“Every high priest is taken from among men and made their representative before God, to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins.”
Before a priest is ordained, the Church requires that he make a week-long, silent retreat. When I was getting ready to make mine, my spiritual director instructed me to spend the week meditating on the Letter to the Hebrews. In this book of the Bible, we hear a beautiful explanation of what it means that Christ is our High Priest. For the past few weeks, we have been reading about how Christ is unique – how he is the only one who can sympathize with our weaknesses because He took on our human nature, suffering and dying for us.
Today, we see the book of Hebrews taking a decisive turn that it will follow for the next few weeks: what it means to talk about Christ as a priest. In our own day, when there is so much confusion about the identity of the priest, given the grave deformations of the priesthood that we have witnessed, it is important for us to focus on what a priest really is.
There is a lot of confusion about what and who priests are. Even when I was starting to hear God’s call to be a priest, I was still pretty confused about what being a priest is all about. I thought of priests as being a kind of social worker, someone who devotes his life to helping others. I wanted to be a priest because I had realized that I was most happy when I was devoting myself to others and not to my own well-being, and I thought that was what being a priest was all about.
That, of course, was true. Priests do devote their lives to helping others. But you do not need to be a priest to do that. There are many professions dedicated to assisting others – teachers, nurses, advocates for children, etc. – and the priesthood goes far beyond that.
Another misconception about the priesthood is that many people believe that in order to be a good priest he needs to be popular with people. They will talk about a priest they really liked, and will gone on to describe many things that are very positive – like a dynamic personality – but just as easily could have been said about a good politician.
But this is not what the Bible says that a priest is. Rather, the letter to the Hebrews describes the priest as a “representative before God.” The priest is the advocate for the people, representing them before God. In most languages, the word for “advocate” is the same as that for a lawyer. When a lawyer is at trial, she does not talk very much to her client. Rather, she speaks to the judge and the witnesses, working on behalf of her client. From time to time, during a recess in the proceedings, she may turn to her client to explain the complexities of the courtroom drama, lifting the veil on the intricate legal process, but most of her attention is devoted to acting on her client’s behalf.
This is what the priest does at Holy Mass. If we look at the texts of the Mass, we can see that the priest spends the great majority of Mass speaking to God on behalf of the faithful. For example, today, in the collect prayer at the beginning of Mass, you heard me pray, “Almighty ever-living God, increase our faith, hope and charity, and make us love what you command, so that we may merit what you promise.” I was speaking to God on your behalf, praying to the Father, through the Son, and in the unity of the Holy Spirit. Likewise, the Roman Canon, the prayer during which the priest consecrates the bread and wine, turning them into the Body and Blood of Christ, begins with, “To you, therefore, most merciful Father,” emphasizing that prayer is directed to God the Father, who by excepting our offerings will transform them into the Body and Blood of His Son. In fact, any time that you see the priest reading from the Roman Missal (the red book), he is talking to God on your behalf.
At other times, of course, the priest addresses the faithful, saying, “The Lord be with you,” or, “the peace of the Lord be with you always.” Once during Mass, too, we take a break from the drama of the mystery of salvation that we are experiencing in order to explain everything that is going on. That, of course, is the sermon or homily. There is an old tradition that the priest would remove the garment called the maniple from his left arm as a symbol of the fact that the sermon, the work of the creativity of the priest rather than the ritual that is received through the ages, is essentially outside of Mass. That is a very important distinction. Anything that is the work of our own creativity is essentially different than the tradition we received through the ages. The Mass is not our own creation, but a gift that we receive through the Church’s tradition.
To say that the priest is the representative of the people before God could be confusing for us because we are used to electing our representatives. Democracy is a good way to run a government, but it is a bad way to run a religion. Rather, the letter to the Hebrews states that, “No one takes this honor upon himself but only when called by God, just as Aaron was.” Priests are representatives chosen by God for the people.
Next, Hebrews says that the priest “offers gifts and sacrifices for sins.” This is the core of the Holy Mass, and the core of what it means to be a priest: one who offers sacrifice. As I pointed out last week, the recipients of this letter knew all about sacrifices. They were converts to Christianity from Judaism who lived in Rome, surrounded by pagans. They were intimately familiar with the sacrifices of the Jewish Temple of the Roman pagan gods. These sacrifices were ugly and gory things.
So too is the sacrifice that Jesus offers, His death on the cross. The version that we see on our modern crucifixes are rather sanitized. Christ’s death on the cross looked nothing like what we see in our church. In other countries, where they depict the crucifixion more realistically, they put up a painting of Mary in the middle of the sanctuary and have a crucifix in a side chapel, because you just would not want to look at that every Sunday all through Mass.
The Holy Sacrifice of the Mass makes present in an unbloody way Jesus’s true sacrifice on the Cross. So we ought to ask ourselves, is that what it looks like is happening in our churches? Does the priest look like he is offering a sacrifice? For most of the Masses I experienced as a child and as an adolescent, that was definitely not the case. The priests started Mass by telling everyone, “Good morning!” They wore vestments that looked like they could have been used as a saddle blanket. They used sacred vessels that could have been purchased at Bed, Bath, and Beyond to hold the most precious Body and Blood of the Savior. (And I’m pretty sure that’s not what the “Beyond” was intended to be.) There was precious little that would have indicated that you were attending a sacrifice.
Mass, rather than being about the priest offering Christ’s sacrifice on our behalf, was all about us. The music we sang was all about us rather than being about God. We sang a lot about how we were called to be God’s image (which is completely true but woefully incomplete), and spent little time praising God’s greatness. At Communion, we sang a lot of songs about bread and about how we were called to be Christ’s body, but almost never about how the host that we were receiving actually is Christ’s true body – not just an ideal, but a reality.
But wait, haven’t I got off track? I thought we were talking about who the priest is, not what the Mass is? It is impossible to deal with one without the other. The priest’s identity is totally tied up in the identity of the Mass. The priest, as the one who offers sacrifice on behalf of the people, lives for and from the Holy Mass. It is not just the center of his relationship with God – it is the center of his very being. It is the consummation of his marriage to the Church.
If the Mass is the center of the priest, that means the priest cannot be the center of the Mass. In one of my first priestly assignments, the church was a large, fan-shaped structure. At the center of the sanctuary, on a raised platform, was not our blessed, Sacramental Lord, but the chair for the priest. It was horrifying. The architecture of that church made clear what the running ideology of the time (it was built in 1974) was: that the priest and his personality are at the center of the Mass. This is endemic of what the world expects from the priest: that the Mass would be infused with his dynamic personality, and that if he is not possessed of a dynamic, engaging personality, then he is not a good priest. But this is not the priesthood of the Bible, and it is not the priesthood of Christ.
St. Paul uses another figure to explain the priesthood of Christ today, that of Melchizedek. This mysterious figure, the priest and king of Salem, first appears in the book of Genesis, when Abraham meets him on the way back from winning an important battle, and gives him ten per-cent of his spoils (the Biblical origin of the practice of tithing). In return, Melchizedek offers a sacrifice of bread and wine on Abraham’s behalf.
To the Jews, it would be strange to call Christ a priest, because their priests had to come from the tribe of Levi. Only those whose fathers, grandfathers, great-grandfathers, and so forth were priests could take up the priestly office. But Joseph was a carpenter, not a priest. St. Paul makes clear, then, that Christ is not a priest like the sons of Levi. He is different. His priesthood, like that of Melchizedek, is a mystery. The Bible does not tell us where Melchizedek came from, how Abraham found him, or what became of him. The sacrifice he offers, that of bread and wine, is not found again in the Bible until the Last Supper. So too, the Catholic priest is a man surrounded by mystery, most especially, the sacrifice that he exists to offer.
Christ instituted the Catholic priesthood so that His sacrifice on the Cross would continue to be made present in time. This is the life of the priest, the center of his very being – to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins as the faithful’s representative before God. This, then, is the measure of a Catholic priest, also ordained in the line of Melchizedek, possessing the priesthood that will never pass away: the faithful offering of Christ’s sacrifice as handed down by the Church, in continuity with centuries of guarded tradition, in the beauty of holiness.
The Rev. Royce V. Gregerson
St. John the Evangelist Church, Goshen
XXX Sunday per annum
Image: Cross from the Abbey Church of St. Mary Magdalene at Le Barroux