“I will never lie to David” (Ps 89:36).
That’s not in today’s readings. But it almost is. It’s from further down the Responsorial Psalm (89/88). What we heard was, “I have found David my servant / and with my holy oil anointed him.” David the anointed. David that rich, complex, flawed, God-centred man. We’ve been taught to consider him a king rather than a priest, but he was the latter too. When he danced before the Ark into Jerusalem, he was wearing the linen ephod, the priestly vestment. He then offered the sacrifices and blessed the people in the name of the Lord of hosts, as a high priest would do. As a king in Jerusalem, he was a successor to the mysterious Melchizedeck, king and priest there centuries before. And so royal David and his successors were “priests for ever of the order of Melchizedech” according to the familiar Psalm (Ps 110), and David the anointed prefigured Jesus the priest as well as king. David was shepherd too. He has the profile.
“I will never lie to David”, says the Lord God. As priests, then, we can slip ourselves in here. To us priests of Jesus Son of David, the Lord won’t, hasn’t, doesn’t lie either. “His faithfulness – veritas eius, says the Vulgate – is buckler and shield” (Ps 91:4). “My truth and my love shall be with him” (Ps 89:25). “I will never lie to David.” Nor must we to others. “Remain in the truth”.
What is the priesthood?
Not a career, but a call.
A “gift and a mystery”, St John Paul called it.
A laying-on of hands with a prayer, a sacramental anointing, a bestowal of the Holy Spirit.
An awesome responsibility for souls, for which we will have to give an account.
A “munus”, a task, a mission, a three-fold ministry, a service, a washing of feet.
A brotherhood, a fatherhood.
Priesthood is something that disrupts our life, takes it at times where we would rather not go, and yet mysteriously makes a whole of it all. It’s an energy in us working for coherence. “In him all things hold together” (Col 1:17). It coexists with so much else in us, jostling with our many selves. We just hope it doesn’t get crowded out. But somehow it copes with our chaos.
So much could be said and has been said about priesthood. And some of it helps, some of it not so much.
For today, I’ll say just this, in case it helps: priesthood is a heart. As motherhood is or a true doctor has or a teacher acquires or as grows over the years in many monks and nuns, as I’ve seen, priesthood too is a heart. A specific heart. A certain kind of heart, with its own place in the riotous garden of God. A heart to which one can attach a whole litany of adjectives. A heart that reveals itself in a certain kind of listening and looking, that cherishes its own store of people and qualities and gifts from God. “When people come to speak to me, said a Lutheran pastor, I am struck by a kind of incandescence in them, the ‘I’ whose predicate can be ‘love’ or ‘fear’ or ‘want’, and whose object can be ‘someone’ or ‘nothing’, and it won’t really matter…To see this aspect of life is a privilege of the ministry which is seldom mentioned” (Marilynne Robinson, Gilead). A heart with this kind of vision. It’s such a gift.
I go back to David. In both Testaments, he is famously described as “a man after God’s own heart” (1 Sam 13:14; Acts 13:22). David’s heart was “after” God’s, an echo of God’s. Priesthood, said St John Vianney famously, “is the love of the heart of Jesus Christ”, an echo of it, I take him to mean. David’s selection from the other sons of Jesse was prefaced by Samuel saying: “for the Lord sees not as man sees; man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart” (1 Sam 16:7). In prayer, a priest does well to let the Lord look at his heart. David grieved at the loss of Absalom, his son. I hope our hearts grieve for our spiritual children. David’s heart misgave him after he had cut off a corner of Saul’s clothing (1 Sam 24:5) and years later after the census of the people (2 Sam 24:10) – perhaps he thought they were his. May our hearts misgive us sometimes. At the core of the Prayer of Ordination is a half-hidden allusion to David’s Miserere, Ps. 51, v.12: “Create a pure heart for me, O God; renew a steadfast spirit within me”. The word for “create” there is only used of God.
“I will never lie to David”. Priesthood rests on the truthfulness of God and his covenant loyalty. God’s truthful loyalty enables such as we can muster. “Indeed you love truth in the heart” (Ps 51:8). We’re asked to keep the truth of God’s love alive in the world for the sake of others, to be men of truth and give hope. He hasn’t lied to us calling us to the priesthood. The specific context here is the promise to David of a son, of descendants and ultimately of Jesus the Messiah. “For all the promises of God find their yes in him” (2 Cor 1:20). We carry a whole gallery of hearts inside us: a faint heart, a stubborn heart, a foolish heart, a good heart often enough, thank God. We’re like that often mixed gallery of David’s descendants we hear in Matthew’s genealogy at Christmas time. But in and through and beyond all our complexities, and down the years of ministry, a heart after God’s own heart is being gestated. The heart of a priest. It’s the best thing in us. It’s what lasts. It’s a version of the heart of Christ, Son of David, “the man after God’s own heart.” “I will never lie to David.” I will bring Christ into the world through him.
“I have found David my servant and with my holy oil anointed him.” And we will anoint in turn. And maybe today’s three oils have a message for our hearts as well. Three oils: one to heal, one to strengthen, one to commission.
One to heal for the sick. I hope we will have a heart, each of us, for the sick.
One to strengthen, for the catechumens. Catechumens stand for seekers, all who seek with a sincere heart, by whatever strange roads. I hope we’ll have a heart for those who seek.
An oil to anoint and commission. We might think here of our enquirers after vocations, candidates, seminarians. I hope we’ll have a heart for those in whose hearts a vocation – a priestly vocation especially – might be burgeoning. We’re almost at Good Shepherd Sunday. Perhaps each of us who’s a priest knows someone in our circle we sense might have a calling that way. Let’s make a point, after prayer, of having an encouraging word with them over these days. It’s not to keep a social caste in being, it’s to bring God’s truth to whole people of God.
“Then Samuel said to Jesse, “Are all your sons here?” And he said, “There remains yet the youngest, but behold he is keeping the sheep.” And Samuel said to Jesse, ‘Send and get him, for we will not sit down till he comes here.’ And he sent and brought him in…And the Lord said, ‘Arise, anoint him, for this is he’” (1 Sam 16:11-12).
“Wait for the Lord; be strong. Let your heart be strengthened and wait for the Lord” (Ps 27:14).
“I will never lie to David.”
(St Mary’s Cathedral, Aberdeen, 22 April 2021)