I was once in a synagogue, not in Nazareth but in Aberdeen. We came to the readings. And the question was asked, is there a priest here? i.e., a descendant of Aaron. There was not. Is there someone of Levite ancestry here? There was not. So a man, a layman, stood up to read. Perhaps it was like this in Nazareth. Jesus, the layman, “stood up to read and they handed him the scroll of the prophet Isaiah”. And “unrolling the scroll” he chose the words from Isaiah 61, with an addendum from Isaiah 58.
“The Spirit of the Lord has been given to me, for he has anointed me. He has sent me to bring the good news to the poor, to proclaim liberty to captives”, and so on. It’s a beginning. It’s a mission statement.
It’s more too. Like the birth in Bethlehem thirty years before, it is an irruption into history of the Son’s eternal begetting by the Father. The eternal procession of the Son from the Father in the heart of the Trinity now extends itself into our world. Jesus of Nazareth, the Incarnate Son, begins his mission under the aegis of the Holy Spirit, a mission to regather the scattered and lead them back as one to the Father. And into that mission, by the birth of baptism, every Christian through the centuries is enrolled. “He has made us a line of kings, priests to serve his God and Father”: the Apocalypse here is speaking of all who believe and are born in the Spirit by baptism, the whole Body of Christ as St Paul will call it. Within that oneness, though, and at the service of its perfection, there is space for diversity of members, for varied roles and ministries and services, for other appointings and layings-on of hands. The New Testament speaks of apostles, pastors and teachers, presbyters, overseers, leaders and so on, the origins of our ordained ministries of bishop, priest and deacon.
Brothers and sisters, such are we here, we priests: anointed and sent, in the name and with the authority of Christ the Shepherd and Head of his people, to teach, to celebrate sacraments and to pastor. We here are your servants and God’s, hanging on your prayer and your love and your faith. Without you, we make no sense, but with you, and with Jesus, we do. Thank you for your presence! May we walk together – synodally – to the fulness of the Kingdom of God.
The Chrism Mass belongs properly to Maundy Thursday, and to Maundy Thursday belongs the institution of the priesthood with that of the Eucharist. And so, whatever the date we were severally ordained, priests can consider today as their sacramental birthday.
Connection is the thing. We are made for it; it’s the measure of our vitality. As Christians we are branches of the great Vine who is the risen Christ. And in its turn, says the Catechism, “Holy Orders is the sacrament through which the mission entrusted by Christ to his apostles continues to be exercised in the Church until the end of time” (CCC 1536).As priests, through the sacrament of orders, we are enrolled in that apostolic mission. Tonight, then, it is our joy, through the age-old device of the promise, to refresh that connection with the mission of Christ, to endorse our commitment to it, even to upgrade, 5G it. We do so with a gratitude that runs in many directions: to the Lord, to the people who formed and guided us, to the people we serve who constantly call out, please God, who and what we are and anoint us with their faith and affection. We refresh our connection with the mission of Christ, knowing that priesthood is the best possible use we could make of our selves – of our humanity, our manhood, our individuality. Knowing that this fragile spark of body, soul and spirit that each of us is, this “manshape” as Hopkins called it, this “jack, joke…patch, matchwood” can be, and is, “all at once what Christ is”. Knowing his love, knowing that this mission lasts, knowing that having our priestly part in it we are free, not handcuffed to passing ideologies or wired to the ephemeral, but privileged with those we serve to speak to the heart, to speak of the essential, looking to the one who is “who is coming on the clouds”, greater than all the swirl and turbulence of history, and whose Body and Blood we consecrate, offer and share. We can be grateful, simply, to be given feet to wash.
It was the Holy Spirit who anointed us on the day of our ordination. We heard the words, “Renew deep within him the Spirit of holiness”. And it’s he who keeps us fresh in the mission of Christ. Let’s turn to him.
In 1968 a Greek Orthodox Archbishop from Syria, Ignatius, made a memorable intervention at the World Council of Churches:
“Without the Holy Spirit:
God is far away,
Christ stays in the past,
the Gospel is a dead letter,
mission a matter of propaganda,
the Church simply an organisation,
authority a matter of domination,
the Liturgy is no more than an evocation,
Christian living a slave mentality.
But with the Holy Spirit:
the cosmos is resurrected and groans with the birth-pangs of the Kingdom,
the Risen Christ is there,
the Gospel is the power of life,
the Church shows forth the life of the Trinity,
authority is a liberating service,
mission is a Pentecost,
the Liturgy is both memorial and anticipation,
and human action is deified.”
Without the Holy Spirit, we might say, our priesthood is just a job, our preaching likely to be weary moralising or mere entertaining, our celebrating a routine, our prayer ashen, the people around us a reason to complain, and our need for distraction (or money) compulsive. But with the Holy Spirit, our priesthood is a call, our preaching the proclamation of God’s love, our celebrating the wedding of Christ and his Body; our prayer is fervent and trusting, our pastoring opens our hearts, and we are full, not empty.
So, brothers, we can renew the connection firm in our “no” to loss of heart, despondency, acedia – the great affliction of the Church in the West. “No” to isolation – my parish my silo. “No” to an imagined Church of the past or the future. In the Holy Spirit, we renew our “yes” to our specific share in the evangelising mission of Christ. Our “yes” to the people given us, to communion with the actual Church, with the Pope and the bishop, to our priestly brotherhood. Our “yes” to the Eucharist, to prayer and self-discipline. Let us be assured that we are known and loved and given. Let us think of ourselves as a Eucharist the Lord takes in his hands, thanks his Father for, breaks and gives to our brothers and sisters for the life of the world. Amen.
St Peter’s, Buckie, 30 March 2023