In the previous posting, I laid out a theology of priesthood rooted in the Patristic tradition of the Church, but before moving on to Cardinal Sarah, the back-asswards Mass, and what is the underlying agenda I want to flesh out that patristic theology a bit more.
Now, as I have often said, while I have a graduate degree in theology, I am not a theologian but a historian. This may be why I prefer patristic theology to the scholastic, neo-scholastic, post-scholastic and—most common today—pseudo-scholastic theology. When you work with the Fathers, you are working with historical texts. A historian can skim across the patristic pond without too much danger of falling in if he or she just stays with the sources.
What I think we need to look at to grasp the patristic approach to the Priesthood, whether the priesthood of the faithful or the specific priestly ministry of the ordained, as a participation in the Priesthood of Jesus Christ is the precise nature of the Christian assembly as the Body of Christ.
Paul makes at least 17 references in his epistles to the Church being the Body of Christ and this relationship between the Church and her Lord is rooted in the Resurrection. We must first erase from our consciousness the inherently false vision of the Resurrection with which we have all been raised. First and foremost, the Resurrection of Jesus Christ was in no way the resuscitation of a corpse. It was not like the Raising of Lazarus, or the daughter of Jairus, or the son of the Widow of Naim. In those cases a person who had been dead was brought back to life. Paul makes it clear that the Resurrection of Christ—an absolutely unique phenomenon in history-to-date—is a new creation. This is not to say that the physical body of the man who had been Jesus of Nazareth is still decomposing somewhere outside Jerusalem, but rather that Christ who is raised from the dead is both radically that same Jesus and yet is equally radically transformed in a new order of being, one that foreshadows a new order of being to which we are all called in the parousia.
The second thing we must reconsider is the meaning of death. For the Christian the moment of death and the passage to new life is not at the time of our corporeal shut-down but rather the moment of our baptism. In baptism we have surrendered our lives and embraced death and in baptism we are raised to newness of life—to participation in that new order of being with Christ. We are members of his Body. Paul does not mean this metaphorically—he is quite literal about it. We are members (limbs, organs, etc.) of the Risen Body of Christ. He is the head and we are the members. We (not individually but communally) are Christ and Christ is us. As such all that can be attributed to Christ can be attributed to us. Christ is the priest and we share in that priesthood because we compose the Risen Christ. Christ offers the Sacrifice and we, as his Body, share in that offering of the Sacrifice. The Eucharistic Sacrifice is, first and foremost, the Sacrifice of the Church because it is the Sacrifice of Christ who is inseparably united to his Body, the Church. It is only in a secondary—though very real—way the sacrifice of the priest. That is why the idea of the human priest offering the sacrifice on behalf of the Church is so patently offensive. It undermines the entire nature of the Church as the Risen Body of Christ.
We used to refer to the Church as the mystical Body of Christ and this was most unfortunate. In English “mystical” has connotations of “spiritual” as opposed to “real.” For Paul the reality of the one-and-the-sameness of the Risen Lord with the community of his disciples was realized on the road to Damascus when Jesus said “I am Jesus whom you persecute.” Paul had known he was persecuting the Christian community—but in that revelation he realized that to persecute the Church was to persecute Christ, that Christ and his Church are one and indivisibly the same reality.
We make a similar error when we take sacraments as something “symbolic” rather than “real.” The issue is that symbols are more real than the literal. Why do people get upset when they see the flag being burned or the Scriptures trampled underfoot. It’s a piece of cloth! It’s a book! NO! It is not, it is something far more. Symbols introduce us to levels of reality that transcend the boundaries of the literal, that open not only our minds but our psyches to visions of Truth that mere words can’t grasp.
So when we say that the Bishop is the Symbol or the Sacrament of Christ the Priest—and admittedly with most of our current crew it is more a matter of blind faith than of spiritual insight—there is a profound reality of Christ the High Priest hidden there beneath an excess of avoir du pois, surly arrogance, and blind ambition. Indeed, I cannot but wonder if this isn’t the main crisis in the Church in the United States today—that the Sacramental visibility of Christ in the clergy has not been totally obscured in too many cases by psycho-sexual-spiritual-intellectual immaturity of many with the ranks of hierarchy and clergy. But read the prayer of ordination of a priest and see to what the priest is called—it is an amazing thing really. No wonder so many of the less worthy want to put things back to Latin—they wouldn’t have to be confronted by the grace of understanding.
So to sum it up: we all, by virtue of our baptism, share in the Sacrificing Priesthood of Christ and thereby we all, in the specifically unique capacities appropriate to our place in the Christian community, offer the Sacrifice in union with Christ whose Body we are. Within the Community of the Body of Christ there are those who sacramentally re-present the specifically priestly Presence of Christ. They have an unique and indispensible place but the priesthood of Christ does not belong to them alone but is shared by all who compose the Body of Christ, the Church.
Now—if you were to take this theology of priesthood seriously, what would liturgy look like? What would the Christian assembly look like when gathered for worship? How would the space be arranged? Rather than top-down pyramidal structure, might it not be concentric circles gathered around an altar—a community with its sacramental leadership in solid communion with one another? But more next time.