This week always has a special meaning for every Christian and for each priest. For me in particular because Wednesday was the anniversary of Bridie’s going home to God. It is the most wonderful week for all our deceased loved ones. This evening we celebrate spiritually together in our homes the Mass of the Lord’s Supper, the celebration which gives us the Holy Mass, our duty to love others and the priesthood. Priests will be reflecting on their call by the Lord and what the years of service in the Lord’s vineyard have required of them, joys and sorrows, good times and challenges.
In my mind, I have revisited my ordination. One aspect in particular: the anointing of the priest’s hands by the bishop. Why not his feet as well? After all, the priest must follow the Master and lead others to Him. He must stand by the flock at all times, make his stand for the Truth, and stand by the Altar in offering the Sacrifice of the Holy Mass with the Lord’s people. But no, it is the candidate’s hands that are anointed with Chrism.
Why did Jesus give us priests? Amongst other things, to give us a fuller understanding and experience of how much God loves us. Jesus as the Incarnation, fully God and fully Man, showed Himself to be totally hands on. Not a remote God at a sanitized distance from a weak and frail humanity. No, Jesus is God in and among us, sharing our human condition in all its messiness except for sin. Jesus is God with His sleeves rolled up and dipped into each human life and our story. Jesus knew that humanity needs to use its senses to see, to hear, to feel, to taste. Jesus wanted always to be sensible to people, to see His love and concern, to hear His voice so as to know of His love and Truth, to feel His mercy, to taste His grace and life. Jesus uniquely offered and made possible intimacy with God and seeks intimate union with every life for whom He died on the cross. The priest is called and blessed by the Lord to be the instrument of His sensible love, incarnating His presence and concern for His people and all that proactive love requires until Jesus comes again at the end of the age.
As Catholics we believe this is done in sacramental celebration, sharing the Word of God and pastoral care. This is a big ask. I remember the words of the priest who is about to be executed in Graham Green’s The Power and the Glory. He tells the Officer who has hunted him and imprisoned him (just because he was a priest) that he felt inadequate, that the priesthood was too big for him, he always felt too small for it. Father puts it well. It is perhaps in presiding in the celebration of Mass that most priests share how this priest felt. In the Mass, it is Jesus the High Priest who is offering Himself continuously in an ongoing act of love for His Father. Into this stream of selfless Love and Life flowing from the Son to His Father, we are invited by Jesus to prayerfully step into and be refreshed and replenished by the celebration of the Mass. To enable this, the priest acts in the person of Christ. Jesus wants us to hear His voice in the voice of the priest. This is an overwhelming privilege for priest and people. Priests are very aware of their need of the flock’s prayers and encouragement. In the Catholic faith, the bond between priest and people is a great strength.
The celebration of the Lord’s Last Supper reminds the priest that he is to allow his hands to be used by God for the good of his people. To bless them, to encourage them, to lift them and to hold them. A priest’s hands are given to God to be used by Him in a corporate way as the Lord’s instrument: to bless the people, to represent the hands of Jesus the High Priest over the bread and the wine in Holy Mass; in turn the faithful can place their hands with the priest’s, offering the Sacrifice with Him, exercising the common priesthood of their baptism.
Our sacraments are our lifeline of love. Lifelines need to be grasped firmly. In the sacrament of Penance, the priest holds up his hand at the absolution representing the forgiveness of God and the acceptance of the community to whom we are reconciled. In the Anointing of the Sick the priest lays hands on the person to be healed and aided. Of course in baptism the priest pours the water of new life over the candidate representing the welcome of the heavenly and earthly community of the person into the Body of Christ the Church (experience has taught most priests that you leave the holding of the baby to the experts).
Vitally, the priest’s hands exist to animate the people’s hands. To be joined in prayer, to be open in offering, to be reaching out in compassion and concern, generously giving ever ready to embrace and support. We hold the lifeline with one hand and reach out to others with the hand that is free.
This is what I feel as I ponder Mass of the Lord’s Last Supper. Jesus calls us all to active use of our baptismal priesthood. This night we are given the Holy Mass, let us offer ourselves with the gifts of bread and wine (fruit of the earth and work of human hands) as it is consecrated and transformed into the Body and Blood of Jesus. Let us become the Life we consume and more, the presence of Christ in our anxious world. Let us be like Mary after the Annunciation, so aware of the presence of Jesus within her she is bursting with joy and a desire to share. Elizabeth will feel this blessing from Mary’s generous disposition and proclaim it. Are the needs of the world too great a challenge for us? Elizabeth’s womb was definitively barren. Can we not be as confident as Mary that all things are possible to God, that He truly can do great things? I wonder if John the Baptist’s reaction of joy in his mother’s womb as he senses Jesus in Mary’s womb can help us in our sense of Jesus’ blessing in our spiritual communion?
At the feeding of the five thousand in John’s Gospel, the disciples actively discourage the little boy with his few loaves and fishes. They dismiss his gift as inadequate in the face of the hungry multitude “What good is this between so many?” Sadly, the disciples identify with the helplessness of the people rather than the presence of Jesus. This must not happen to us. Especially now at this time of need. The boy must have felt intimidated and a little awkward but he stood his ground and gave his ‘inadequate’ offering to Jesus. Our little in Jesus’ hands enable the miracles of today. We must not feel discouraged but believe in the power of the Holy Spirit working wonders in the little that we are. In other Gospel accounts, once Jesus had (in a most Eucharistic manner), taken, blessed and broken the boy’s gifts, he asked the disciples to give the bread and fish to the crowds from baskets that do not empty and are more than sufficient to satisfy the peoples hunger. We are the distributors of God’s blessing now, today and tomorrow. We are each the storehouse of accumulated graces eager to share with our world of need. The great graces given by the Lord need to be released in the situations of our day. We are confident the basket of God’s love will never be exhausted no matter how great the challenge. All the Lord’s generosity needs is committed, tireless hands to dip in, grasp and transport His love to the point of need. Let us learn from the Lord washing the feet of the disciples, reminding us that service is the best possible way to share where nothing is lost in translation. We are consecrated to adore the Lord and to serve. This is our life.
St. John Paul II related an experience he had whilst a young priest on pilgrimage at Lourdes. He had been pushing a lady in a wheelchair for most of the day enabling her to have a full experience of the shrine: the celebration of the Holy Mass, to avail of the waters, experience the grotto of apparition and light her candle, to travel the stations of the cross and to sit quietly in the Blessed Sacrament chapel and share her concerns with the Lord in silent prayer and some tears. As evening fell and he took her back to her hotel, she was most grateful to the young priest. He blessed her and promised to return the next day. As he left he felt that whatever he had done that day for the lady was nothing compared to what she had done for him.
This sense of blessing from God for love shared and service rendered is the greatest feeling, it is the joy of satisfaction, the greatest joy of all occasioned when you do the Lord’s will, share the love, raise the spirit or help someone in their hour of need. All the world need to say of you is: “When I needed a neighbour, you were there”. All we need to hear from Jesus is: “Well done, good and faithful servant. Come and join in your Master’s happiness”. John Paul II understood that the blessing we are given by God is out of all proportion to the kindness we show to others. Even to give a cup of water in the Lord’s Name will be met by God’s blessing which is massive and eternal. As we heard on Ash Wednesday: “The Father sees all and will reward you”. We have the hands, the Spirit to empower and guide so “go in peace to love and serve the Lord”.
Active or housebound, daily unpack the graces given to you in spiritual Communion and keep up the good work. Remember what many hands make. First, join them to receive the grace and guidance then open them in generous service. I’ll finish with words from the ordination rite I want us each to hear, bishop to candidate: “May God who has begun the good work in you bring it to fulfilment”.