‘“Ah, Lord; look, I do not know how to speak: I am a child!”’, says Jeremiah. ‘Then the Lord put out his hand and touched my mouth and said to me: “There! I am putting my words into your mouth.”’
There we have it, dear Andrzej: the strange mix of personal weakness and strength from above which makes our priesthood, and into which you are being ordained today. Jesus was crucified in weakness and raised in power. That’s the paschal pattern of every Christian life, and of our priesthood. And it’s what makes it a gift for others.
In the old Vulgate version of v.6, Jeremiah doesn’t say, ‘Ah! or ‘Alas’, he says, ‘A, a, a’. He can’t even get beyond the first word of the alphabet. He really doesn’t know how to speak. He truly is a child. I think any of us coming to a mission in the Church feel this. You too, I’m sure. I don’t know how to speak. English is not my first language, you might add. I am a stutterer, said Moses. I am a man of unclean lips, said Isaiah. Peter even used his tongue to deny the Lord. I think each of us has our own disqualification, secret or public. And Ordination won’t magic it away. Part of the eloquence of Jeremiah’s ministry is how, despite the grace of his calling, he fell more than once into bewilderment and dejection.
But: ‘then the Lord put out his hand and touched my mouth. “There! I am putting my words into your mouth.”’
Mother Teresa said once, ‘He will use you to accomplish great things on condition that you believe much more in his love than in your weakness.’
The Lord put out his hand. This is the creative hand that, on the ceiling of the Sistine chapel, stretches out towards Adam. It’s the hand Moses stretched out over the Red Sea. It’s the mighty hand that brought Israel out of Egypt. It’s the hand of the Seraph that brought the burning coal from the heavenly altar and cleansed Isaiah’s lips. It’s the hand that gave the scroll to Ezekiel to eat. It’s the gentle hand that Jesus stretched out to touch the leper, saying, ‘I do will. Be cleansed!’ It’s the strong hand with which Jesus grasped Peter as he started to sink. It’s the hand of a successor of the apostles laid on you at the heart of this Sacrament. It’s the hands of all your fellow priests that will touch your head after his. It’s the prayer and affection and support of everyone here, everyone remembering you today, reaching out to you. It’s the hands of your dear mother praying for you in the Communion of Saints, of the Mother of God and all the saints who’ll be invoked in a moment. It’s the hand of God in the hearts and hands of all who love you. And today stretching out to you, touching you, embracing you, laid upon you, empowering you.
As Christians, God gives us our baptism every day. As priests, he gives us our Ordination every day. Every day, we say, ‘A, a, a’, and every day the Lord puts out his hand. Every day, he put his words into our mouth. If you know your Norwid, Andrzej:
‘Beyond, above all your charms,
You! Poetry, and you speech! Behold,
Ever the highest aim will be – this:
To name each matter by its rightful – word’ (odpowiednie dać rzeczy – słowo).
(from the introductory poem to his Vade-Mecum)
Yes, he puts his words in our mouth, ‘rightful’ words: the words of psalms and prayer, the words, ‘This is my Body which is given for you, this is my blood which will be poured out for you’, the words ‘I absolve you from your sins.’ Words that perform what they say. ‘They have kept your word,’ says Jesus of the disciples. It’s the word he received from the Father and ‘passed on to them’, so that they might pass it on to others.
‘Before I formed you in the womb I knew you; before you came to birth I consecrated you; I have appointed you as prophet to the nations.’
Yes, today, Andrzej, all the days of your childhood and adolescence, all the difficult times, the early years here in Inverness, looking for work, having your possessions stolen, knocking on the door of St Mary’s and throwing yourself on the mercy of the white-haired priest, even setting up the famous Nessie Cleaning Services: all of this finds its meaning in today. ‘A, a, a.’ All the details of your life are letters and syllables that come together today in the ‘rightful word’: father, priest, shepherd. The years of formation: the Scots College, St John’s, Wonersh, the studies, the placements, the spiritual exercises. They are all syllables forming the word. Your weaknesses too, as well as your gifts. Today, Jesus is putting his words in your mouth. He is giving you words of prayer and truth, mercy and grace to speak. He is giving you the power of speech, the whole alphabet of his mystery to proclaim. Today he is making your whole being a word, a word of God, a word that destroys falsehood and builds up souls. ‘A good word is above the best gift,’ says Proverbs.
Let’s take one step more. The priest is a man of the word and of the Eucharist. Jeremiah has spoken of the word. The Gospel you have chosen is from Jesus’ priestly prayer in John, ch. 17. That prayer is a prototype of the Eucharistic Prayer. Today, Jesus does not just lay his hands upon you. He looks on you and loves you. He takes you into his hands, as he took the bread and wine at the Last Supper. He gives thanks to his Father for you. He prays over you. He consecrates you. He consecrates you in the truth by the gift of the Holy Spirit. He breaks you: that is, he shares you in the various missions he will give you through your superiors. And so he ‘gives’ you. You are one of those the Father has given him, and now, in turn, He gives you to the Church. He gives you as word and bread. ‘I have appointed you as prophet to the nations’, the Lord tells Jeremiah. The first meaning of that verb is, ‘I have given you’. I haven’t put you on a pedestal; I haven’t promoted you; I have given you. I am giving you into the hands of my people, my holy Church. I am giving you with my words in your mouth and my bread in your hands. A priest is someone given – so should not complain when he’s taken. He is given for the life of the world.
Thank you, Andrzej. Thank you for entering into this conversation with the Lord, for listening, for voicing your weakness, and letting him answer and touch you. Thank you for all your gifts, of course: your young manhood, your manifest faith, the light in your eyes, the expanding kindness, your special blend of seriousness and humour. Thank you for your Polishness and your love of Scotland and this diocese. Thank you for following so many Polish pilgrims, Chopin and Norwid, John Paul II and Czeslaw Milosz into another land, for our enrichment. Surely St Andrew nudged you along! Thank you for allowing yourself to be given. But, thank you, not least, for your weakness. It’s the best gift you have, the one the Lord loves best. It’s the one that will take you into the hearts of those you serve. Indeed, it already has. You are already loved. It’s the weakness which gives Christ the opportunity to celebrate his epiphany in you. It’s the miseria that will keep you close to mercy: the mercy the Lord has shown you, the mercy all those awaiting your ministry are longing for, the mercy you’re anointed now to share with others.
(St Mary’s, Inverness, 6 January 2017)