A Priest is defined by what he offers. From time immemorial the priest has done one thing for a living: he offers sacrifice. And “what” he offers is the oblation The oblation might be Cain’s grain or Abel’s fat sheep. It might be the Bread and Wine of Melchisedech or even the first-born son of Abraham.
But all these oblations are a mere shadow, a prefiguring of the perfect sacrifice in which the Priest offers the sacrifice of himself: in which Christ is the Great High Priest is and the Victim, the giver and the gift, offering the Paschal sacrifice of himself upon the altar of the Cross.
Which is why on this night of Priesthood we wash feet. For the Priest who offered his very self to save us from our sins, kneels down and washes the dirt from our feet. And in so doing, he teaches us what it means to be a Priest. It is not so much to offer grains or fat lambs or even our first born sons. To be a Priest of Christ Jesus we must love others as he loved us, not just in washing feet, but laying down our very lives, opening our arms on whatever cross he gives us, laying down our lives for the sheep he places in our care.
That’s why the priest forgoes fame or fortune, family or possessions, why he leaves all behind. And to where does he follow his Lord? To the Cross, where he opens his arms in total self-giving. We are called to nothing less.
That’s why Father Neururer, a timid priest from a small Austrian farm Baptized that baby. It was forbidden in Dachau, where he was first sent, but even more so in Buchenwald, where he was explicitly forbidden to administer any of the sacraments. But the child had been born in the camp and needed to be baptized before she died and he was a priest. So he baptized her, and was sent to the punishment block, where they hung him by barbed wire, upside down, until he died at the age of 49. Pope John Paul II beautified him twenty years ago
That’s why Father Ganni refused to close his Church in Mosul, despite threats from Islamic extremists. He was just seven years ordained when they stopped his car after Mass and asked him why he did not respond to their threats. He looked the gunmen in the eye and asked them "How can I close the house of God?” So they shot him and tried to burn his body.
That’s why Father Byles refused to get into the lifeboat. He was leading the people from steerage up onto the decks of the Titanic after it hit the iceberg, when, as a survivor later wrote, ‘One sailor,warned the priest of his danger and begged him to board a boat. Father Byles refused [to] leave while even one was left.” Wrote another woman: ”After I got in the boat, which was the last one to leave, and we were slowly going further away from the ship, I could hear distinctly the voice of the priest and the responses to his prayers. Then they became fainter and fainter, until I could only hear the strains of 'Nearer My God, to Thee' and the screams of the people left behind.”
That’s why the priest who first inspired you gets up to pray for the dying man at 2:30 in the morning and why he takes the assignment no one else wants, because that’s what the Church needs him to do. It’s why he gives away his last dollar and last coat to the one who shivers. It’s why he loves them so much that he continues to patiently speak the truth, even while they scream in his face. It’s why he forgoes the world for the Cross. It’s why when others look forward to retirement at the beach, his only ambition is to give his final breath in service to the Lord whom he has promised to love unto death.
It’s why the priest washes feet on Holy Thursday, because he washes feet every day of his life.
And it is why we offer the sacrifices of our lives to God through his hands and why by his hands God transforms bread and wine into the Body and Blood of his Son, the food for our journey to the Cross.
It is all about kenotic sacrifice, every breath offered, every drop poured out. Not for gain or ambition, but for love: pure love, total love, divine love: this is the stuff of Priesthood and of a night of offering, washing and adoration: this night of Priesthood, mercy and perfect love.