The following is a translation of a homily His Beatitude Patriarch Sviatoslav delivered on Thursday, April 29th on Holy Thursday according to the Julian Calendar.
Honorable and venerable fathers, dear brothers and sisters in monastic life, honorable seminarians, dear wives of our priests, dear brothers and sisters, the people who on this Holy Thursday set everything aside to meet today in our Patriarchal Cathedral, dear brothers and sisters who are praying with us via live broadcast.
Glory to Jesus Christ!
In his day, whenever Christians asked St. John of Damascus to help them explain to others who they believed in, he would say “take them to church and show them an icon.”
At the time, when society was becoming more Muslim, Christians needed to adequately explain to the world who the God was that they believed in. Perhaps today, in the contemporary world, which is increasingly losing its Christian grounding, values, and guideposts, we often hear a very similar question.
Who is a priest? Reading the teachings of the Church Fathers, on this day, Holy Thursday, when we honor the establishment of the sacraments of Eucharist and Priesthood, perhaps we can say something similar.
Want to know who Christ’s priests are? Look at Christ who washes feet. Look at God who stands on His knees before a person. Look at Jesus the Teacher who, having communed His apostles to make them priests, says, “I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet.”
And so today, these services of Great Thursday are a great living icon of these events at the Holy Supper. Everything we’ve heard in today’s Gospel, we’ve seen with our eyes. Today, we heard how Jesus took the bread and wine at the Holy Supper and said “this is My body...this is My blood of the new covenant.” [Matthew 26] And then told His students to do that in memory of Him. We did this today.
We did so on the Holy Altar. And we consecrated a lot of other altars—antiminsi—which will find themselves on all corners of this planet so that priests all over may commit a bloodless sacrifice of our Savior’s body and blood.
Today we consecrated Holy Chrism, which, in the Old Testament, was how kings, priests, and prophets were anointed. That chrism will be anointed on the newly-baptized, new members of Christ’s Church, becoming participants and members of the Royal People: the God-chosen nation of the New Testament.
And we saw how, having listened to the Holy Gospel, we completed the rite of washing feet. We heard how Christ stood up during the Mystical Supper, “took off his outer clothing, wrapped a towel around his waist... poured water into a basin and began to wash His disciples’ feet” one by one.
In this moment, the icon of Christ’s priesthood is illuminated. Christ turns to Peter and says “what I am doing you do not understand now, but you will know after this.” Listen to the words in the Epistle to the Hebrews, an important book in the New Testament which outlines the role of the Supreme Hierarch, Christ, the High Priest. Maybe, having listened to the Holy Scripture, we can make sense of what we saw just now before our eyes.
God’s Word supplies us with two characteristics of Christ’s priesthood: the strange humility of God before a person. He who has himself suffered is able to co-suffer or have compassion to those who are living through suffering. It’s interesting, isn’t it? God became a human to experience—in the flesh!—what should be beneath Him: the suffering and dying body of a human. He wants to co-suffer with each one of us.
You know, during those days of the most recent, most aggressive wave of the coronavirus, I took the morning to call one of our priests. Sick, he lay in an ICU, barely breathing with an oxygen mask. I asked, “brother, how are you?” And he repeated the same words, “he who has suffered knows how to co-suffer and have compassion for those who suffer.” He says, “I am co-suffering with my people. I am breathing like they are. I am on the verge of death, like tens of thousands of people across the country. I am together with my people.”
I am co-suffering with my people. I am breathing like they are. I am on the verge of death, like tens of thousands of people across the country. I am together with my people.
Now we’ve come to the second characteristic of a Christian priest. To this particular privilege—the greatest privilege—nobody can arrive alone or take for themselves, only those who are called, like Aaron. Therefore, to co-suffer with one’s people is a privilege. A great privilege. This is why the Church celebrates Holy Martyrs, whose relics we embedded into those antiminsi today. They received the privilege to suffer for the faith and the Gospel just like Christ suffered. Christ delegated the specific privilege of serving one’s neighbor—the defining features of priesthood—to His apostles.
In accordance with the Tradition of our Church, the living icon which we witnessed today, only a bishop may wash the feet of priests. The bishop, who is to embody the priesthood’s fullness, has the privilege to wash the feet of his priests who are at the front lines of co-suffering with our people. Our liturgy today, including the rite of washing feet, is an icon of Christ with His apostles. That’s why only priests’ feet are washed by the bishop at this Mystical Supper, in this service. It is a teaching, an example, of how priests are supposed to serve a suffering people in their roles. They take off their ‘outer clothing,’ their social standing and honorifics, because the greatest of all privileges is to kneel before another person as we witnessed our own all-loving Lord do.
How many people are there in the world today who don’t have anybody to wash their wounds? But Christ gives all of His holy sacraments through the hands of priests. They are the medicine, the healers, which every priest must place over the wounds, pain, and suffering of our people. It is the same gesture as washing the feet. That water which we heard about today is the water of renewal. It is the water of cleansing. It is the water of holiness. It is a medicine for the health of the body and soul.
Today, all of God’s Church prays for those who have been called—personally invited—by Christ, our Lord and Savior, to serve in the ranks of priests in the order of Melchizedek.
Dear fathers, those who are here today, and who are joining us in prayer elsewhere, dear seminarians, today the highest of all priests, Jesus Christ, is praying for you as the head of His own Church, so that you may be worthy communicants of His priesthood. He wants you to understand its mission and purpose, so that you may realize the fullest service, priestly service, in this contemporary, strange, and decadent world. A world where a person feels, again, uncomfortable.
Dear fathers, allow me to thank you for answering this call. We are so sorely lacking priests today in so many parts of Ukraine and the world. In order to stand up to the call, and take this privilege on oneself, you must have a particular sort of courage. Seriously, it takes courage to kneel before another person. It takes courage not to be the kind of person who rules or dominates above another. You must have courage and bravery to serve.
Seriously, it takes courage to kneel before another person.
Let us pray today for our priests who suffer great pain and trouble, who may be sick, or may need words of encouragement, support, or joy. Let us pray for them. May this feast of Christ’s priesthood be a new way of breathing for each of us. Let us renew the vows of priesthood which we affirmed in front of God’s altar, so that we may serve how Christ, our Savior and teacher, served, and continues to serve all humanity in eternity. This is the true priesthood. May the power of the Holy Spirit, which we called down to sanctify this living icon we created through the washing of feet, grant you the strength and courage we all need to live out our daily service.
Today, I would like to thank all priests, hieromonks, deacons, and seminarians of the Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Church in Ukraine and abroad because I can count on you. We are together. We can think, work, and serve people in the third millennium. May this feast of priesthood be joyful, even when we see that Christ who humbles Himself so deeply that those watching can’t hold back tears! Greetings with this feast! For Christ says, “now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them.”
Be blessed. Amen.