Last night I locked Jesus away. Along with the whole Church, I sat at table with him, partook in the new covenant established in his body and blood (Eucharist), processed with him to the garden, prayed, and kept watch through the night. Then at midnight, as commanded by the Church (delegated to me by my pastor), I took him away and abandoned him in a cell. Literally, I took his body from the altar of adoration, reposed him in a hidden place, turned the key, locked the door, and left him alone. Empty Church, Empty Chapel. Empty Me.
That was a reflection from Good Friday morning that I never got around to posting. It was profound enough to inspire a lot of thoughts about the nature of Christ and the nature of priesthood. Here I hope to share some general teachings on the subjects and reflect on the way I’m being challenged to live them out.
On Holy Thursday we celebrate the institution of the priesthood and the Eucharist. If I’m called to be a priest like Christ, it’s important to understand how he lived his priesthood. Who is Jesus? What is a priest? How does it relate to the Eucharist? How do I be a priest like Christ?
The Suffering Servant
Holy Thursday begins the paschal mystery in which Jesus’ true identity comes to be known. People all throughout the Gospels have different answers and opinions to the question, “Who is Jesus?” There is great power in applying Jesus’ questions to ourselves, and Fulton Sheen uses Matthew 16 as a model for us to learn from. Jesus asks his disciples, “Who do the people say I am?” They respond, “John the Baptist… Elijah… Jeremiah or one of the prophets” (Mt 16:13-14). All incorrect. He asks Peter (and us) “Who do you say that I am?” Peter responds correctly, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” (Mt 16:15-16). I know I constantly return to this question in prayer and ask God for the grace to affirm Jesus’ identity with conviction.
But, we would be in error to stop there because Jesus doesn’t stop there. After affirming the recognition of his divinity, Jesus continues on and answers his own question. He is not simply the Christ, the God-Man. He is also a man who will “go to Jerusalem, suffer many things from the elders… be killed, and on the third day be raised” (Mt 16:21). Jesus clearly reveals his identity; he is the suffering servant who will be abused and abandoned for the sake of those he comes to serve (see Isaiah 52-53). The Hebrew word ‘doulos’ (servant) refers to a slave. Jesus is one who will toil, serve, do dirty work, and ultimately die. All of this is for the sake of those he loves – each of us.
Priests Offer Sacrifice. Jesus Offers Himself
Jesus is also a model for priests, but we need some nuance when we say that the Last Supper is the institution of the Priesthood. There have been priests throughout all of history. Most religions have priests of some sort. Classically, a priest is simply “one who offers sacrifice.” All throughout the Old Testament there are priests of foreign gods and Israel had a priesthood in the line of Aaron and Levi. The Levitical priesthood offered sacrifices in the Temple and still existed in Jesus’ time. Jesus did not descend from Levi’s line. His priesthood is something new.
What exactly is new about Jesus and his priesthood? What was instituted? For the sake of reflection today, the most important “new” is the newness in the thing (aka the ’victim’) being offered for sacrifice. Old Testament priests offered lambs, bulls, etc. At a Passover meal, the Jews offer an unblemished lamb as God commanded (see Exodus 12, the first reading at HT Mass).
At the Last Supper, Jesus offers only himself. He says at the offering “this is MY body… this is MY blood.” He himself is the sacrifice being offered up to God. Jesus is both the priest, the one offering sacrifice, and the victim, the one being offered. He gave himself in the Eucharist on Holy Thursday, right before giving himself up to abandonment, loneliness, suffering, and death on Good Friday. His priestly sacrifice consists of the total surrender of self and union with the Father. He let himself be locked away – 2000 years ago and still today. He is a suffering-servant; Priest-Victim.
Priest Of Christ. Priest Like Christ
“Unlike anyone else, Our Lord came on earth, not to live, but to die. Death for our redemption was the goal of His sojourn here, the gold that he was seeking. He was, therefore, not primarily a teacher, but a Savior. Was not Christ the Priest a Victim? He never offered anything except Himself. So we have a mutilated concept of our priesthood, if we envisage it apart from making ourselves victims in the prolongation of His Incarnation.”
– Fulton Sheen, The Priest is Not His Own
I heard it a few weeks ago, but this understanding of priesthood has deeply affected my understanding of the priesthood I am called to live. Fulton Sheen makes the point that it’s “easy” to be a priest “of Christ”. A priest simply has to be ordained, show up, follow instructions, say the words, and do the actions. A priest “of Christ” can be used by God for sacramental ministry, be an administrator, build buildings, run meetings, etc. He can fulfill all the outward functions without truly sharing the identity of Christ.
Simply being a priest is not the true call. The call is to be a priest “like Christ” – to offer the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass and give oneself as a sacrifice for the people of God. This priest sacrifices his freedom, his comfort, his time, and his very self in the service of his flock. A priest like Christ must be a suffering servant; a priest-victim.
In the Mass he offers up the sacrifices of others as he unites them to the one sacrifice of Jesus – “Pray, brothers and sisters, that my sacrifice and yours may be acceptable to God…” In his life he offers himself up as a sacrifice for others. This isn’t so much an external function as an internal disposition. A priest’s deepest identity is to be like Christ and everything else flows from there.
What Sacrifice Am I Offering?
So here I am, preparing myself for Jesus’ priesthood. This idea is one I have been praying about all semester. In seminary we spend a lot of time talking about the things that a priest “does”. We learn that a priest needs to be a good leader, preacher, administrator, teacher, counselor, apologist, etc. and gain the skills necessary to grow in those areas to the best of our ability. All important. All necessary. But not enough.
Before I perform any ministry, run any program, preach any homilies or pay off any debt, it’s essential that I embrace the essential core of what a priest “is”. A priest is one who stands in the place of Christ and offers himself as a sacrifice. He is a suffering-servant; a priest-victim.
I often receive well-intentioned comments from people I meet, “You’re giving up so much. It’s such a sacrifice.” The things they refer to are generally external – money (poverty), family and sex (celibacy), freedom to do what I want (obedience). Those are real and I’ll readily admit that they’re still a bit daunting, but I don’t think they truly encompass the greatest sacrifice a priest makes. Those sacrifices are mostly framed in a passive, negative sense… what I won’t have. In contrast, I’m being challenged to embrace a life of active, positive sacrifice – the willful giving away of myself. That’s a whole different ballgame. It’s surrender, not destruction; a “yes” not a “no”. It’s an absolutely intimidating, but simultaneously thrilling, prospect.
Thrilling? Isn’t self-sacrifice awful? Why on earth would I want to do it?
I suppose in one respect I can simply trust Christ’s words, “unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” (John 12:24). Beyond that Joseph Ratzinger speaks about the essence of sacrifice being about healing – it transforms my broken self-centeredness into a pure identity. In this sense, the total offering of myself in the “therapy” of sacrifice is what will ultimately allow me the satisfaction entering into communion with others.
“Such sacrifice has nothing to do with destruction. It is an act of new creation, the restoration of creation to its true identity” – Ratzinger, Spirit of the Liturgy
Pray for me?
I have 4 years to go until I’m called to Orders and this change in identity truly occurs, but now is the time to prepare so I can give a free, total, faithful, fruitful “I do” to the Church. My prayer has increasing been focused on asking God to give me the grace to embrace this radical call of self-sacrifice. I pray I will be prepared to embrace the identity of suffering-servant and priest-victim. He let me lock him away; I pray I’ll be ready when he asks the same in return.
“May God, who has begun this good work in you, now bring it to fulfillment”