Priest and victim.
In the weeks leading up to my ordination as a priest this past May, I was constantly practicing for my first Mass. I wanted it to be perfect, the most beautiful Mass possible. I wanted to sing everything, and not miss a single note. Then, two days before my ordination, I came down with what was probably the flu. I then proceeded to lose my voice. So, when it came time to celebrate my first Mass, I could hardly speak let alone sing.
When all this began to happen, I was quite disappointed. This was not how I had planned it. It was not supposed to go this way. But as quickly as the disappointment came, it left. It was replaced, instead, with a quiet hope. For I knew that whenever something like this had happened before, whenever I had been especially weak and vulnerable before, God had used it for great good. And He did use it for great good. My first Mass, as imperfect as it was, was one of the most beautiful Masses—and messes—of my entire life. And so, I’m not surprised that all of this happened. I’m not surprised that my first Holy Week as a priest turned out this way. I was initially disappointed, but now I’m filled with a quiet hope. I’m hopeful that God will use this remarkably difficult situation, this moment of profound weakness and vulnerability, for great good.
On the night He was handed over—on the first Holy Thursday—Jesus shared his priestly heart with his disciples. He did so by giving them the Holy Eucharist, which contains His priestly heart, and by configuring them to that same heart by making them His priests. Following His example, at the risk of turning this beautiful Mass into a beautiful mess, I’d like to share with you a bit of my own priestly heart.
“[Jesus] loved his own in the world and he loved them to the end” (John 13:1). As one of your priests, I want you to know how much I love you. It’s broken my priestly heart being unable to be with you and give you Jesus in Holy Communion. It’s like being a parent with a pantry full of food, hearing your children crying of hunger, and being unable to feed them; or like being a newly married man and being unable to be with your bride. I long for the time when I can be with you and feed you once again.
As painful as this is, I know that it’s good for me as a priest. Because it’s configuring me more perfectly to Christ Crucified. The heart of a priest must look like Jesus’: pierced, wounded, broken, and burning with love. The priest cannot just be a priest; he also must be a victim. He cannot just be the one who offers sacrifice; he must also be the sacrifice which is offered. This is one of the things that makes the priesthood of Jesus Christ, the priesthood of the New Covenant, different than the priesthood of the Old Covenant.
Under the Old Covenant, priest and victim were separate and distinct. And we see that on full display in our first reading. On the night of the first Passover, and on every subsequent Passover, the man who would offer the sacrifice, the priest, was different than the unblemished male lamb that was sacrificed, the victim. But under the New Covenant in Jesus’ Blood, the priest and victim are identical. The male priest is also the male lamb, the Lamb of God. He is both the one whose blood is poured out and the one who pours it out. A priest of the New Covenant, a priest of Jesus Christ, is not just a priest, but also a victim.
This is revealed in a very simple but profound way during the consecration at Mass. You may have noticed this before, but when the priest says the words, “This is my Body” and “This is the chalice of my Blood,” he does so while bowing over the altar. Why? Because he is quite literally placing himself on the altar, even as the gifts are placed on the altar. At that moment, he is not only the one who is offering the sacrifice, the priest, but he is also the sacrifice being offered, the victim. And that’s because at that very moment he and Jesus are one—so profoundly one that “This is my Body” and “This is the chalice of my Blood” refers as much to himself as it does to Jesus.
When the priest places himself on the altar and says these words, He is acting in the Person of Christ the Head (CCC 1348). Not just in the Person of Christ, but in the Person of Christ the Head. And those last two words are very important—they’re crucial: Because where the Head is, there also is the Body. This means that the entire Body of Christ which is the Church is placed on the altar when the priest, acting in the Person of Christ the Head, places himself on the altar. At every Mass, in every Catholic church, every member of Christ’s Body the Church is placed on the altar and offered to God the Father. And that holds true of every member of the Church in heaven, in purgatory, and on earth.
Tonight, on this altar, and on countless altars throughout the world, you will be offered to God the Father along with every saint in heaven and every saint in the making in purgatory. To participate in the Mass means first and foremost this: To actively and consciously unite yourself to what’s taking place on the altar: To allow yourself to be placed on the altar and be offered to God the Father, through Jesus Christ, in the Holy Spirit, by the words and actions of the priest.
So, when I place myself on the altar tonight as both priest and victim, know that I will be placing you on the altar as well. Even if you are not present here physically, you will be here mystically as members of Christ’s Body the Church. This is the great gift of the priesthood that Jesus gave his disciples on the night he was handed over: To ceaselessly offer not only themselves but the entire Church to God the Father. I am humbled to share this great gift and deeply grateful for the opportunity it gives me to serve you and love you to the end. “How shall I make a return to the Lord for all the good he has done for me? The cup of salvation I will take up, and I will call upon the name of the Lord” (Ps. 116:12-13).