It is quite a way to begin Mass, not to mention an ordination: “Amen, amen I say to you, one of you will betray me.”
But the one who said those words was actually being generous. What would have been far more accurate to say would have been, “Truly I tell you: all of you will betray me. One of you will sell me for silver. Another will deny me three times before the first cock-a-doodle-do. The rest of you will run away. And only one of you will have the loyalty and courage to show up for my execution.”
Despite his awareness of these imminent betrayals and each apostle’s blind and hubristic avowal, “Surely, not I, Lord,” Jesus unflinchingly continued with the first Eucharist and with the ordination of those who, within hours, would prove traitors.
It’s a powerful mystery for us to ponder on this Holy Thursday, after a kind of Lent that began last June with a worldwide wave of revelations of the scandalous betrayals of so many of the episcopal and priestly successors of the apostles.
While the vast majority of bishops and priests are innocent of such execrable behavior, they suffer by association and from having to repair the damage, pay the bills, restore the trust, bear the ire and insults, and rebuild what never should have been destroyed.
This Holy Thursday, many go up to the altar of God somewhat battered. And the people of God who come to join them arrive weary as well.
That’s why Jesus’ actions and words during the Last Supper are so significant not just as history, but as light and medicine. The way Jesus prepared his first ministers to recover from the massive scandal of their betrayal informs the Church today and provides hope and direction.
At the beginning of the Last Supper, Jesus washed the feet of Judas, Peter and the rest of the apostles, despite their imminent betrayals. Often the significance of this prophetic act is reduced to an example of humble service, of the willingness to do the dirty work in caring for others. But, as Pope Benedict emphasized in his 2008 Holy Thursday homily and the second volume of Jesus of Nazareth, it’s more profoundly about the need for the forgiveness of sins.
Jesus washes the feet because they have come into contact with the filth of the world; he doesn’t wash the hands and the head because the body has already been bathed in the waters of baptism. Jesus was symbolically cleansing the apostles of their sins for the exercise of the priesthood and the celebration of the Eucharist. He was showing the need for their souls, and not just soles, to be washed. Such mercy is at the foundation of the sacraments of the Eucharist and of Holy Orders.
This mercy doesn’t mean indulgence for corruption. Quite the contrary: it means help to chop off feet or hands if they lead to sin. But it shows that Jesus was prepared for the betrayals he would suffer even from those close to him, and intended to use even those betrayals for good.
He prayed, for example, for Peter that his faith wouldn’t fail and that after his sin he would strengthen his brothers. (Lk 22:32) Reconciled, all eleven were to be credible messengers that forgiveness of sins is possible – and humble ministers of that miracle.
Jesus’ merciful love, as Pope Benedict said, is the “basin in which he cleanses us.” And his kenotic work is meant to continue in the lives of all the clergy, as sacrament and example, received and shared. There’s much filth still to be washed clean.
The second great gift of Jesus during the Last Supper is his prayer. He explicitly prayed for the apostles and for those who would come to believe in him through their work, that they would be protected from the evil one, preserved in the Father’s name, consecrated in the truth, and perfected in unity.
Those prayers have no expiration date. Jesus is doubtless hoping that priests and faithful today will cooperate with the sure fruit of those petitions as the first apostles and disciples obviously did.
The third great gift is the Holy Spirit, whom Jesus promised to send to convict us with regard to sin, righteousness and condemnation, to lead us to all truth and remind us of everything he taught. So great is this gift, Jesus said, that it was better for him to go so that the Spirit could come.
This gift is so powerful that the same eleven men who left the Upper Room on Holy Thursday only to betray Jesus would leave anew fifty-three days later and light the world ablaze.
The recovery from the scandals requires the Spirit’s seven gifts. It requires the Church’s being thoroughly convicted with regard to the culture of clerical and ecclesial infidelity that made possible so many cases of the molestation of minors and other examples of priestly spiritual incest against God’s children.
It requires the Spirit’s help to be led into the whole truth about the causes of the abuse and the meaning of human sexuality, chaste celibacy, and spiritual fatherhood.
The fourth and final gifts are Jesus’ challenges. Jesus challenged us during the Last Supper to love others as he loves us, to the point of laying down our lives. He summoned us to reciprocate his friendship. He called us to abide in his charity, word, and commandments.
These are tall orders, but Jesus never calls us to anything without providing the means, and he comes to abide in us to make all of these things possible. These imperatives were all violated in the scandals and in some cases ridiculed. Taking them seriously and living them is at the foundation of the reform that the Church needs.
Church history reveals that the renewal of the Church always begins with the renewal of the clergy.
And the renewal of the clergy always begins by cooperating with Jesus’ work on Holy Thursday.
*Image: The Washing of the Feet (El Lavatorio) by Tintoretto, 1548-49 [Museo del Prado, Madrid]