Wednesday, July 28, 2010
The Meaning of Christian Priesthood
In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth, and God created man in His own image, and God saw everything He had made, and behold, it was very good. Yet in spite of such glorious and auspicious beginnings, man could not carry on more than a brief moment before the terrible ignominy of sin had torn asunder his relationship with the loving Creator to whom he owed his very being. Since that time, the life of every human being has been driven by the great, often misunderstood longing to cross the threshold that sin has wrought and return to the loving embrace of Our Father. The means to this reconciliation, somehow revealed by God to those first transgressors, has been handed down since the time of Cain and Abel, and so all men everywhere have always known that without the shedding of blood, there is no forgiveness of sins. Thus has the priest always been the constant fixture in all cultures, punctuating every period of human history. He – or in those places where men had exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images, she – has, in every place stood daily at service, offering repeatedly the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins, until, in the fullness of time, God sent forth His Son to become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people.
Therein lies the distinctiveness, the dignity, and the importance of the priesthood of Christ, which is the priesthood of the Church of God. Men have sought since time immemorial to turn to God, and have employed the services of the priest for just as long. However, only when God Himself became a priest in the person of Jesus Christ could such a ministry achieve its intended end. Jesus Christ is our high priest, and He now continues His ministry through the hands of those men whom He calls to serve in His person at His Altar. While Christ serves in the Holy of Holies of Heaven, the men of the ordained priesthood perpetuate His ministry on earth, making present to the people of God His one, eternal offering to the Father. They serve not as priests in their own right, but by participating mystically in His one eternal priesthood, and as such, a true appreciation, and any real understanding at all, of the ordained priesthood can only be found in an appreciation and understanding of Christ Himself.
What, then, can be said of Jesus Christ? St. John tells us that if one were to write down everything that He did, the world itself could not contain what was written. He healed countless. He drove out demons. He taught men about God, and He taught men to know God. He admonished sinners, and He comforted the suffering. He raised a man from the dead. Countless volumes truly have been written about this man, what He did, and it’s meaning for each of us. Yet in all that has ever been told about Him, perhaps the most significant thing, that which most clearly and truly shows us Jesus Christ, is the shortest sentence ever penned regarding Him: “Jesus wept.” In His very being, Jesus Christ is Sacrifice - offering. He is not a sacrifice, but Sacrifice itself. He is the second Person of the Blessed Trinity: the totality God, surrendered. God pours out all that He is, and the result is Jesus Christ.
It only makes sense, then, that if Christ is Sacrifice, His life would be one of Sacrifice. Indeed, His earthly life itself began with a tremendous sacrifice. For though He was in the form of God, Jesus did not deem equality with God something to be grasped, but made Himself nothing, taking the form of a slave, being born in the likeness of men. God, the Almighty, the Infinite and uncontainable, chose to be contained within a limited, meager human body – a body which has not even being apart from that which He gave it. No human being can or ever will be able to comprehend just how great a sacrifice this truly is. The Incarnation, as a friend once said, is overwhelming.
Yet it does not end there. Even having made perhaps the greatest sacrifice imaginable in joining Himself to mutable flesh, Christ did not even deign to grant Himself the full dignity that the human body commands. He chose to be born unsheltered, in unsanitary conditions, and placed in a manger, lowering himself below even the animals over which He had given man dominion. In His later life, he never lifted Himself above this, preferring that foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man have nowhere to lay His head. He did not even grant His death the dignity due to it, permitting without objection that He be subjected to disgrace and humiliation as men spat on his mutilated body, hung Him naked to die in shame before a gawking crowd, and denied the very being of Being Himself.
This is the priest. It is the life of the priest, and it is the priest himself. The priest lives a life of sacrifice, and the priest is a sacrifice. He offers himself to God, following in the example of Christ. He gives his life over to God to dispose of entirely as the Divine Will dictates, surrendering all right to it himself. As Christ stepped down in the Incarnation, so does the priest leave the comfort of the natural world to enter forever into a means of life totally foreign to him. As the priest perpetuates the ministry of Christ on earth, in his sufferings he fills up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of the Church. The priest continues all of the other ministries of Christ’s earthly life as he heals, casts out demons, teaches men about God and brings them to know God, consoles the suffering with the consolation he has received from Christ, and even raises men from the dead in the Sacrament of Penance. Yet, all of this is encompassed in his one ministry of sacrifice.
The ultimate fulfillment of this ministry comes when the priest surrenders even his own identity that Christ Himself may stand at the altar and continue His one, eternal offering to the Father. The Eucharist is the “source and summit of the Christian life,” and through the ministry of the priest, it is made present. The entire life of the priest and all of the sacrifices that he has made humbly give way and are eclipsed and overshadowed by that Sacrifice of sacrifices, the Holy Eucharist. As Christ utterly failed to recognize His sufferings - always pointing to the Father - so does the priest refrain from recognizing his own, directing the entire people of God to “proclaim the mystery of faith” as he elevates God Himself for all to adore.
This tremendous privilege of holding God Himself in his hands points to the fact that the life of the priest is not devoid of joy. Indeed, the life of Christ was a life of joy, a joy which is not incompatible with but rather flows from sacrifice. Christ spoke of His joy in so offhand a way that it can be understood to lay nowhere other than in the core of His being, and thus we see the full nature of the priesthood: joy in sacrifice. Thus, the priest rejoices in the gift of new life that he both holds in his hands and imparts to he whom he holds in the Sacrament of Baptism. He rejoices in the repentance of the penitents that come to him seeking God’s forgiveness. He rejoices in the Love he witnesses taking hold of his flock. The priest even recognizes God’s love in the goods of the earth and the fellowship of other persons of faith that Our Father has provided for us. Above all he rejoices in that gift, paralleled on this earth only by the gift given to the Blessed Virgin that she might hold her Savior in her womb, of holding his Savior in his hands, recognizing all the while as did she that in spite of the enormity of the gift, blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and keep it. It is thus crucial that the mother of Jesus, who is the mother of all the living and of priests in particular be both an example and a constant guide for the priest, for she understands more than any other the life which he must live and the love and respect with which he must embrace the Savior in his hands.
So it is that the life of the priest is to die, a life of death replete with the paradoxical mysteries that give life to our faith. It is a gift of suffering. It is a high calling to lowly service; the priest comes not to be served, but to serve. It is an identity found in the surrendering of one’s identity. In the Latin rite, it is to father thousands by means of celibacy. To be called to serve God at His altar on high is a tremendous gift, yet it can only be received by hands bound closed. If one is called to this life, he is lifted to the heights of Heaven, and yet in this lifting, he must decrease, that He may increase.