“Sing, rejoice, daughter of Zion, for I am coming to dwell in the midst of you.”
These are good and apposite words for today. We have been short of singing this last while, and not always overflowing with joy. But today is different.
Zechariah delivered his oracle five hundred years before Christ, conveying God’s promise to restore Jerusalem by bringing back its exiles. As taken up in the liturgy on this feast of our Lady, his words signal the Incarnation: Mary is the Daughter of Zion and, in her “midst”, conceived by the Holy Spirit, the Lord comes to dwell. So the prophet points to the mystery of Christ. He points too to that of the Church: “many nations will join themselves to the Lord in that day, they will become his people”, and Jerusalem will be the Lord’s again. The People of God will be renewed and all mankind fall silent as the Lord comes forth.
It’s here, in this twofold mystery of Christ and of the Church, and under Mary’s mantle, that today’s ordinations find their place.
Through today’s Liturgy, Malachy and Christopher will be newly connected and configured to Christ. To Christ as Head of his Body, Christ as Bridegroom to his Bride, Christ as Shepherd with a flock to feed, Christ in his relation to the Church. The Holy Spirit will inject them with a share of Christ’s love of his Church. Today’s ordinations will baptise them, in a sense, into this two-in-one love, of Christ and of the Church. This inspires, inter alia, their celibacy. This is the love that must fill every crevice of their lives.
There’s always something touching in the choreography of an event like this: two guys, sitting on their stools, surrounded by family and friends, by layfolk, clergy and religious, confronted with a bishop, facing an altar and a crucifix, on the brink of an awesome sacramental act, a coming of the Holy Spirit which will shape their whole lives and their eternity. I hope, Christopher and Malachy, that you feel our fondness, our appreciation of your generosity and gallantry, the flow of feeling towards you, the warmth around you – more effective by far than the cheers of fans at Wembley or Wimbledon. Here are your brothers and sisters and mothers.
And here are you in your “you-ness”, your individuality, two distinct candles waiting to be lit, as it were. We sense the journeys, inner and outer, both of you have made to be here: what has moved your minds and hearts, the experiences in prayer, the words remembered, the studies, the encounters, the connections, the people in your stories, the saints who feel close. We think of Nigeria and Poland, Rome and Oscott, Scotland, Blairgowrie, Inverness, Aberdeen. We remember your diaconal ordinations a year ago today. We reverence the providence that has made this day, the God who has turned everything to good for you.
“Let all mankind be silent before the Lord! For he is awaking and is coming from his holy dwelling,” coming here and now. In today’s Gospel, Christ stretches out his hand towards his disciples and says, “Here are my mother and brothers” and sisters. This wasn’t just an observation; it was an event. That gesture and those words made something happen. He made his disciples his family. And in a moment of silence, after the Lord and the saints have been invoked, the bishop and the priests will extend their hands on Malachy and Christopher. The Lord will arise and, as the solemn prayer unrolls, the Holy Spirit will come. And something – inaudible, invisible – will happen. And you will be priests.
Yes, priests of Christ and of the Church.
And what then? Next year Fr Abbot Anselm and I will have been priests for 40 years, likewise Fr Colin Stewart. Canon Peter Barry has been 52 years a priest. And perhaps old boys like us find ourselves wondering into what you are being ordained. What lies ahead of you? In what kind of world will you minister? Post-Covid and post so much else? The runes are so hard to read, the shifts are so seismic, the possibilities of both the wholesome and the terrible are so expanded. If we to ask the contemporary world, What is your name?, it might reply like the Gerasene demoniac: “My name is legion, for we are many”. A wild unpredicatable world, like that man. But a world which, if it is to cease self-harming and be “clothed and in its right mind” again, (Mk 5: 9, 15), will always need Christ and the Gospel and the Eucharist. A world which may marginalise you, but will never be able to make you redundant. You are being ordained too – please don’t forget it – in the lengthening wake of a major Ecumenical Council, Vatican II, still, as St John Paul II said twenty years ago, “a sure compass by which to take our bearings in the century now beginning”. You are being ordained in a period of history when the Church, without negating her inner consistency, has in a sense re-framed her liturgy, her teaching, her Canon Law, her pastoral priorities in order better to fulfil her mission. Be part of that. You are being ordained in the pontificate of Pope Francis, who is be accepted with a listening ear as the Successor of Peter. Don’t marginalise him in your ministry. You are being ordained when the Church is undergoing some bitter experiences of her human weakness. Be aware of the power you carry both to do good and to wound, and pray not to do harm. Pray, in fact, to share the weakness and vulnerability of Christ. Don’t turn – you won’t turn – into hard, all-knowing, omni-competent functionaries. Don’t dull yourselves – you won’t – with cheap consolations. Endure people’s grief or anger and disappointment. Accept the measure of the rebellion and pain of the world that will come your way and allow Christ to transfigure it. Your priesthood is no vaccination against this. Au contraire. Keep your sensitivities, your weakness, your limits, your vulnerability. That will let the power of Christ – St Paul said it – roost in you, pitch its tent in you, overshadow and protect you, and comfort others.
Most of all, you are being taken up into the service of Someone and something greater than yourself. You are not starting a career. You are being ordained to help keep Christianity alive in the world; to lend your arms to raise the Cross of Christ above humanity for its healing. You are like Aaron and Hur commissioned to hold up the arms of Moses above the battlefield (Ex 17:12) where the faithful fight the spiritual battle. You are like the priests who stood on the dry bed of the River Jordan holding the Ark of the Covenant, keeping back the waters, while the people passed over the River into the Promised Land (cf. Jos 3:14-17). You are like the friends of the paralytic who cut through the roof and let him down at the feet of Jesus for health and forgiveness (cf. Mk 2:12).
“He must increase, but I must decrease” (Jn 3:30). Yes, you are being taken into the service of Someone and something greater than yourself.
From today, most strikingly, you can legitimately stand at the altar and proclaim the Eucharistic Prayer during Mass. This is the highpoint of the Church’s life and of our priestly ministry. Times beyond counting, you’ll say to people: “Lift up your hearts.” So, be priests who lift up hearts and don’t press them down. “Let us give thanks”: be spokesmen of gratitude, not consummate moaners. In the Eucharistic Prayer you will be gathering up everyone and everything, presenting it all to God the Father through Christ in the Holy Spirit. Most of all, from today, you will be replaying, taking on, the words and actions of Christ at the Last Supper. This is done ordinarily facing the people, with the words of the Lord being pronounced, says the rubric significantly, “clearly and distinctly as the nature of these words requires”. This is the heart of your ministry. When you take the bread and take the chalice and say the Lord’s words, you are “proclaiming”, says St Paul, “the death of the Lord until he comes”. Before God, you are proclaiming, declaring, announcing – to the people – the sacrificial love of Christ made sacramentally present. Mercifully, this action, this proclamation, this consecration is so momentous that it will redeem all the limits of your preaching and your pastoring. It atones for our priestly negligences. Doing this, you will be objectively and effectively proclaiming the Gospel. You will be lifting up the redeeming Cross of Christ, Christ whole and entire, for the healing of the world, as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert. You will be doing this, sometimes for a handful of people, sometimes for many, doing it publicly, visibly, ritually, over and over again, day after day. Why? So that all of us, ordained or not, know that he is risen, know he is alive in the world. That there is a hope to look to.
Malachy and Christopher, you are being taken up into Someone and something greater than yourself. What lies ahead of you, beyond anything else, is the Mass and the mercy of God. Thank you for volunteering, thank you for coming forward. Thank you for putting your selves at His service. May the Lord protect you from harm and the snares of the devil, may the Lord make his face shine upon you and give you peace. May your ministry bring joy to many. May Mary, mother and friend, be beside you, and the prayers of the saints sustain you. Amen.
St Mary’s Cathedral, Aberdeen, 16 July 2021