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Who Is A Priest? | Fr. Benedict Ashley, O.P.

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1. Jesus, the High Priest

“Jesus was not a priest, but a layman.” So I recently heard a young priest declare. He seemed anxious not to be too “clerical.” It is true that Jesus never officiated in the services of the Temple. He was not even an ordained rabbi. In the eyes of his contemporaries Jesus was just a layman. His legal father, Joseph, was a member of the tribe of Judah, not of Levi from which the hereditary Jewish priesthood had to come (Mt 1:1-18; Lk 2:4-5, 3:1-38).

Nevertheless, the early Christians were concerned to show that Jesus was the Messiah (Greek: Christos, the Anointed One). He was to fulfill the Old Testament prophecies by being invested by a ceremony of anointment with the same divine authority conferred on Aaron as High Priest and on David as King and on their successors. From the Dead Sea Scrolls we have learned that some Jews of Jesus’ time expected both a “Messiah of David” and a “Messiah of Aaron,”and the Christians believed that Jesus fulfilled both hopes. To avoid a political understanding of his mission, however, Jesus did not make this claim for himself publicly or permit the Twelve to do so. Yet privately he accepted Peter’s profession of faith in him as the Christ (Mk 8:27-30; Mt 16:13-20; Lk 9:18-21). According to the Synoptics, Jesus, even when asked by Pilate at his trial whether he was “the King of the Jews,” only replied “You say so” (Mk 15:2; Mt 27:11; Lk 23:3) and remained silent. Yet in the fuller account in John 18:28-40, he explained, “My kingdom is not of this world.”

Was Jesus a priest? For the church of New Testament times and today for all those who accept the inspiration of the Bible, the Epistle to the Hebrews settles that question without any ambiguity. Even from a literary point of view Hebrews is one of the most impressive books of the New Testament, although we are not sure who was its author. Because of the style of the epistle many of the Church Fathers doubted that St. Paul was its author and so do most exegetes today. Nevertheless, it is an inspired, canonical work, and may have been written before the Fall of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. since it seems to assume that the Temple services were still continuing (Heb 10:1-3, etc.). Some exegetes explain these passages as mere references to the Old Testament prescriptions for these services. Yet surely if the author wrote after the destruction of the Temple, he would have mentioned the abolition of the Temple sacrifices as a striking proof of his thesis that the services of the Old Law were only temporary, a mere shadow of the things to come.

It is obvious enough why this epistle, in spire of the obscurity of its author, was thought by the early Church to be important enough to be included in the canon. On the basis of many Old Testament references it eloquently argues that (1) Jesus Christ is the Son of God superior to all creation; (2) yet he is also truly human, in all but sin like one of us; (3) and therefore as the Christ he is our Mediator. He is the only true priest who is able with us and for us to offer himself to God as a worthy sacrifice and thus bring us the gift of salvation from God, his Father.

Thus, although St. Paul and the Gospels never speak explicitly of Jesus as a priest, Hebrews firmly insists that he is not only a priest but also the only true priest. Moreover, though the Synoptics and Paul do not speak of Jesus as a “priest,” they do relate his solemn words and action at the Last Supper. What could be more clearly a priestly act than his sharing of the bread and wine as he said to the Twelve, “This is my body that is for you ... This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me,” thus symbolizing the coming sacrifice of the cross (1 Cor 11:23-34, cf. 10:16-17; Mk 14:22-26; Mt 26:26-29; Lk 22:14-23)? Certainly these many references make clear that the early Church understood the Last Supper as a cultic, priestly act on Jesus’ part to be continued as a central practice in the Christian community.

Central to the whole argument of Hebrews is its claim that this sacrificial death of Jesus was the one true sacrifice that can take away sin. Hence, Jesus is the one and only true High Priest of whom the Aaronic priests of the Old Testament were merely prophetic types. Thus the author of Hebrews surely would have granted that the Last Supper which prefigures Jesus’ sacrificial death was itself also a prophetic, priestly action. For some exegetes who favor the Protestant emphasis on preaching the Word as against Catholic emphasis on the priestly administration of the Sacraments, the term “cultic” has negative connotations. These scholars also exaggerate the contrast between the prophetic and the priestly traditions of the Old Testament. It is true that the prophets often denounce those who obey the cultic prescriptions of the Law while neglecting its moral commandments. “Obedience is better than sacrifice” (1 Sam 15:22). “Cult,” however, simply means “worship” and nowhere in the Bible do “worship” or “priest” as such have negative connotations. Quite the contrary, “priesthood” and “worship” (whatever may be said of particular priests and their fidelity to their calling), when they are in the service of the One God, are for the Bible always positive terms (Gen 14:18). That is why Hebrews is so concerned to show that Jesus was not only a priest, but the High Priest, the Supreme Priest. Thus, any attempt to address the question of Christian priesthood theologically ought to begin with the truth of revelation that Hebrews so profoundly establishes. Strictly speaking there can be only one Priest, Jesus Christ, as true Man and True God, the sole Mediator between God and humanity who has offered one sufficient sacrifice, the sacrifice of himself on the Cross.

2. The Priesthood of the Baptized

Protestant Christians sometimes ask, “If, as Hebrews so clearly teaches, Jesus is the only priest and his offering on the Cross was a wholly sufficient sacrifice for sins (Heb 10:11-18), how can there be priests ordained to daily offer the Eucharist as a sacrifice?” Is not the Christian minister ordained to be a preacher of the gospel, not a cultic priest? They also point out that the leaders of the New Testament communities are called not “priests” but “elders” (presbyters). Yet at the same time they cannot pass over important biblical texts outside Hebrews. In the First Epistle of St. Peter we read,

You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people of his [God’s] own, so that you may announce the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. Once you were “no people” but now you are God’s people. (1 Pt 2:9-10a)

This text, which quotes Exodus 19:6 with reference to the Chosen People, is also supported by the prophecy made to the Jews that in the Messianic age, “You yourselves shall be named priests of the Lord, ministers of our God you shall be called” (Is 61:6). The meaning of these texts is that God has chosen and consecrated Israel as his own people in a Covenant by which they are bound to worship him only. This thought is carried further by two other texts of Trito-Isaiah:

And the foreigners who join themselves to the Lord,
    ministering to him,
Loving the name of the Lord,
    and becoming his servants
All who keep the sabbath free from profanation
    and hold to my covenant,
Them, I will bring to my holy mountain
    and make joyful in my house of prayer.
Their holocausts and sacrifices
    will be acceptable on my altar,
For my house shall be called a house of prayer
    for all peoples. (Is 56:6-7)
I come to gather nations of every language;
    they shall come and see my glory...
Some of these I will take as priests and Levites,
    says the Lord.
(Is 66:18-21)

Thus the Jewish people are called to be the mediator by which the True God will become known to all nations. Thus the Gentiles too will come to worship God in the Jerusalem Temple and from even these pagans some will be chosen to be priests. Hence these prophecies in their Christian fulfillment are not primarily made to individuals, but to the Church as a corporate body and hence to its members who by Baptism have become parts of that corporate whole. “We,” says St. Paul, “are one body in Christ, and individually parts of one another” (Rm 12:5). The Christian Community, the Church, is a “chosen race” or “nation,” who is “God’s people,” his very “own” consecrated by Christ as “holy,” and as a “royal” “kingdom.” The Church is “priestly” because it is called to “announce his [God’s] praises” in a worthy way, i.e. through Christ as God has himself willed.

The Book of Revelation confirms this teaching of First Peter when it speaks of Christ, “who has made us into a kingdom, priests for his God and Father, to him be glory and power forever. Amen” (Rv 2:6). “You made them a kingdom and priests for our God, and they will reign on earth” (Rv 5:9). “The second death has no power over these; they will be priests of God and Christ, and they will reign with him for the thousand years” (Rv 20:6). This is the universal priesthood of all the baptized, recognized by the Second Vatican Council. It is symbolically effected in the chrismatic anointing of the Sacrament of Confirmation that follows Baptism.

In Vatican II’s Dogmatic Constitution on the Church (Lumen Gentium) we read:

[The] faithful are by baptism made one body with Christ and are established among the People of God. They are in their own way made sharers in the priestly, prophetic, and kingly functions of Christ. They carry out their own part in the mission of the whole Christian people with respect to the Church and the world. (n. 31)

We can conclude that the term “priest” (Greek: hierous, Latin: sacerdos) can and must be applied to all Christians, not indeed univocally but by analogy to the perfect priesthood of Christ. All priesthood other than Christ’s can only be some form of participation in Christ’s, from which it must derive its whole meaning and power. When Jesus said, “Call no one on earth your father, you have one Father in heaven” (Mt 23:9), he was not denying that we have fathers and mothers whom we are commanded by God the Father to honor (Mt 15:4). Rather he was teaching that human fatherhood is only a share in that of the Supreme Father and Creator, the one perfect father. Similarly, although Christ is the one priest, all those baptized as members of Christ’s body and who through him worship the Father in the Holy Spirit, truly share in his priesthood. I might, therefore, have said to the young priest, “You may be right that Jesus was a layman, but certainly you were wrong to say that he was not a priest. Christ is the only Priest and we baptized Christians are priests only in and for him as we are the Church. The Church is Christ’s holy body nourished on his Eucharistic Body and Blood offered for the world once and for all time on the Cross.”

3. The Ordained Priest

The teaching of Hebrews that Christ is the only priest implies a certain ecclesiology. As Moses was the mediator of the imperfect former Covenant, so Christ is the mediator of the perfect new and final Covenant. Since the first Covenant was not made merely with individuals but with the chosen People, Israel, so the new covenant is made with the new Israel, the Christian community, the Church. Since for Hebrews the Church owes its very existence as a priestly people to its Head, Jesus Christ the High Priest, it is an hierarchical organization. The term “hierarchy,” although it was used by Vatican II in Lumen Gentium without apology, today is anathema to some for whom it seems to mean “an oppressive power.” In fact it is derived from the Greek heros, sacred, and arche, a principle of order, and hence simply means “sacred order.” The Church is no mere mob or loose “Jesus Movement,” but an organic, well-structured, dynamically acting community whose organization is determined by its spiritual mission. This is well brought out by two biblical metaphors. The First Epistle of St. Peter (2:4-8) compares Christians to “living stones” to “be built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.” Of this edifice Christ is himself also a “living stone” but the “corner stone.” The second metaphor elaborated by St. Paul in the twelfth chapter of First Corinthians compares the Church to a living body with its differentiated organs among which Christ is the head. Since Paul used this metaphor to restore order in the Corinthian church he evidently had in mind not just Christ invisibly present, but the community leaders who represented Christ in that church.

These metaphors, therefore, make clear that the Church is hierarchical, that is, has a sacred order in which Christ as High Priest is the hierarch, the principle of that organic order. Since the Church is Christ’s body by which he remains visibly present and active in mission in the world, its leaders must also sacramentally signify that priestly presence within the Church. To say, as do some Protestant theologians, that Christ’s presence is sufficiently manifested in the preaching of His Word minimizes the Incarnation. Christ is indeed present through the preacher, but also through the Sacraments, and above all through the communal offering of the Eucharist. All three offices of Christ, pastoring, preaching, sanctifying are inseparably related in Christ as Head of the Church and therefore also in his sacramental representative within the community. Precisely because the ordained priest represents Christ, his role cannot be that of oppressive domination but, like Christ’s, is that of a servant. Did not Jesus say of himself, “The Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mt 20:28)?

Part One | Part Two


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