Sunday, May 22, 2011

The Priesthood of the New Covenant: Fifth Sunday of Easter

By a happy coincidence, we in the Diocese of Steubenville were blessed with a pair of ordinations (one to the diaconate and one to the priesthood) on this weekend in which the readings for Mass are filled with motifs of priesthood and temple.

The First Reading (Acts 6:1-7) records the appointing of seven men to assist the Apostles.  These men have always been understood by the Church as the first deacons.  One of the things that strikes me about this passage is the clear top-down authority structure of the Church.  Although the congregation is consulted in the selection of these men, they are ultimately “appointed” by the Apostles when they lay hands on them and pray for them, a rite later called “ordination.”  As a Protestant I was always wondering what the biblical form of Church government was.  In hindsight, it’s not hard to see.

Not to be missed in the First Reading is the last verse, which mentions the many conversions among the Jewish priesthood.  These conversions fulfill the promise of God to the House of Levi (see Jeremiah 33) that the Levites would never lack a man to serve as priest before the LORD.  All these Old Covenant priests who became part of the Church found their Levitical priesthood fulfilled in the royal priesthood that is granted to each Christian by baptism.

The Second Reading (1 Peter 2:4-9) is perhaps the most explicit passage in the New Testament which addresses our common priesthood in Christ.  “You are a royal priesthood, a holy nation,”  St. Peter tells the early Christians, making it clear that the promises made to ancient Israel (Exodus 19:5-6)—which were rejected at the rebellion of the Golden Calf—have now come to rest on the New Covenant community, the Church.  Every Christian shares in the priesthood of Christ.

The Gospel Reading (John 14:1-6) actually operates on an underlying Temple motif.  “I go to prepare a place for you ... in my Father’s House are many dwellings ....”  These are Temple allusions.  The word “place” (Gk topos, Heb maqom) frequently in Scripture has a specialized meaning of “sacred place, sanctuary” (cf. Gen 28:16-19; John 11:48; etc.).  The “Father’s House” elsewhere in the New Testament is a reference to the Temple (cf. John 2:16).  The Temple was the largest “house” in the entire nation, replete with an enormous number of chambers for different liturgical and logistical functions (see Ezek 41:5-11).  The “structure” that Jesus is going to prepare for the Apostles is a Temple, wherein they will dwell as priests.  Their priest is not only royal but ministerial, because he speaks these words (John 14:1-6) to them at the Last Supper, during which he also commissioned them to sacrifice the one kind of sacrifice which will continue to be offered in the New Covenant, the Thanksgiving Sacrifice (Heb Todah, Gk eucharistia).

People think the “place” Jesus is preparing is Heaven.  That’s not wrong.  But it would be better to identify it as the Church.  The Church Triumphant is Heaven, and vice-versa.  The Church is the Temple which Jesus prepares for the Apostles to dwell therein (see Ephesians 2: 19-22).

Most of us are royal priests, not ministerial priests.  Our sacrifice is not the direct celebration of the Sacrament, but of our very lives: going to work, raising kids, changing diapers, getting the groceries.  It seems mundane but it is the raw material that we offer to God (Romans 12:1).  The test for us will be tomorrow morning, when the alarm rings while it is still dark, and the work week begins.  Will we make this day, this week, a holy offering to God?


BlueWhiteLion said...

John (et al) thank you for your post(s). I read this as a man who grew up "non-denominational" and was a "pk" and "mk." My dad was raised Catholic, but left as a teenager. I have been drawn to many things about the church: its liturgy and prayers, many teachings, ritual, wisdom of the saints, and contemporary influence of people like John Michael Talbot (spent a week there with my family, last summer, at his "hermitage/monastery"). While I cannot become Catholic at this time because I cannot affirm all of the Church's dogma, I appreciate so much. I look forward to the varied posts, including this one, and the "series" started by MB. thanks.

John Bergsma said...

@BlueWhiteLion: I'm curious, which dogmas do you find yourself unable to affirm? God bless!

BlueWhiteLion said...

John, I am a little shy about wading into that, because I am not too up on what is a dogma and what is not (or something else completely). So I will probably misspeak (and forgive me, I have a lot of chaos in my life, wrapping up life in one city and starting a new career in another all in the next 1 1/2 weeks. So, with that out of the way, here are some basic, simple thoughts of mine:

1. I am not really against a heightened awareness of the saints or asking them to pray for you. I don't really do that, but i am open to the possibility that it might be real. However, while I am open, I could not affirm it to be real. I suppose part of my over all issue is that while I am attracted to the idea of the Magisterium and the infallibility of the Pope because it is an attractive way to claim how we can keep consistent truth and teaching, I am not convinced that all that they have declared/taught to be true. So, I could not affirm those things as a true believer.

2. I am not Augustinian. I prefer the way the Orthodox church seems to allow divine sovereignty and human free will in tension (think John Cassian).

3. I do struggle with the Marian devotion. I have read the arguments how it all points to Christ in the end. Perhaps that is the official stance, and many hold to it. However, I would agree with the poster who recently was chastised a bit by M. Barber, when the poster said he was uncomfortable with the Mary, Queen of the Universe hymn, and his observation that many Catholics seem to be out of balance in their prayers to Mary. I am not completely against the idea that Mary could have a greater role presently than many Protestants would allow, but being open the idea is not the same as a believer. And honestly, there are many Catholics (certainly not all) who seem to not feel worthy enough to address God the Father or Jesus the son, so they go to Mary. The whole point of Jesus is to be our mediator to God. And the Spirit himself intercedes for us. Adding Mary to the mix seems to dilute those wonderful truths.

4. Immaculate Conception. I suppose this partly follows from my lack of being enamored with Augustine, but I don't get original sin, nor the seeming need for the theological wrangling to protect Mary's perfection so that she can be worthy enough to bear Jesus. While I have read a teeny bit on this (one was a book by John Michael Talbot) and understand a bit how this theology is supposed to all point to Jesus, it seems unnecessary and plain wrong to me. I have no intellectual problem with the thought that Mary could have sinned before she bore Jesus, or that she could have borne children after his birth. While I can "get" the specialness of things like her perpetual virginity or her own immaculate conception (when she was conceived), it seems needless. I cannot affirm it.

5. Primacy of the Pope. I have studied Matt. 16. I have read some Catholic support (historical) for his primacy. I don't get how the theology of his primacy and that of all the popes of Rome follows. I mean, I think it sounds more like historical and ecclesial posturing than anything. That said, i have immense respect for the pope, and several of the past popes. I would have no problem affirming them as my general "head" of the church (under THE head of Christ), I could not affirm all the things surrounding his primacy.

Transubstantiation. I don't think it is "cracked" as I used to. And I see the value of thinking of the Eucharist in that way (or, for that matter, even of the Lutheran "consubstantiation") I grew up with it being "merely" a memorial. But while I am open to the possibility of an "enhanced" view of the elements, I do not wholeheartedly embrace that.

I guess those are some things I think about. While I am more sympathetic to the Catholic reasoning than your average non-Catholic Christian, I can not go all the way to affirm those as true believer.

John Bergsma said...

@BlueWhiteLion: I'd like to talk about some of these things. I'll start with #2. I find this ironic, because other friends of mine say they could never join the Catholic Church because it is not Augustinian enough. I assume you are referring to predestination. The Catholic Church is not insistent on a particular way of understanding predestination. You would probably be comfortable with the Jesuit tradition, established by the 17th cent. Spanish Jesuit scholar Molina (thus it is called Molinism), that advances a concept called "middle knowledge" to reconcile divine sovereignty with human freedom.

If, on the other hand, you think that unaided human will, after the fall, can choose for God, that is a problem. But it's not just with the Catholic Church, it's with Scripture as well.

Anyway, I'd like to talk more off of the site. Feel free to email me at