful. For to approach the altar of the Lord, to partake of this sacred and sacrificial meal is to incur the same admonition that one must provide the same meal, a matching gift. the faithful who hear the words, this is my body, comes the ultimate obligation to say to another, this is my body, here is my life for you, i will wash your feet. Same meal, matching gift.
There are some who have, in recent years wished to downplay the mandatum, the foot washing at Holy Thursday mass. To some extent this is understandable, given all the shenanigans of the past decades. The rite ought to be done but can be omitted for pastoral reason.
But theologically, there can be no downplaying the mandatum. For those who would wish to downplay what the washing of the feet signifies: Sorry, no can do. The Eucharist, and the command to wash one another s feet cannot be separated in reality. They are so together as to be one. An unloving priest or communicant is a countersign. Every priest and communicant who stretches out their hand to the Lord and his Eucharist, must provide the same meal, a matching gift.
Pope Francis gave elevated importance to the foot washing this year in going to a prison. And while it does not follow that every priest should relocate the Holy Thursday Mass outside the parish, it is a though Pope Francis is saying to those who would minimize the foot washing: Don’t do that. For the mandatum novum it signifies is so one with the priesthood and the Eucharist as to be one reality.
The three mysteries we preach tonight are really one mystery of love. And we who would partake of the Eucharist, or be its celebrants, must never forget that we must provide the same meal, the matching gift.