18 October 2015


Heb 5.1-10      Mark 10.35-45

Today's readings for Mass suggest that we should think about the Christian Priesthood. No one can earn the right to be ordained. It’s a gift given by the Church through the Bishop and, as such, it’s a gift of God the Holy Spirit.

In his Ordination sermon at Durham fifty years ago, Canon Arthur Couratin, who was for many years Principal of St Stephen’s House in Oxford , began by saying that the clergy from the Bishop downwards are skivvies, that is a servant very low down the down-stairs hierarchy.

In church clad in rich vestments or academic finery, or when chairing a meeting, Priests can feel very important but that is not how it really feels to be a Priest. The Priesthood is a burden. When the Priest puts on the chasuble before Mass he may say a prayer in which the chasuble is likened to a yoke worn round the neck by an ox when it pulls a plough. Jesus said ‘My yoke is easy and my burden is light’. When the burden is too heavy we shall find our solace and rest in him.

The Christian Priest is to be like Jesus, who did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many. Like Jesus, we are to take up our cross and to give our lives as a sacrifice, uniting ourselves with his sacrifice, as we do at the altar.

As priests we know how inadequate we are; we are unworthy servants and we often feel that we are failures. For this reason I would urge the newly Ordained to consider it of the highest importance to support your boss in every way you can. A Priest is very blessed if his congregation give him generous, wholehearted support.

Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist, served as a Priest at the altar in the Jerusalem temple. However, Jesus was not a Priest in that way: he was of the tribe of Judah , a descendent of King David. So how was it that the author of the letter to the Hebrews could assert that Jesus was a High Priest after the order of Melchizedek?

The first Christians under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit came to understand that the crucifixion of Jesus was a full, perfect and sufficient oblation and satisfaction for the sins of the whole world. Jesus was both victim and Priest when he offered himself on the cross. Jesus himself indicated this when at the Last Supper he took the cup of wine and declared it to be his blood of the new covenant, which is shed for many for the forgiveness of sins. Where is the altar where the blood was offered? Hebrews says that the altar is in heaven where Jesus now is, reigning at the right hand of God the Father.

The sacrifice of Jesus is central to his High Priesthood, as is its re-presentation in the Holy Eucharist. For the orders of Bishop and Presbyter in the Holy Catholic Church this liturgy is the high point of their ministry, as is shown in the Anamnesis of the Eucharistic Prayer said after the Institution Narrative. I quote the Anamnesis from the Roman Eucharistic Prayer III: ‘Therefore, O Lord, we celebrate the memorial of the Saving Passion of your Son, his wondrous Resurrection and Ascension into heaven and as we look forward to his second coming, we offer you in thanksgiving this holy and living sacrifice’.

The Priest's ministry isn’t confined to celebrating Mass. The fruit of the Paschal Victim’s sacrifice are the sacraments of the new covenant, conveying to the People of God the graces won for us by our Saviour. Preaching is also a duty commanded by Jesus when he instructed his disciples to celebrate the Eucharist in remembrance of him. How will people be able to remember the words and actions of the Lord unless they are able to hear the Gospel read and expounded? The entire Christian faith must be delivered to the whole world.

Finally we return to the requirement that the Priest be a servant. At the Last Supper, Jesus showed his disciples their calling to a servant ministry when he washed their feet. They were to do what he had done and so fulfil his command to love one another. Here is the foundation of all pastoral action and ministry. It’s a work of love. The essential characteristic of the Priest is love; love such as Jesus showed, to whom with the Father and with the Holy Spirit, one God, be glory, honour and praise for ever.

Crispin Harrison CR