from the blog Breathing Exercises
One of the very interesting things to me about Christian communities is that they are in some way meant to be a priesthood.
Strange, when we’re used to thinking of priests as a specialized class of people, set apart for special duty within the church. It’s true, there will always be people set apart for certain tasks in any community, but some of the most important duties are meant to be shared by all.
Priesthood is like that.
When a person comes to recognize that they belong in some way to God, they take on a new relationship with things. This can include changed perspectives, changed attitudes, and changed responsibilities.
For the person in God’s camp, each of these things add up to the qualities of a priest: they now see with God’s eyes (the perspective of a priest), they love with a Godly love (the attitude of a priest), and they are sent to help people encounter God afresh (the responsibility of a priest).
Going back to some of the earliest stories in the bible, the whole collection of people that made up the people of God were somehow understood to be in priestly service to the people of the world (you can read about how God gave them the job in Exodus 19).
This is a different way of thinking about priesthood: it is not a special class of people serving only the people within a special community, ie, church. It’s every member of a community (therefore the community as a whole) serving everyone else. Priestly responsibilities are to be shared.
Priest does not equal solitary leader or ruler or, even, teacher. It means mediator of God’s perspectives, attitudes, and responses. Another way of thinking about it is that priests stand for God. And you can’t reserve that for a special class of people. If God has taken a stand for you, then you can take a stand for God.
But how do we think about priests today? As an anachronism? As one third of a good joke? (Or, all of a bad joke?) Could the priesthood ever again be understood to be mediating the power and grace of a living God? Priests are pretty far from what you’d call popular: they’re no rock stars, who seem to be able to pull off bad behavior with no risk to their reputations.
I think I’ll be returning to this question of what a priest is more than once.
Today I’ll leave as my first offering to the discussion a remarkable woodcut made by my wife’s grandfather, an artist who lived in the middle of the last century. He was an Orthodox Greek, and so the measure of his faith is somewhat obscure (which is always the result when faith is so intertwined with a culture). His work suggests that he thought deeper about the faith than most: he painted the interiors of a few important orthodox churches in Athens, which, if you know anything about orthodox churches, is a little bit like translating the entire bible and a good portion of sacred history into pictures.
In this woodcut (about which I’ve written before), a priest is doing battle of a kind that most people wouldn’t understand today: his weapon is prayer, and he brings it to bear on the devils attacking a ship, which is in danger of sinking under their influence. This priest has got something going on that I don’t think I’ve ever seen in any other depiction of a priest: power, courage, guts, and an uncharacteristically kick-ass attitude.
He’s come to play. I love it.
The theological term for what you see in this portrait is not ass-kicking, begging your pardon, but intercession, which means going to battle (usually in a spiritual mode) for the sake of another who needs your help. It’s not rock and roll, but if you’re on the sinking ship, it totally rocks.
This is a part of what it means to be a priest, which is a job-title that can be applied to anybody living life in the way of Jesus. A priest is a spiritual fighter, ready to get in the way of trouble, to intercede for the weary and the weak and the innocent, whenever and wherever they are at risk of being overcome. Often this is a spiritual exercise, accomplished in prayer. But not always.
I know that as a word, “priest”, hasn’t got a lot of street cred today, and I don’t know how to restore it except by making new histories. Looking at that portrait, painted almost 70 years ago, I get excited about the job. I can’t help it.