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!”
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, and are intimidated neither by guards nor by the stone sealing the tomb’s entrance. As St Josemaría 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. And the hiddenness of their influence is no argument against its power, dignity, and value. That no women were evidently present in the upper room on Holy Thursday does not diminish their importance, but rather serves to highlight a vocation irreplaceable and powerful, yet distinct from that of men and clergy. A Vatican document released under Benedict XVI spoke of women as spiritual mothers to priests, while acknowledging that special maternity as a “vocation that is often hidden, not apparent to the human eye, but intended to transmit spiritual life.”
Our Lord wished that the sacred priesthood be born in a kind of sacerdotal cloister, a place hidden and private. In the cenacle, the Lord reserved a 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, the memory of that solemn and fraternal first Eucharist should be an undying flame.
In the Lord’s own mind must have been the memory of His wholly unique “ordination” in the cloister of His mother’s womb. The Epistle to the Hebrews designates Christ taking flesh, the incarnation, as that moment of ordination—in words which, according to Saint John Paul II, “in some way also involve his Mother.”
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).
[W]hen Christ came into the world, he said,
“Sacrifices and offerings thou hast not desired,
but a body hast thou prepared for me” ….
[W]e have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all. (cf. Heb 10:1-10).
The Lord willed to institute the sacraments of the Holy Eucharist and of Holy Orders in the private, fraternal setting of the upper room to share with His first priests something of the ineffable joy He experienced in becoming a priest by the mediation of the New Eve. This not only demonstrates Mary’s importance in the life of the priest, but also of other holy women collaborators who labor at their side.
And I ask you also, true yokefellow, help these women, for they have labored side by side with me in the gospel together with … the rest of my fellow workers, whose names are in the book of life. (Phil 4:3)
So although no women were present in that upper room, from start to finish the Last Supper shows all the signs of women’s influence. Because what is essential to a woman’s spirit was there; what is essential to a woman’s love was there; what is essential to a woman’s role in the order of salvation was there—all accounted for in the words and actions of Christ Jesus, Son of Mary.
Beginning with His heartfelt 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), we see the Lord mirroring what a mother does: she shares herself with her own offspring, with those dependent upon her for love and nourishment. As Jesus nourishes His disciples with Himself, He address them as His “little children” (Jn 13:33). He is even willing to suffer misunderstanding of His love: “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 at Mass. 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.
The accounts of the Last Supper do not mention Jesus kissing the feet of His apostles as the priest customarily does now during the Mandatum, but we can be sure that our Lady kissed her little Savior’s feet (and hands and head). Although Simon Peter needed some persuading to let Jesus do this for him, our Lord freely allowed Mary to do this, because she had a part with Him, and He with her: they shared a common inheritance, with loves 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 her 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, 2019.
Father John Henry Hanson, O. Praem., is a Norbertine priest of St Michael’s Abbey in Silverado, California. He entered the community in 1995, earned his STB and Masters in Theology at the Pontifical University of St Thomas (Angelicum) in Rome, and was ordained to the priesthood in 2006. Currently, he is a formator in his community’s seminary, preaches retreats, is chaplain to several communities of women religious, serves Armenian rite Catholics at the Cathedral of St Gregory the Illuminator in Glendale, California, and is author of Praying from the Depths of the Psalms (Scepter Publishers 2019). He and his community are cooperators of Opus Dei.