|Christ the High Priest|
Byzantine Icon of
Christ in Bishop's Robes
It won’t be obvious in this first post where I am heading in the next two or three unless I give you a clue—so let me put it out front. What is the real agenda behind this movement for the priest to face ad apsidem (towards the rear wall) for the celebration of Mass? I say ad apsidem rather than ad orientem because unless the church itself is built facing east, the presider is not facing ad apsidem. The term—and indeed the concept—of “liturgical east” is one of the most patently ridiculous ideas to come down the pike. I understand why, in many of the Church’s Rites, the churches (and those within) are “orientated” and in the context of those rites where this is an ancient tradition it makes great sense—but only if it is true east and not a south-by-northeast that we are somewhat pompously referring to as some mythical “liturgical east.” But we don’t start there: let’s look first to the root of the problem: the understanding of the ordained priesthood.
In both Latin and in Greek, the two languages that serve to shape the Church’s articulation of the deposit of faith, there are two distinct words that the one English word, priest, is used to translate. It is unfortunate that English lacks this precision because each of the two words in Latin, like their Greek counterparts, relates to a substantially different reality.
The Latin word sacerdos (and its Greek equivalent ὁ ἱερεύς) signifies a cultic figure whose work it is to offer sacrifice. The Latin word presbyter (and its Greek Equivalent, ὁ πρεσβύτερος) signifies “elder” in the sense of a member of a governing board of a 1st century synagogue. (The first and second generations of the Church simply borrowed the administrative structures with which they were familiar from the synagogues.) In the New Testament—and we see this theology developed most clearly in the Letter to the Hebrews—there is but one sacerdos, one sacrificing priest, Jesus Christ. There is also one and only one sacrifice, the once and for all eternal Sacrifice in which Christ offers himself on the Cross as both priest and victim. While in every celebration of the Eucharist we are given access to this one, eternal Sacrifice, that sacrifice is not repeated. Christ is not sacrificed over and over again, day after day, on the altar, but rather in the Eucharist we move beyond time and space to become sacramentally present to that one eternal Sacrifice of the Cross.
Now we in the Church are not passive witnesses to this Sacrifice but by virtue of our baptism, we share in the priesthood of Jesus Christ. 1 Peter 2:9 refers to us (collectively) as a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation. The sacred author uses the word ἱεράτευμα (priesthood), a cognate of ἱερεύς indicating that Christians, by virtue of their incorporation into Christ in baptism, become participants in his sacrificing priesthood.
Now—and this is where we need to be careful—while we all share in the sacrificing priesthood of Christ by virtue of our baptism, there is a unique participation in that priesthood reserved to the bishop.
According to the patristic Tradition—and again we Catholics recognize two sources of revelation: scripture and Apostolic Tradition passed down through the centuries—the Bishop is the Sacramental Presence of Christ the High Priest in the Church. The Bishop stands as Christ in the Church and when the Church is gathered around him for the Eucharist he, not of his own authority but in virtue of his re-presenting Christ the High Priest—he alone offers the Eucharistic Sacrifice. The bishop stands at the altar offering the Great Prayer of Thanksgiving; he was flanked by his presbyters and assisted by his deacons but there was only one Eucharistic celebration to which the entire Christian community was expected to come. The deacons helped with the offerings of the faithful and prepared the bread and wine upon the altar but they did not assist directly in the Eucharist. The presbyters helped the bishop with the distribution of the Eucharistic elements and it can even be said that they concelebrated the Eucharist with the bishops, though not according to the manner our contemporary rites, but it was the bishop alone who offered the Eucharistic Prayer.
By the middle of the third century, many Christian communities had grown beyond the capacity of a single Sunday assembly. The bishop would then assign a senior presbyter to preside over a second gathering in another place but to show that there was only one Eucharist in the one (local) Church, the bishop would dispatch a deacon from his Mass with a piece of the Bishop’s hostia (the consecrated bread). That Eucharistic fragment (called a fermentum) was then placed in the chalice at the presbyter’s assembly to show that while the one community was meeting in two separate places, it was still only one community. The evolution of presbyter-led Eucharists make it clear that presbyters were acting not in their right in celebrating the Eucharist but in persona episcopi.
In the fourth century the Church adapted the Roman Imperial administrative system of dioceses and bishops became the religious leaders of much larger areas that required many more Eucharistic assemblies to meet the challenge of a rapidly growing faithful as well as the relative distances under the Church’s administration. As presbyters took over the various outlaying churches presbyter-led Eucharists became the norm but the Church has always made the distinction between the bishop (sacerdos) and the priest (presbyter). Technically a priest is not supposed to celebrate the Eucharist without receiving “faculties” from the local bishop—and—except in danger of death—he may not hear confessions or absolve without those faculties. The priest still performs his ministry in persona episcopi.
And for those who cherish all things pre-Vatican II, the hymn: Ecce Sacerdos Magnus (Behold the Great Priest) was sung only for the entrance of a bishop, never a priest
Now, the fatal flaw in this theology of the Bishop being the presence of Christ the Priest and his presbyters sharing in the priesthood of Christ as extensions of the bishop is through the centuries too few bishops have proved themselves worthy of the august responsibility. Bishops have done well, in their day, as Imperial administrators, as princes, as patrons of the arts and learning, as bankers and today as CEO’s—but none of this lets us look at our Bishop and see Christ the Priest. Maybe that is why Pope Francis seems such an odd duck with all his talk of mercy and a poor church.