The people of Israel had been celebrating the Passover for generations before Jesus and His apostles gathered in the upper room to eat their meal shortly before Jesus' passion. They all would have grown up with it - year after year recreating the ritual meal that God commanded His people to eat way back in Egypt.
That first Passover was part of their path to freedom. They didn't just get together to eat a meal: they sacrificed that lamb and put its blood outside the doors of their homes. It signified that they were God's people - chosen by Him and soon to be liberated by Him from slavery.
They were to eat that meal, perform that sacrifice every year. Each time it drew them back to what God had done for them. Later, a priesthood was established for the people to offer this and other sacrifices that were part of their covenant with the Lord.
Priesthood and sacrifice always go together. The priests offered the blood of animals to symbolize the lives of the people. It's like saying to God, "We belong to You. Our very lives belong to You."
Now, Jesus and His closest followers are gathered together to eat that same Passover, but things are different this time. Jesus deviates from the normal course of things in two important and closely related ways: the institution of the Eucharist and the washing of His disciples' feet.
What we heard in the second reading from St. Paul is the earliest account of what Jesus said and did at the last supper. All of this is new to the Passover meal. What would the disciples have been thinking when Jesus said, "This is my body ..." and "This cup is the new covenant in my blood"?
Then, in our Gospel, we heard how Jesus washed the feet of His disciples.
Just on its surface, this is an incredible act of humility. In a culture where almost everyone walked everywhere in open sandals or simply barefoot, it was the job of the lowest slave to clean the filthy feet of their superiors. No teacher or master would stoop so low - but Jesus did. His whole life was an act of service and self-sacrifice, all leading to the cross.
But there is another meaning to this act of service. At the same supper where Jesus gave His disciples a new ritual meal to eat and commanded them "do this in remembrance of me" and "as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the death of the Lord until he comes" - at that same meal, he washed His disciples.
Just like the Passover itself, this should take us back to the time of the Exodus, when Moses washed Aaron and his sons before they entered into God's presence to serve as priests. You could see that washing and Jesus' washing of His disciples' feet as a kind of ordination.
And so we see in the Lord's Supper that Jesus is beginning a new priesthood - a priesthood that will offer a sacrifice of bread and wine that will somehow be more than just food, it will be Jesus Himself. It's by His command that we celebrate the Mass and by His words spoken by the priest that He continues to give us His Body and Blood.
Through the Eucharist offered by the priests of the Church, we all get to be present at Calvary. The blood that He shed on the cross does more than just mark the doors of our homes, it is given to us - He gives Himself to us - so that we can be one with Him.
That is what the Church calls us to mediate upon tonight as we we enter into the Sacred Triduum, these three days when the most important mysteries of our faith are laid before us.
Christ established the priesthood to continue His presence among the Church He founded especially through the Eucharist. This priesthood isn't one of power and self-promotion but one of service and self-sacrifice, symbolized by that final command of the Gospel: "If I, therefore, the master and teacher, have washed your feet, you ought to wash one another's feet. I have given you a model to follow, so that as I have done for you, you should also do."
So, I ask all of you tonight to pray for your priests - those of us here in this parish and priests everywhere. Pray that we can truly follow Christ's model of service, but especially that we can stay close to the Lord who called us to this vocation. If we are to make Him present in the world today through our ministry, then we need to truly know Him.
All of us, as people who receive the gift of Jesus' body and blood, are also called to live like Him. To love like Him. To serve others as He served. And to lay down our lives out of love.