by Metropolitan Hierotheos Vlachos
It is certain that the apostles transmitted this priesthood of Christ through a definite sacrament called the Sacrament of Holy Orders. The Church also fixed the canonical prerequisites for anyone to receive this great grace and to exercise this highest function.
One such ordination is that of the deacons in the first Church of Jerusalem. After they chose the seven deacons, writes the Book of Acts,
“they set them before the apostles, and when they had prayed they laid hands on them” (Acts 6,6).
Here we have the laying on of hands and prayer. St. John Chrysostom, analyzing this passage, writes:
“He does not tell in what way it was done, but that they were ordained with prayer: for this is the meaning of the laying on of hands: the hand is laid upon the man, but the whole work is of God…”.
What must be noted in this case is that they were chosen by the whole body of Christians of the first Church. Several qualifications were set up. The basic qualification was that they had received the Holy Spirit. Concerning the choice of Stephen we read in the Acts of the Apostles:
“They chose Stephen, a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit” (Acts 6,5).
Thus they not only received the Holy Spirit at the time of ordination but they had the grace of the Holy Spirit.
Interpreting this, St. John Chrysostom says that he had the grace of the Holy Spirit “from the laver” of baptism. This grace alone was not enough, but ordination by the laying on of hands was also needed:
“so that there was a further access of the Spirit”.
He also says that Stephen received more grace than the other deacons:
“For though the ordination was common to him and them, yet he drew upon himself greater grace”.
This was due to his greater purity and the presence in him of the Holy Spirit.
This shows beyond doubt that the candidates for this great office of the priesthood do not simply wait for the day of their ordination in order to receive the Holy Spirit, but they must previously have opened themselves to the Holy Spirit.
The Church makes a great point of this. We also see this in the pastoral letters of the Apostle Paul. He writes to Timothy:
“when I call to remembrance the genuine faith that is in you, which dwelt first in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice, and I am persuaded is in you also”
We know very well that the faith is not an abstract teaching, but it is an
“understanding and vision of the heart”,
it is the life of the Holy Spirit in our soul.
The Apostle also writes to his disciple Timothy, whom he himself had ordained bishop:
“Do not neglect the gift that is in you, which was given to you by prophecy with the laying on of the hands of the presbytery”
Elsewhere he writes:
“This charge I commit to you, son Timothy, according to the prophecies previously made concerning you…”
St. Theophylaktos offers this interpretation:
“The rank of the priesthood, which concerns the instruction and protection of the people, being great and high, requires that the candidate be given approval from above by God. For this reason also in olden times those who became priests and bishops did so by divine prophecies, that is to say, by the Holy Spirit”.
Much preparation and many prerequisites are involved in the selection of priests and bishops for that great office. The Apostle exhorts:
“If a man is blameless” (Tit.1,6),
let him be appointed priest or bishop. He also recommends that such a person should not be
“a novice” (1 Tim.3,6),
not a novice because he must have previous spiritual experience and thus have been baptised to that great office, he must have purified himself, as we shall see later, and only then may he proceed to ordination.
Indeed St. John Chrysostom writes that a priest has to have more attentiveness and spiritual strength even than the hermits themselves. For if the hermits, who are freed from
“the city, the market place and its people”,
are not secure in the spirit, how much more strength and vigour needs to be exercised by the priest in order to be able to
“snatch his soul away from all infection and keep its spiritual beauty inviolate”.
That is why he affirms that the clergy who live in the world need even more purity than the monks.
This theme of safeguarding the purity of the priesthood will engage us later. Here we wish rather to emphasise the qualities which the Christian should have if he is to be ordained a priest. For if he himself has not been healed, how will he be able to heal the spiritually weak and sick?
Preparation for the priesthood is one of the dominant themes in the works of St. Symeon the New Theologian. Anyone who has not abandoned the world and been counted worthy to receive the Holy Spirit as were the holy Apostles, who has not undergone purification and illumination and been found worthy to
“contemplate the unapproachable light”,
“such a man would not dare to accept the priesthood and the authority over souls, or to push himself to accept such!” .
We find the same teaching in St. Theognostos. If the priest, he says, has
“not been assured by the Holy Spirit” that he is an acceptable intermediary between God and man, he should not “presumptuously dare to celebrate the awesome and most holy mysteries”.
When ordination was imminent, the Fathers fled to the mountains, as we see in the life and teaching of St. Gregory the Theologian. In his “Defence of the Flight to Pontos” he seeks to defend this action, and says that no one can undertake to shepherd the spiritual flock unless he has previously become a temple of the living God,
“a habitation of Christ in the Spirit”,
or unless he has traversed
“by experience and contemplation”
all the titles and powers of Christ, and learned the
“hidden wisdom of God in a mystery”,
– that is to say if he is still a babe
“fed with milk”.
Certainly the holy Fathers were not unaware of the fact that many were ordained without fulfilling these ideals and were neither purified nor healed. Therefore many of the ordinations originated
“not from divine grace, but from human ambition”.
And indeed it is a well known saying of St. John Chrysostom that
“God does not ordain all, but He works through all” .