This week is a study of contradictions. We begin the week we call ‘Holy’ by welcoming Christ triumphantly into Jerusalem. Just a few short moments later, we proclaim the story of his Passion from one of the Synoptic Gospels. Holy Thursday begins the final moments of Jesus’ earthly life, while also marking the beginning of our entrance, through Him, into Eternal Life. Good Friday’s solemn veneration of the Cross and Holy Saturday’s Proclamation of the Exultet continue the contrast right up to the end, as we proclaim the ‘happy fault of Adam that earned us so great a Redeemer.’ Prayerfully re-entering these mysteries year after year, we know that these events had to come to pass so that we might be able to enter into a deeper communion with God, the Father, who loves us so much that He sent His Son for our Redemption.
In the life of a priest, this week also contains many contrasts. Lent is a mad dash of penance services, RCIA rituals and rehearsals for the Triduum. Then Holy Week itself dawns: Palm Sunday, the Chrism Mass, the celebration of the Triduum; taken together, they present a microcosm of the priest’s life: ups and downs, running from one thing to the next, hardly a chance to breathe and take in the mysteries that we celebrate, until the morning of Holy Saturday stirs quietly, as the parish sits awaiting the Light’s appearance at the Vigil.
In the midst of this chaos, a detail is easy to miss: Holy Thursday is the anniversary of our priesthood. Even though we were each ordained on different dates, we all share in the one eternal priesthood of Christ, who ‘ordained,’ as it were, the Twelve as the first priests of the New Covenant as He simultaneously established the Eucharist. These two Sacraments, the Holy Eucharist and Holy Orders, are intricately bound together in the mind of the Savior and are primary instruments in the plan of salvation He has laid out before us.
As Pope John Paul repeatedly pointed out in his annual ‘Letter to Priests’ for Holy Thursday, what we enter into over these days is the great banquet of Love. Not the false saccharin sweet notion of love that our modern culture presents, but the tough, dynamic true Love that desires a sacrifice of self so that others may live. During the Mass of the Last Supper on Holy Thursday, Jesus looks into our eyes with a love that is so powerful, personal and profound, that he goes forth to offer himself for each one of us. He loves us so much, he is willing to die that we might be with Him.
This cuts to the heart of the matter as to why a priest, as a living symbol of this death out of life, wears black. The priest is a living sign that directs others to the redeeming death of Christ. But the priest is also called to follow in the footsteps of the Master, as Jesus promises: ‘They have persecuted me, they will persecute you also.’ Therefore, his garments are also a constant reminder that he is to die to this world to live in the next.
But this embrace of the Cross is not out of a morbid fascination with suffering and persecution. As always, the priest is the example for his people. If he shies away from a willing suffering for the sake of the Gospel, how will his people embrace their cross? If he is unwilling to die to earthly joy, will his people ever taste the glory of heaven?
In these days that we call ‘Holy,’ take extra time to pray for your priest. Pray not that he be a good priest, but that he might be an excellent priest, a holy priest, an inspiring priest.
Then, hopefully, we might all enjoy the true fruits of this season: the joy of the Resurrection to new life, in a deeper, more profound, way; for Jesus Christ continues to be present among us, and we thank our priests for helping to make this so.