February 16, 2011
In the rector’s conferences from last formation term, I focused on the promises made by the candidate during the Rite of Ordination and offered, I hope, some spiritual insights into the nature of those promises in the life and service of the priest. Today we move to the very heart of the rite, the matter and form of the Sacrament of Holy Orders and the moment in which the transformation of the man is realized. The central act of the rite begins on the ground with the prostration and the Litany of the Saints. The creation of the new man inaugurated with an evocation of the origins of the human person, in the dust. On Ash Wednesday we hear these words: Remember that you are dust and to dust you will return. The story of the origins of the human person in Genesis reminds us of our essential humility, the fact of our being created. In the prostration we come face-to-face with our basic constitution on our faces, completely vulnerable, our bodies connected to the earth. We are dust, we are constituted from the earth and attached to one another through both our common origins and our being creatures. This is the origin of the human person and it is the state to which we will return. The act of lying upon the earth is a reminder of our mortality. It should also be a reminder of our fragile nature. The ephemeral quality of dust makes it unable to hold together under its own power. Without divine intervention, we become little more than dust particles that inherit the wind. In the Rite of Ordination, as in all sacraments, our human nature is augmented, complimented, and exalted. As priests, we are given power to be used responsibly, we are given governance over the moral condition of humankind, and, if we are to accept the premise of our patristic forebears, we are given power over being itself. It is the sacrament which the priest is called to celebrate that keeps the world from flying apart. It is this sacrament and this sacrament alone that contains the force of the One who is Source of all Being. With the priesthood comes power and all of the ills of the contemporary priesthood stem from the lack of appropriation of the nature of this power. We “live into” the power but fail to accept the responsibility. We ravage the priesthood for its benefits and fail to understand what this ravishment entails for the souls of those of whom we have responsible charge. We think we can take the stole upon our shoulders without cost. We err in thinking that celibacy, as a divine gift has no personal cost. We take lightly the very promises we have just made. We serve ourselves rather than serving the Body of Christ and thus are condemned in our own blasphemy of the Body of Christ. Metaphysical considerations not withstanding, if there is power in the daily exercise of the priesthood, which there is, then the prostration reminds us of the source of this power: Our connection to the earth and the earth within us. In other words, the personal power of the priest who will rise out of the dust of the earth comes from his ability to connect to that same earth or we might say earthiness. The fissures, the welts of life are our portals to power. Just as the power of the hot spring hidden in the earth is exposed only through flaws in that same earth, so our hidden power, the hidden power contained in each by virtue of his or her having been tried in the fires of suffering, is exposed through the wounds of the lashes inflicted upon us through the maelstrom of daily living. As St. Paul says: When I am weak, then I am strong. As the Preface for Martyrs reminds us: God chooses the weak and makes them strong in bearing witness. The priest, by his priestly character and nature is a strong man, but only strong in the sense of Christ, the man of suffering acquainted with sorrow. The prostration reminds us that if we wish to follow in the footsteps of Christ, let us get down in the dirt with Christ. Let us fall with him on the way to Calvary. Let us trace our fingers in the dust with him. Like him, let us not flee humiliation. Let us be willing to weep with him over the pitiable Jerusalem of the modern condition. Let us wear the crown of thorns with him rather than the crown of clerical self-aggrandizement. Let us be willing to be pierced with him, pierced by the nails of the reality of the struggles of our brothers and sisters, our brothers here. Let us dare to be misunderstood with him. We find the true origins of our priesthood, as we find our true origins as human persons in the dust of the ground. What does that tell us about the spiritual life of the priest? It tells us that the priest cannot try to escape the cross. The cross is a reality in every life. Into every life sorrow comes, loss is felt, threat is real, and suffering is experienced. No one can live authentically and escape suffering. We do not need to seek the cross, the cross is there, it is here. Like human beings, the wood of the cross has been raised up out of the ground. It is “related” to the human person. The great paradox of modern life is our undying attempt to escape the consequences of what is real. We try to escape suffering at all cost, but the cost of the escape is often more dire and more painful than that from which we flee. It doesn’t matter how blessed an existence you have led. It doesn’t matter if you are rich and have overwhelming power. It doesn’t matter how charming you are. Into every life the cross casts its shadow and in spite of the false prophetic messages with which we are repeatedly bombarded, we cannot escape suffering, illness or death. The success or failure of the priest depends upon his ability to connect with the very baseness of his condition, a condition he is invited to reflect upon as he lies prostrate upon the ground, a humiliation that will ultimately be what raises him up, because the priest’s life depends upon his being pulled from his abject state into power by the magnetic, attracting alliance of his life with the cross of Christ.
The imagery of the prostration also reminds us of the Rite of Monastic Profession, the Mystical Burial. In the monastic prostration, the monk is covered with a funeral pall and hears these words sung around him: Now I am dead and my life is hidden with Christ in God. The transition that the monk makes in the mystical burial is the removal of the last vestige of the precious individualism so valued by modern culture and a complete subsummation into the life of the community. He, as an “I” is dead. He as a “we” will rise. The mystical burial offers us some insight also into the life and spirituality of the priest. The spiritual challenge of the priesthood, a challenge that we undertake daily in this house of formation is this same transformation. We must abandon the priority of self if we are to live authentically with Christ. This is a theological imperative, one witnessed to by the Church’s soteriological reflection on the nature of Christ. Who was Christ? He was the unique instance of one bearing two natures concomitantly, a divine and a human nature. Thus we are told by the Rule of Faith of the Council of Chalcedon. The centrality of this Truth in our expression of authentic Christian life cannot be gainsaid. As the central tenant of our faith, everything that proceeds from that tenant must likewise express it. Priesthood, because it proceeds from the Incarnation must present the primary expression of the Incarnation, kenosis, the self-emptying of Christ. Christ was a unique being with a unique mission. We are told that Christ was like us in all things but sin. He was a human person, but not a misshapen human person. He was a true and complete human person. As such, a sinless man, he did not bear within him the stigma of our first parents. As a sinless man and as the Logos, the everlasting Son of the Father, he did not have to die. Death did not assail him with its imperative stench. He did not have to suffer. His individuality made him immune to the human condition of final extinction. Yet Christ did not embrace his singular nature, his individuality. He put his privilege aside for one purpose, to serve, to serve mightily, to serve immortally, and to serve finally. This is a model for us. We are called like Christ to renounce the privilege of living into our selfishness and offer our lives in service. Just as the monk puts away the old self in hearing the words: Now you are dead, so the priest leaves his peculiarity on the ground. This is not to say that the unique personality of the priest is not to be taken into consideration. Every priest ministers from the font of his unique gifts, talents, we might even say quirks. What is left on the ground is what Christ left in the garden on the night of his passion, his will. Father if it is your will, let this cup pass from me, nevertheless not my will but yours be done. Your will be done. In the prostration, my selfish will is seeping out of me and I leave it in the dust from which it came. My freedom is now to live totally for God. Thus the monk in the mystical burial. Sleeper awake. Our fixation on selfishness is a kind of sleepwalking. In our rising from the prostration, we are awaking to our true self, a self that now belongs completely to the others through Christ.
And what do we hear during this act of prostration; the Litany of Saints. Who are the saints? I was recently in Oklahoma City for the installation of the new archbishop. During my stay, I was asked by my good friend, the pastor of a lovely suburban parish to preach at the school mass. He wanted me to preach on the saints. As I sometimes do with children, I decided to speak directly to them and ask them what they think, what their opinions are. Who are the saints? Aidan from Grade Two B responded: My grandmother. T.J. also from Two B said: Old people who are famous or heroes. I am imagined that he probably included me in the general category of the old. Lisa, a particularly precocious young lady with no front teeth from Two A said: My friends. While I don’t know exactly what she was implying by her answer, her theological acumen was unassailable. As the soon-to-be priest lies prostrate on the earth, the litany washes over him. Into his particular circumstance comes the long line of grandmothers, famous old people, heroes and friends. What is being evoked in the litany but the community that the priest, newly divested of selfishness wants to enter? It is a litany, a stream, a moving current. It is historical, it begins with the foundations, the very foundations in the fiat of the Theotokos, and moves inextricably forward, carrying in its current the flotsam and jetsam of the communion of saints, fishermen, tax collectors, zealots, pacifists, virgins, sinners, martyrs, intellects, wives, husbands, teachers, students, monks, nuns, bishops, priests, all there, they are the Church. And into this living stream of grandmothers, old people. the famous and the less so, into this living stream the priest stands up and aspires through his call to flow along with them. He aspires to be a hero, a true father, a friend to all. Over the prostrate priest flows the Tradition of the Church, a Tradition configured in Christ through the Holy Eucharist of which the priest is now a necessary, an essential part. The arms of the Church’s past embrace him in his prostrate state and with his rising, that past becomes present and future as those who are named hold out for him what he longs to be. The response to each of these names is: Pray for us. Not pray for him, but pray for us. The bishop, the priests, the ministers, the candidates for ordination, the assembly all form that great cloud of witnesses the extends beyond the root of the earth which the candidate covers with his body, through the rafters of the building, and reverberates into the streets, the neighborhoods, cities, countryside, across wide oceans connecting the chanting men and women of Midwestern cathedrals to tents and Quonset huts and stone chapels and monasteries and whitewashed meeting houses around the world, and even farther, beyond the confines of this circumference into the imperium where all those grandmothers and heroes and friends praise God face to face and look kindly, lovingly at a man far below, lying in the dust.
Now the rite moves forward in earnest. The vast sea of voices ends, the sleeper awakes and takes on a new reality. It happens in the simplest of gestures, the imposition of hands. The ordinand kneels before the bishop. He knows humility now. He knows he is not worthy, never could be worthy of what is to come. Yet God has called him. He is a sinner. God will supply the grace. He is fractured. God will heal him as he will heal others. He is tortured. God will comfort. He is a weak man. God will make him a priest forever in the line of Melchizadech. There is stark silence. The bishop places his hands on the head of the one who has been called. This is a moment of awesome power. This is the moment when the Spirit rushes again upon David. This is a moment with the angels and saints join hands in praise of what God has done. This is the moment when the house shook on the day of Pentecost because its frame could not contain the tremendous power of the Spirit. This is the moment of heaven’s triumph and Hell is thunderstruck. The gesture of the imposition of hands is an ancient one that goes back to our Jewish roots. In the Old Testament it is an act of blessing, or of handing something on. The blind Isaac blessed his son Jacob in a slightly dishonest act on the part of the son who cheated his brother out of his birthright. What is interesting about this story in Genesis 27, is that while the act was deceitful, the efficacy of the action was permanent. The transfer of the blessing was permanent and irrevocable, Ex opere operantis. In many places in the Old Testament the transfer of power or authority is brought about through the laying on of hands or semikah. Moses ordained the elders (Numbers 11:1-25). The act of semikah was the means of “ordination” within Judaism throughout the Temple periods and into the Rabbinical circles of the early New Testament era. Semikah in Hebrew also has another evocative meaning in the Old Testament. The imposition of hands was an action employed by the priest in the korban, the sacrifice of animals. Leviticus 1:4 states: He shall lay his hand upon the head of the burnt offering, and it shall be accepted for him to make atonement. How can this ancient expression of the gesture be incorporated into our contemporary ideals of priesthood? Priests today, and rightly so, are more comfortable with the sacrificial or cultic imagery of the priest, an image innate to priestly culture in past centuries. Many of these images evoke the priest in Levitical language, tying him to the traditions of the Temple kohenim. How many priests today, however, would be comfortable with this more startling sense of semikah and korban. While we might like to think of ourselves in cultic terms, we do not often think of ourselves as the animals to be sacrificed. The action in the Old Testament applies particularly to the so-called “scapegoat” This basic meaning of the imposition of hands ties in very readily with the image of death to self. At least a part of the act of ordination is to accept my vocation as a burnt offering, one to be offered up for the good of the world, like Christ himself.
In the New Testament, the laying on of hands is associated with the Holy Spirit. Acts of healing are also accomplished in this way in the early Church (Acts 8:14-19). Certainly there is also a curative element in the act of the Rite of Ordination. Perhaps it is nothing more than the restoration of resolve, a final disposition to accept this new reality. The action takes place in silence. Connected as it is to the basic anthropological expectations of so many cultures, no words are needed. We intuitively know what it means. After the bishop imposes hands, the priests follow him. If the bishop represents the apostles and connects the new priest to the great parade of succession reaching back to the ancient Church and beyond, to the Levitical priests and the patriarchs, the imposition of hands by the presbyterate evokes another kind of image, the particular history of a place, a diocese or religious community. Each of those priests, young and old, has devoted his life to service. It is a consummation devotedly to be wished that their hands, at least metaphorically, are calloused with that service. Each of those priests has devoted his life to handling the Body of Christ, in be Blessed Sacrament, certainly, but also in the sick, the poor, the penitent, the estranged, the lonely, the addict, the destitute, the outcast. Each of those priests has seen the world pass through his hands. They are hands that have blessed, absolved, anointed, embraced, and comforted. They are hands gnarled and weak, young and strong. The hands of the priests are imposed on the head of the ordinand and in doing so they hand on the long legacy of service in local parishes, schools, nursing homes, hospitals. They hand on the history of the presbyterate. They hand on struggle and triumph, joy and hope, sorrow and consolation. The new priest is filled with the life of the local church; he is affirmed by the presbyteate, that band of brothers with whom he now casts his lot in the relentless battle for souls. And what does the new priest experience as he experiences this parade of impositions, this one firm, this one feeble? He feels acceptance. He feels belonging. He feels that the moment of abandonment that he experienced when he left his old self on the floor, that temporary isolation, is now cured in the healing of the community of priests. He is “one of”. He will never be alone or isolated again, the reality of the priesthood has been passed forward.
The prayer of consecration for the priest reminds us of what God has done and what God is doing for us now. Here we stand in that great entwining of Kairos and Chronos that marks the epoch of the Christ. Here we stand with those priests of old, those strong, worn men wiping from their faces the soot and smoke of endless sacrifices, choking on the rank odor of searing flesh and blood, sifting through the ashes of the Law, their robes hemmed in blood, their ephods caked with the litter of human folly: it is mercy I desire above all of your burnt offerings. Here we stand in the portico of the Temple amidst the din of birds and lambs, waiting, for a purification of the nation that can only come from a lamb without blemish, a lamb caught in the thickets of the human condition and writ over with the name above every name: Emmanuel. Here we stand in the desert with Moses and the sons of Aaron, carrying Good News to a heedless people. Here we stand on the shores of the lake. Follow me and I will make you fishers of men. Here we stand in the upper room as the Spirit rushes upon the fearful eleven, sending them forth to the priesthood of the new covenant. Here we are in the house churches of a persecuted flock, boldly handing on the Tradition in robes of simple homespun while the thundering threats of Roman soldiers batter the gates. Here we are in the great basilicas of Constantine, with the wafting of incense and the sounds and scents of an imperial court. Do this in memory of me. Here we are as the pages of history turn to a new era and all of the priests of the old and the new covenants converge on the head of this man. In every age, God, the source of every honor and dignity has given us what we need. He is still doing so today. Do we need to be reminded of what God has done? Do we not experience everyday what God has done in our lives? I hope you do. I hope you see what I see because I see men who arrive trembling and afraid of themselves and others, transformed into men of community. I see men who had mastered well the lesson of living for themselves become men of sacrifice and honest humility. I see men whose lives have been marred by the false messages of the culture of the age begin to strive for a greater and more sincere cultural identity. I see men who may have never thought of themselves as possessing any worth become confident and undisturbed by the simple reality of life. I see men learning to authentically live the message of the Gospel. I see men becoming kind. I see men becoming holy. I see men being transformed by grace, whose faces begin to shine with authentic goodness, whose hands begin to be lifted, first tentatively, then confidently in prayer, whose feet are willing to walk the extra mile, whose bodies are ready to be crucified in service, whose minds are becoming free, day to day, free to make a radical choice for Christ, for the Church, for God’s people, and for themselves.
We know what God has done. Now, what will God do? What can we expect from the rite? Grant this servant of yours the dignity of the priesthood. And it is a life of profound dignity. What is the dignity of the priesthood? First and foremost it is the dignity of a human person fully alive insofar as the human personality of the priest forms a living bridge to service. In the central part of the Rite of Ordination, we rise from the dirt of the ground to the company of the angels in the dignity of the priesthood. Here we might do well to remember the sacramental act that brought us into the wonder of discipleship, our baptisms. In baptism we hear these words with the presentation of the white garment the outward sign of your invisible dignity. Bring it unstained into the wedding banquet of eternal life. This is true dignity, the dignity for which we prepare, after which we strive in this house of formation, this seedbed of God’s generosity. It is the dignity of a man inebriated by ceaseless prayer, whose calling is always beyond. It is the dignity of a man of keen intellect who knows well the masterful story of the Church’s great intellectual tradition. It is the dignity of a man who knows himself and is not afraid of himself. It is the dignity of a man who does not fear the sexual energy that God has given him, that relational energy that allows him to have profound, holy contact with others. It is the dignity of a man who does not shy away from others, is not threatened by others but embraces others as brothers and sisters. It is the dignity of a man of culture, a man who has lifted his gaze from the gutters of the ephemeral and raised it to the transcendent to that which carries him beyond his little lot. It is the dignity of a man who has realized that the only greatness in any man is the ability to make those around him, the poor, the lonely, the outcast, to make them feel great. It is the dignity of a man whose clarity of vision is such that he can see the arch of heaven in the threatening jaws of an earthly hell. It is the dignity of a complete man whose completeness is augmented by the grace of a sacrament. It is the dignity of a man who will never take advantage of God’s people because he has been given something that they have not. The dignity to turn privilege to tireless service, the dignity to celebrate the sacraments with reverence in accord with the teachings of the Church and not seek to celebrate himself in celebrating God’s mysteries. It is the dignity of hope in a world of fatalism, joy in the face of disappointment, prayer in light of human failure, reconciliation in the wake of sin. It is the dignity of a man who can pick others up from out of their degradation their imprisonment to sin because he himself has felt countless times, witnessed in his own breast the powerful words of restoration: I absolve you. It is the dignity of a man who is as free in giving as he is grateful for what he has freely been given. It is the dignity of a man who would never embarrass another person, never purposefully cause harm, never put himself before the others. It is the dignity of a man who knows in the first instance not to call upon his own resources, but upon the name of Christ, the name of Mary, the names of the saints who washed over him as he lay prostrate in the dust. It is the dignity of a man who will walk the path until the end, who will live with integrity and die with holy beauty because, in the last instance, in the last breath he draws, after all the trials of life are over, after all the disappointments are reckoned, after all the hours of the Church’s endless round of prayers are recited, after all the shining consecrations are dimmed, after all the throes of this life have been overcome, he will find dignity in the arms of the Father and peace at the last because he was, until the temporal end true to who God called him to be eternally, a priest.