Priesting of Jacob Bottom: Homily by the Rev. Matthew S.C. Olver

12.08.16 | by The Rev. S.C. Matthew Olver

    Thank you, my dear brother, for the honor of preaching today. We have walked together from almost the very beginning, all the way back when you started at Incarnation and I taught your Confirmation class. You served with me many times at the weekday Mass; and maybe most unexpectedly, we both found ourselves in Wisconsin at Nashotah House, where you were forced to sit under all my tutelage as I tried to inflict upon you my liturgical idiosyncrasies.

    Tonight God will make for his Church a new Priest. And He will do this, in part, by means of the Word of God. Here, in Advent, the Scriptures are set before us in such a way as to show us the “signs” throughout the Old Testament that Jesus Christ is both the end and the beginning of God’s work of salvation. Sacraments, of course, are “sacred signs,” symbols which by their very nature hold within themselves the very things to which they point. When a bishop administers the Sacrament of Holy Orders, we might say that this is part of God’s peculiar response to our cry, “We would see a sign!” In his poem “Gerontion,” T.S. Eliot indicates that God’s response to the whole world’s cry for a sign was something unexpected: a Word we could never hear nor have fully anticipated. Eliot writes:

    The word within a word, unable to speak a word,

    Swaddled with darkness. In the juvescence of the year

    Came Christ the tiger.[1]

    Christian priests share something with this divine Word, serving as we do in the flesh we share with our incarnate Lord. 

    Our humanity often feels like a barely whispered word, a paltry excuse for the grand picture evoked by that word “priest.” But this is the nature of things when we stand on this side of our Lord’s second Advent: everything must be mediated. The Lord is not yet all in all; we have not been made like him; we do not see face to face.[2] Thus, for now, God mediates his love through the material world: water, bread, oil, wine, scriptures, crosses, priests, icons. And in every mediation, this God gently reminds us that this method of mediation is the way of the God of the Scriptures. Regardless of whether this Word remains unheard, Eliot reminds us in his poem, “Ash Wednesday.”

    Still is the unspoken word, the Word unheard,

    The Word without a word, the Word within

    The world and for the world;

    And the light shone in darkness and

    Against the Word the unstilled world still whirled

    About the centre of the silent Word.[3]

    This limping, sorrowful world still whirls around the Word through whom all things were made, even as so many refuse to hear what is spoken. For many, the voice and face of this Word will be yours, His priest.           

    The texts from the Scriptures that we heard tonight might have made you think that Jacob was trying to imply something. Despite his Nashotah education, he was trying to subtly emphasize the centrality of the preaching of the Word in contrast to the sacramental, the sacerdotal, aspects of the presbyter’s ministry. [Jacob, was it?] Actually, these are the lessons appointed for the feast of St. Andrew. These Scriptures speak a prophetic word tonight to the new Priest: “The Word is very near to you,” Jacob. In fact, I want to suggest one way to look at the true distinction between Old Testament Priests and the priests of the New Covenant. Unlike the priests of Levi’s line, the priests of the New Covenant are conformed in a peculiar way to Christ as the Father’s eternal Word. Christian priests, I want to suggest, are given a share in God’s Priestly Word because they are given the authority to disclose the mystery of Christ in a unique way, simultaneously in God’s Scriptural Word and in His Sacramental Word.

                We tend to think that what sets Christian priests apart from their Old Testament predecessors is the end of the cult, the end of ritual worship, the end of sacrifice. But this would be read the Christian ministry through lenses of polemics and Christian division. The New Testament never calls Christian ministers by the title, “priest.” But it was not very long before the implication of the New Testament teaching resulted inexorably in the assurance that Christian presbyters are properly priests. St. Paul describes his own ministry at the end of Romans as “the priestly service of the gospel of God” whose purpose is “that the offering of the Gentiles may be acceptable, sanctified by the Holy Spirit” (Rom 15:16). The priesthood about which New Testament speaks directly (in addition to the high priesthood of Jesus Christ in Hebrews) is the priesthood of the whole people of God. St. Peter teaches that the Church is “to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ” (I Pet 2:5).[4] Both Peter and Paul connect the Christian expression of priesthood with the act that is constitutive of all priesthood: offering sacrifices. 

                Our distance from the world of late Judaism and early Christianity means that our ideas on this point are probably a bit muddled. For us, sacrifice is about death, about killing; more broadly, we usually presume that sacrifice is about loss, about having something valuable taken away from us. But for our ancestors, sacrifice was the means by which creatures are joined to their Creator and Savior. Creatures did this by offering back to the Creator some portion of what God had first given them. Such an act is the highest sort of praise, the supreme acknowledge of that which makes God completely other from us. “What do you have that you did not receive?” we heard from St. Paul in this morning’s Office lesson.[5] Since everything is gift, the fundamental form of worship, of living into the proper relationship of creature toward Creator, is sacrifice. The apex of sacrifice, of course, is the Eucharistic Sacrifice, for this (as our Catechism reads) “is the way by which the sacrifice of Christ is made present, and in which he unites us to his one offering of himself.”[6]

                As much as Eucharistic Sacrifice strikes strangely on our post-reformation ears, we are duty bound “to search out the ancient fathers,” as Cranmer bids in the preface to the first Prayer Book. And when we do, we see the absolutely consistent witness that the Eucharist is a sacrifice. Again and again, both in theological writings and in the liturgies themselves, the prophecy from Malachi chapter 1 is repeated applied to the Eucharist:

    For from the rising of the sun to its setting my name is great among the nations, and in every place incense is offered to my name, and a pure offering; for my name is great among the nations, says the Lord of hosts (Mal 1:11).

    Part of the Messianic hope was not only that sacrifices would be offered in every place—as opposed to just Jerusalem—but that the Gentiles would also offer these sacrifices, having been made part of God’s Israel. “My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations,” Jesus prophesies.[7] In fact, it does not take long for the regular term for the Eucharist (anaphora in Greek and oblatio in Latin) to be a reference to the Eucharist’s sacrificial character, rather than it being primarily a meal. Justin Martyr interprets the Eucharist to be the fulfillment of the offering of fine flour given in thanksgiving for the healing after leprosy in Leviticus 14. Irenaeus explains that the bread and wine are a fulfillment of the first fruits sacrifice (adv. Haer. 4.17.5).[8] The list of similar witnesses is nearly endless. 

    The truth is, when our eucharistic doctrine comes to its mature expression in the fifth century, Christians do not interpret the Eucharist as the fulfillment of one particular Old Covenant sacrifice. Rather, it is the fulfillment of every sacrifice and offering that preceded it, precisely because it shares in the most sublimely perfect worship ever offered, the complete offering and sacrifice of everything the Son receives from the Father. The Son offers this worship when He lays down his life upon the altar of the cross, not only the perfect Offering but also its Priest. St. John Chrysostom sums up the mature Christian doctrine in one of his sermons on the Epistle to the Hebrew:

    Do we not offer the sacrifice daily? Indeed we do offer it daily, re-presenting his death. How then is it one sacrifice and not many?... We offer the same person, not one sheep one day and tomorrow a different one, but always the same offering. . . . There is one sacrifice and one high priest who offered the sacrifice that cleanses us. Today we offer that which was once offered, a sacrifice that is inexhaustible. This is done as a remembrance [anamnesis] of that which was done then, for he said, “Do this in remembrance of me.” We do not offer another sacrifice as the priest offered of old, but we always offer the same sacrifice. Or rather, we re-present the sacrifice.[9]

    The Christian priesthood of the whole people of God is analogous to the priesthood that Israel exercised in relationship to the pagan nations around it, a living ensign to the nations as they lived in conformity to the Law and offered the appointed sacrifices. But the ministerial priesthood is not simply the “priesthood of all” with special clothes and a bad haircut. It is a peculiar charism and conformity to Christ as the Priest of the Father’s Word, a share in Our Lord’s Melchizedekian Priesthood, which comes “not according to a legal requirement concerning bodily descent but by the power of an indestructible life” (Heb 7:15).

    But the peculiar shape of the ministry of a Christian priest is not limited to the sacrifice of the sacramental Word only. And this is the case for at least two reasons. First, the consistent witness of every single early text, from the road to Emmaus onward, is that Christians always receive the Word by way of the Sacred Scriptures before receiving the Word under the form of the sacraments. In other words, there are no Sacraments without the verbal proclamation of the Scriptures. And not just in the Eucharist: the liturgies for all Sacraments, even rites such as exorcisms, always include the proclamation of the Word under the form of the Scriptures.

    But the second reason is that part of the authority which comes with the dignity and weight of the priestly charism is call and power “to be a Messenger, a Watchmen, and a Steward of the Lord,” as the old ordinal says. Your calling, that ordinal continues, is “to teach, and to premonish, to feed and provide for the Lord’s family; to seek for Christ’s sheep that are dispersed abroad, and for his children who are in the midst of this naughty world, that they may be saved through Christ for ever.” “And seeing that ye cannot by any other means compass the doing of so weighty a work, pertaining to the salvation of man,” you are given the charism and authority to herald the mystery hidden for ages but now made manifest to his saints”[10] “with doctrine and exhortation taken out of the Holy Scriptures, and with a life agreeable to the same.”[11] The inexorable inseparability of the Scriptural and Sacramental Word is expressed most wonderfully in the gift of the Bible as the bishop says, “take thou authority to preach the Word of God and to administer his holy Sacraments.”[12]

    Eliot goes on to ask in his poem “Ash Wednesday,” “Where shall the word be found, where will the word / Resound?” His answer? “For those who walk in darkness / Both in the day time and in the night time,” there can be “No place of grace for those who avoid the face.”[13] For many, my dear brother, the face in which the Word will be seen most clearly is yours, a feeble priest whom the Father soon will give a share in His Son’s Priesthood. Today, God the Father calls you to mediate “the Word within / The world and for the world.”[14] You may the one who plants, or you may be the one who waters. But it is God of Jesus Christ who will give the growth.[15]

                Now, as is the custom at a priesting, please stand for your charge. Jacob Alan, my brother: First, Remember the order of your vows. Your covenant with Gina preceded the priestly vows you made today. And this is as it should be; as long as Christian priests have been married (that is, from the beginning), the rule has been marriage before priesthood. Today you are given a stewardship of Christ’s Spouse, who is the very Body of Christ, for the two have been made one. But Christ the true Bridegroom will not ask you to serve his Spouse at the expense of yours. God will keep the gates of hell at bay through you, I have no doubt. But it is Jesus Christ who is the perfect form of Priesthood, the true Bridegroom, the King to whom all creation bows. Your faithfulness to and service of Gina is, in fact, one way that you will beat down Satan under you feet. Let the enemy get no foothold in you under the pretense of serving the Lord.

    Second, one aspect of your vows today may have given your pause. In fact, I hope they did. You pledged loyalty to the “doctrine, discipline, and worship of the Episcopal Church.” With the revision of our marriage canons, this may seem as though you are pledging fiedlity to a grave error. But I think this need not be the case. The doctrine, discipline, and worship to which you pledged yourself is that which “this Church has received.” The recent change is a willful departure from this Regula; it is not what this Church has received, is not recognizable to the wider catholic world, and thus cannot be that to which you pledge conformity. Remember also that you made that vow only after you made your unbidden declaration concerning the authority of the Sacred Scriptures. The Scriptural shape of the Gospel is that of a Nuptial Divine Mystery, and it knows nothing of self-expression or self-fulfillment, but rather of fruitfulness—both that of the womb and the fruitfulness of what it means to be fully human, where we learn to freely give away everything we’ve been given: our material goods and most importantly our selves, our souls and bodies. You will proclaim all this most fruitfully in your faithfulness to my first charge to you: your faithfulness to Gina.

    Finally, you must be rooted and grounded in prayer. You must allow our Lord’s Scriptural Word to be the heart of your prayers; do this by making the Divine Office your daily discipline. Offer the Eucharistic Sacrifice as often as you are able. Make frequent use of confession. Rest with the Lord and with your family. 

    I leave your with St. Paul’s words from I Corinthians 4, which we read at today’s morning office for St. Andrew, who is now your patron.

    For I think that God has exhibited us … as last of all, like men sentenced to death; because we have become a spectacle to the world, to angels and to men. We are fools for Christ’s sake … we have become, and are now, as refuse of the world, the offscouring of all things.[16]

    You are now to be made a peculiar “servant of Christ and a steward of the mysteries of God” (I Cor 4:1)—and you should expect nothing less as a priest of the Crucified Savior.

    Now unto God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit be ascribed, as is most justly due, all honor, power, might, majesty, and dominion henceforth and unto the ages of ages. Amen.

    [1] “Gerontion,” in T.S. Eliot, Collected Poems, 1909-1962 (Harcourt, Brace & World: New York, 1963), 29.

    [2] Cf. I John

    [3] “Ash Wednesday,” Part V in Eliot, Collected Poems, 92.

    [4] See I Pet 2:1-10; also Rev 1:6; 5:10: 20:6.

    [5] Cf. I Corinthians 4:7 (Appointed at Morning Prayer on the Feast of St. Andrew in the 1979 BCP, p 996.

    [6] 1979 BCP, p. 859.

    [7] Cf. Mark 11:17; Ratzinger highlights this in Spirit of the Liturgy, 44.

    [8] ET from Nicene and Anti-Nicene Fathers, vol. 1 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1956), 484.

    [9] Quoted in Robert Louis Wilken, The Spirit of Early Christian Thought: Seeking the Face of God. Yale: New Haven, 2003. 35.

    [10] Col 1:26

    [11] “Ordination of a Priest,” in 1928 BCP, 539.

    [12] 1928 BCP, 546. In the 1979 BCP, the formula is, “Receive this Bible as a sign of the authority given you to preach the Word of God and to administer his holy Sacraments” (’79 BCP, 534).

    [13] “Ash Wednesday,” Part V in Eliot, Collected Poems, 92.

    [14] Ibid.

    [15] Cf. I Corinthians 3:6-8.

    [16] I Corinthians 4:9, 10, 13.