Priest of Christ, Priest Like Christ

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.

Procession

Procession – (via Aggie Catholic)


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.

Suffering Servant

Suffering Servant – (via Aggie Catholic)


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.

This is my Body

“Behold the Lamb of God” – (via Aggie Catholic)

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”

Seminarian as Symbol

One of the most difficult things for me to grow into as a seminarian has been the identity ‘Seminarian’. I remember in my first few months being very frustrated by what I saw as a shift from being “Colby who is a Seminarian” to “a Seminarian whose name is Colby.” That’s not just semantics. This shift is apparent in many situations. As a random 20-year old dude walking into a new parish, it’s pretty rare for me to be greeted or talked to by a stranger after Mass. But, put on a cassock and people line up to shake your hand, take you out to dinner, and ask your opinion on pressing life questions. As a regular dude talking to someone about life and faith at the doctor’s office or on an airplane, they usually ask a few questions and move on. But, tell them you’re a seminarian and get ready for a long conversation.

It doesn’t bother me that people want to talk to me, ask for advice, or have substantial conversations. I love talking to people, hearing about lives/fears/struggles/joys, and sharing life with them. These encounters are usually the highlight of my day. The difficulty is feeling that I’m being engaged not because of who I am but because of a title I have or clothes I wear. I want it to be normal for everyone at the parish to talk about prayer and faith struggles, and not just with the seminarian/priest because ‘that’s what you’re supposed to do’. I want to be asked questions because I’ve won people’s trust or given them a reason to listen to me, not because of a misperceived sense of clerical power.

Mockingjay?

Interestingly, I gained a great deal of peace and clarity on this issue while watching Hunger Games: Mockingjay (thanks sister!). Bear with me here; this could be good.

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Katniss – “Don’t film me in there. I can’t help them.”
Producer – “Just let them see your face.”
….
Rando 1 -“ Katniss? What are you doing here?”
Katniss –  “I came to see you.”
Rando 2 – “Are you here to fight with us?”
Katniss – “I am, I will.”
*Cue inspiring music, people filled with hope, and a hand gesture that means more than its simple, physical action*

The Mockingjay is a Symbol. When the people look at her, they don’t see a simple girl from a poor district who unintentionally became the center of a power struggle. Instead, they see a girl who fought against oppressive power and brings hope that the future will be better. She is in their midst and points to a movement. She hasn’t done anything for them individually. She’s broken, messed up, and not deserving of power. She isn’t a good fighter and has no idea how to lead a government. She can’t heal wounds and is in no place to offer strategic advice. She struggles the entire movie with being granted a following she doesn’t want.

But the people don’t care – They just see the Mockingjay.

Symbols Matter

People need symbols to express deeper realities, and this isn’t a weakness; it’s part of who we are as human beings. We are physical beings animated by a soul, and praise God that He gives us physical things to express the reality of grace in our lives. True Symbols aren’t just pointers; they embody the thing they signify. In this true sense, Sacraments are symbols, the Church is a symbol, Marriage is a symbol, and the Seminarian/Priest is a symbol. The priest doesn’t just represent holy things, he is truly tasked by God to convey grace and forgive sins.

I’ve come to see this identity as a good thing and am learning to more deeply internalize the reality that Seminarian IS who I am. It’s not just something I do. Rather, the life of a priest is one of taking on a new identity – Alter Christus – another Christ. The beauty of the priesthood is that people don’t have to ask, “can I trust this person?” They see a priest and know that man will treat them as Christ would. They know that the seminarian IS someone they can talk about prayer and faith struggles with. Yes, they can do it with others as well, but the Church has given people a symbol – a guarantee that this person, regardless of their personal failings, can be a bridge to God. And this isn’t just a front or a ruse, he spends years training for the task and is given the grace to fulfill it at ordination. The personal identity, Colby, isn’t diminished, it’s integrated and subsumed.

Somehow the same person

Maybe people should be more open to talking to strangers and not feel that clergy are the only arbiters of spiritual sharing, but that’s a tragic failing of Christian community rather than an issue of the priesthood as such. So I’m learning to stop questioning why the person in front of me wants to talk, overcoming bitterness that I’m singled out because of my collar and not my name, and growing into the identity that will be sealed in a few years at ordination. Now, I’m celebrating the fact that God is giving me these opportunities to enter into people’s lives so that I can learn to give them Jesus, and not just “Colby who is a Seminarian.”

Father Ramson

A few days ago we celebrated the birthday of a house Spiritual Director – Fr Ronald Ramson. Spiritual Directors meet with Seminarians on a bi-weekly basis and provide guidance on our interior lives. They help us grow in awareness of God’s movement in prayer and serve as confidential outlets to speak about discernment. They also serve as confessors.

 

The man. The myth. The legend

The man. The myth. The legend.

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