Laboring Side by Side in the Gospel: Holy Thursday and Holy Women
“Woman is stronger than man, and more faithful, in the hour of suffering: Mary of Magdala and Mary Cleophas and Salome! With a group of valiant women like these, closely united to our Lady of Sorrows, what work for souls could be done in the world!”
St. Josemaria Escriva
The Way, no. 982
In the principal feasts of the liturgical year the Gospels mention the presence of women. Christmas, the Annunciation, the Visitation—all go without saying, because the New Eve, the Woman, is central. On Good Friday the Lord is accompanied on His sorrowful way by a multitude of sorrowing women; some, especially His own Mother, surround Him even on Calvary. “Is it not an incontestable fact,” asks Pope Saint John Paul II, “that women were the ones closest to Christ along the way of the cross and at the hour of his death?” (Letter to Priests for Holy Thursday 1995).
At Easter, the courageous women who come to anoint the Lord’s body and to “contemplate the tomb” (cf. Mt 28:1), are the first to meet their risen Priest after His Resurrection. They brave their still fresh memories of the Lord’s Passion, the presence of guards, and the obstacle of the stone at the tomb’s door because, as St Josemaria reflects, “If there is love, one pays no heed to those obstacles: one goes ahead with daring, with conviction, with courage” (The Forge, no. 676). Women are likewise vigilant in the midst of the disciples as together they prayerfully await the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.
Their presence is not always so conspicuous, but is always significant. It is not an incidental detail of the Gospel.
On Holy Thursday, in the Upper Room, no women were present. It seems that our Lord wanted the Sacred Priesthood to be born in a type of sacerdotal cloister. In the cenacle, the Lord desired this special intimacy with His priests so that in their public lives they would always retain the private memory of that first Eucharistic intimacy and share that same communion of love with others. In the back of each priest’s mind is the memory of that solemn and fraternal first Eucharist.
In the Lord’s own mind must have been the memory of His ordination. In the cloister of His mother’s womb, Christ became by His Incarnation the first and eternal High Priest of the New Covenant: “Christ did not exalt himself to be made a high priest, but was appointed by him who said to him, ‘Thou art my Son, today I have begotten thee’” (Heb 5:5). The Lord’s desire to institute the sacraments of the Holy Eucharist and of Holy Orders in the private, fraternal setting of the Upper Room was a desire to share with His first priests something of the ineffable joy He experienced in becoming a priest by the mediation of the New Eve: “When Christ came into the world, he said, ‘Sacrifices and offerings thou hast not desired, but a body hast thou prepared for me’” (Heb 10:5)—words which “in some way also involve his Mother,” as Saint John Paul II also observes.
So although there were no women present in that Upper Room, what is essential to being a woman was there; what is essential to a woman’s role in the order of salvation was there; what is essential to a woman’s spirit was there; what is essential to a woman’s love was there.
In Saint John the beloved disciple, we have a model of contemplative love for the Savior’s Heart, for the Sacrament of His love. Through Saint John’s eyes we are presented with a Jesus who in the intimacy of that Last Supper expressed such a strong desire to share Himself with His disciples: “With desire have I desired to share this paschal meal with you before I suffer” (Lk 22:14). This is what a mother does: she shares herself with another, with one dependent upon her for love and nourishment.
All of us know from experience how much a mother’s love is immediate, self-forgetful, and self-sacrificing. If the child needs anything, the mother will do anything to meet the need. As the Eucharist satisfies all of our needs, Jesus calls His disciples, at the Last Supper, His “little children” (Jn 13:33). He nourishes them with Himself. He is even willing to suffer misunderstanding and strife: “What I am doing, you do not understand now, but you will understand later” (Jn 13:7). How many times did our own mothers tell us this when we were young, foolish, inexperienced—and were too selfish to appreciate their selfless love?
The very act of footwashing bespeaks this selfless, even maternal love. Where and when did our Lord have His first human experience of footwashing? In the hands of His own Mother. He first saw her performing this humble task on Him with the devotion of a priest performing the ablutions. Before our Lord Himself had washed anyone’s feet, he first had had His feet washed, and His hands and head, by His blessed Mother. He first submitted Himself to her and saw with what attention and reverence she cared for His infant body.
Orthodox theologian Gregory Palamas (1296-1359) says that since “the Mother of God was the first person [to see Christ] risen… [she was also] the first and only person to touch with her hands his most pure feet,” we might add, as she had done many times before. The accounts of the Last Supper do not mention that Jesus kissed the feet of His apostles as the priest does now during the Mandatum, but we can be sure that the Blessed Mother kissed her little Savior’s feet and hands and head. And He allowed her, somewhat like Saint Peter, because she had a part with Him, and He with her: they shared a common inheritance. Their futures were so intertwined as only the New Adam and the New Eve could be.
What was essential to a woman’s love was there, because Christ was there as one who serves. And indeed, Saint John Paul II alludes to this fact in his 1995 Holy Thursday Letter: “Beside Christ the Servant, we cannot forget the one who is ‘the Handmaid,’ Mary… The relationship of priests to women as mothers and sisters is enriched, thanks to the Marian tradition, by … that of service in imitation of Mary the Handmaid” (no. 8).
Frequently in the Gospels when women disciples are mentioned, they are either praying or serving. In either case, they are loving. And God, who is love, is the origin of all authentic love, whether we call it “masculine” or “feminine.” It is in Christ, made eternal High Priest by His incarnation, that we see human love perfected. He who called Himself the Bridegroom, once poignantly compared Himself to a mother hen (cf. Lk 13:34).
The interdependence of men and women in the New Covenant (especially of priests and women as their mothers and sisters), always has as its model Jesus and Mary: the High Priest and she who embodies His Church. It is God’s will that those who stand in persona Christi capitis have as their associates—their mothers and sisters—other Marys, who will encompass their Christs with devotion, especially in their “hour.”
Tonight it is the hour of our High Priest. And because it is His hour, it is not only the hour of priests, but of devout women everywhere who will accompany their Savior. Be present to Him now as were the women of the Gospel. You don’t have to say anything to console Him. Just be there, ready to serve, ready to do His will. And be present in spirit to His priests who throughout the world tonight follow their High Priest from the cloister of the cenacle to the garden of the Agony. Pray that we will see these two places as very close companions and never separate the sacrifice of the Eucharist from that of the Cross.
The content is published by the St Josemaria Institute for the free use of readers and may not be copied or reproduced without permission from its author © Fr. John Henry Hanson, 2016.