A combination of a question from a fellow blogger and some quiet time in prayer had me contemplating my priesthood yesterday. Most of the time I think God keeps my brain pretty dull to the reality of this vocation. This dullness is a gift.
This is the way I see it. It is like once, while hiking in the Adirondacks I came across a black bear. I was close enough to see his muscles working under his thick black coat and make out the teeth in his open snout. I was rendered speechless and could not move but could only look on in awe. If we could truly “see” in its entirety what is offered to us in holy orders (or in baptism for that matter,) I think we would be likewise so overawed that we would be powerless to move at the magnificence of it.
Sometimes I get the slightest glimpse of it, usually at the mass. One usual spot is the response to the exhortation, “Pray my brothers and sisters that this, our sacrifice, may be acceptable to God the Almighty Father.”
A look out into the congregation reveals some pretty amazing people. I see my elders, others who do incredible ministries, people far more intelligent, persons with greater spirituality, I see my true brothers and sisters and hear them say, “May the Lord accept this sacrifice at your hands for the praise and glory of His Name, for our good, and the good of all His Church.” If I listen too carefully to the enormity of this statement it comes close to overpowering me. “How can they entrust this to me?” Can you imagine being on the altar and seeing your Mom saying this? Your best friend? Your professor? Eyes on you, they entrust you with this sacred action and then wait for you to lead them to the Eucharist.
Can you imagine the first time you say, “On the night before He died, He took bread in His sacred hands and looking up to heaven, to You, His Almighty Father, He gave You thanks and praise. He broke the bread, gave it to His disciples and said, ‘Take this all of you and eat it. This is My Body which will be given up for you.’” And it becomes His Body. Who can comprehend this?
Can you see how easy it would be for a priest to let this go to his head? To forget that in reality, it has nothing to do with him, it is all Christ. For a brief moment God allows his sins to be put into a bracket, He works through him, and brings about the source and summit of our lives.
Fortunately there is a prayer just before communion that puts the priest squarely in his place. “. . .I eat Your Body and drink Your Blood, let it not bring me condemnation but health in mind and body.” Christ is present by His own power, not mine. He is present by His own purity, not mine. Before the priest is life and death, a blessing and a curse. If he is in serious sin it is a tragedy. After all what is serious sin? It is a sober, informed, serious, and free rejection of God and His people. Before Him is that God and what a mockery he makes of Him by receiving Him whom he rejects. It is also the cause and symbol of the unity of the Body of Christ. What hypocrisy to partake of the Eucharist while at the same time rejecting the same community.
Yet, if he loves, if he strives to be the man God calls him to be, if he is priest to his people and son to his God, before him is the power of the universe.
Why did God choose him to be a priest? Because he is holier than the rest of the Church? Because he is smarter? Because he is more worthy? Because he is more loved? No. He was chosen because God asked and he said yes and thereby God was able to work with him as where someone else said no. That’s it. Then he takes the ciborium down to the aisle of the church, says, “The Body of Christ,” and places the Eucharist on the tongue of his Dad and wonders, “How could anyone say no to the priesthood?”
“The self same power of the word makes the priest holy and venerable, for he is set apart from the rest of the community by the new blessing which he has received. As far as externals go, he is who he was; but his invisible soul is changed for the better by a certain invisible power and grace.” - St. Gregory of Nyssa