Priestly entry into the Sacrifice

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Would you also learn from another miracle the exceeding sanctity of the priestly office? Picture Elijah and the vast multitude standing around him, and the sacrifice laid upon the altar of stones, and all the rest of the people hushed into a deep silence while the prophet alone offers up prayer: then the sudden rush of fire from Heaven upon the sacrifice:— these are marvelous things, charged with terror. Now then pass from this scene to the rites which are celebrated in the present day; they are not only marvelous to behold, but transcendent in terror. There stands the priest, not bringing down fire from Heaven, but the Holy Spirit: and he makes prolonged supplication, not that some flame sent down from on high may consume the offerings, but that grace descending on the sacrifice may thereby enlighten the souls of all, and render them more refulgent than silver purified by fire. Who can despise this most awful mystery, unless he is stark mad and senseless? — St. John Chrysostom

I recently received a question from a priest, and thought I would post my (expanded) answers on this Good Shepherd Sunday. Thank God for our priests and bishops! Pray for them! John Chrysostom was once presented with an unfaithful priest by an angry mob outside his Cathedral in Constantinople. Before he addressed the allegations against the cleric, he asked the crowd who, before this incident was discovered, had prayed and fasted for this man. Pray daily and fast for our priests and bishops who bear a heavy burden for us, that their love for Christ may match their mission to feed and tend His lambs.

The question:

How can priests better enter into the Sacrifice of the Mass? I will have no more than 15 minutes to devote to this important topic this time around, so brief.

My response:

1. Prepare well beforehand. Ill prepared liturgies are inevitably far more distracting. As much as possible, pray over liturgical texts ahead of time so when you come to those texts in the celebration they are already in your mind and heart as prayerful things.

2. Be aware that you are a steward of the sacrificial offerings of the lay faithful. At the Offertory we bring you everything we have gathered during the week from our faithful labors and sufferings. Receive them with love and reverence. Our sacrifice and yours are both essential to your personal spirituality, precisely because your spirituality as a priest is thoroughly liturgical and pastoral. This means your private intimacy with God is also public. The Sacrament of Orders inscribed your being with these Eucharistic words: pro vobis et pro multis, “for you and for many.” You are a man for others, no longer your own (John 21:18). Configuring you to Christ the Shepherd-priest, God has woven our lives into your identity, just as children are woven into the body and soul of their mother and father.

Your ministry outside the liturgical celebrations can really be summed up as helping us prepare our sacrifices to be offered in the Holy Sacrifice, which means within those celebrations you will find great joy in receiving our harvests for co-offering with Christ to the Father (Psalm 126:6). When we bring you our offerings of bread, wine and alms at the Offertory, what delight you will feel as you know us each by name (John 10:14). These considerations will help greatly in avoiding any thought that we, the motley crew of the faithful at Mass, are somehow a distraction from your own personal liturgical piety. Your intimacy with Jesus at Mass always includes us, the “filled out” Christ, His Body. No mystical isolation admitted into liturgy. As Fr. Tom Hopko once memorably said, paraphrasing St. John Chrysostom, in the celebration of the Eucharist the faithful are always tempted to lovingly receive Christ the Head, but spit out the members of His Body. Easy to love the Head, not so easy to love the ragtag members of His Body.

That said, I realize “we the people” can at times be very distracting and disruptive of an artful and reverent celebration (ars celebrandi) of the Holy Sacrifice. Uncouth, unprepared, immodest, distracted, talking, sleeping. St. Augustine used to have to interrupt the liturgy to tell couples to stop making out! But is not the sheer humanity of every liturgical celebration — with all its untidy unpredictability and imprecise fallibility — somehow fitting and appropriate to the celebration of a Redemption which took place amid boorish crowds and the stench of death? Christ’s procession up the mountain to the Altar of Sacrifice was accompanied by spitting and cackles, tripping and falling, weeping and shouting, along with roadside businesses buying and selling as usual. Fr. A Nichols catches a vivid sense of the original messiness of the bloody liturgy of Golgotha: “The circumstances in which his death was embraced — the betrayal by friends, the rejection by the religious leaders, the hostility, or cynical indifference, of the men of power — all of these purely secular conditions were taken up into an act of cult, a supreme act of worship, whose hidden fruitfulness made it the central event in the history of the world.” Or think of J.R.R. Tolkien’s famous advice to his son who was away at university:

Also I can recommend this as an exercise (alas! only too easy to find opportunity for): make your communion in circumstances that affront your taste. Choose a snuffling or gabbling priest or a proud and vulgar friar; and a church full of the usual bourgeois crowd, ill-behaved children – from those who yell to those products of Catholic schools who the moment the tabernacle is opened sit back and yawn – open necked and dirty youths, women in trousers and often with hair both unkempt and uncovered. Go to communion with them (and pray for them). It will be just the same (or better than that) as a mass said beautifully by a visibly holy man, and shared by a few devout and decorous people. It could not be worse than the mess of the feeding of the Five Thousand – after which our Lord propounded the feeding that was to come.

So even when you rightly plan liturgy well and do all you can to create a spirit of order and reverence, when mishaps, annoyances or sloppy and grating dissonances happen, you should bring even (and especially) them to the Sacrifice to be “taken up into an act of cult, a supreme act of worship…” Then all things become part of the ongoing saving history of the liturgic Paschal Mystery.

3. The work of the celebrant is above all one of justice and love. What St. Paul calls the “debt of love” (Rom 13:8). As celebrant of every liturgy (from Baptism to Breviary) you fulfill a “right and just” obligation to God and the people, whom you also love. Only within the confines of obligation can one learn to love with the ferocity of fidelity, sounding love’s depths through all hardships to the very end. Any challenges or hardships associated with presiding become the perfect means of “entering the Sacrifice.” When a seminarian once said to an older priest who was lecturing in my class in Omaha, “How do you get past the difficulty of being distracted by having to keep track of a million details in the Rituals,” the priest without hesitation replied: “You don’t ever get past it. That’s your road to God. Distractions are merely the details of loving, because love is really in the details.” To say the main teloi [goals] of Holy Mass are divine glorification and human sanctification, it’s really a tautology, two sides of the same coin (1 John 4:20). If your heart is wrapped around this twofold goal of liturgy, all divergences between me-and-God and me-and-people dissolve.

At my Dad’s Orthodox parish, liturgies last 2-3 hours, are very complex affairs. I used to love going to lunch with the pastor to talk about theology. Once, when I was saying how amazed I was that he could endure such an energetic celebration for so many hours, he said to me,

Liturgy exhausts me. But I only feel I’ve really celebrated well when I leave exhausted. Liturgy comes from the Greek words laos, “people,” and ergon, “work.” As pastor I can tell you people are a lot of work. And my people work hard. But we Orthodox also call liturgy “Divine Liturgy,” because it’s really God’s work first. So when I’m gathering up into the Synaxis the work of God and of man both redeeming a fallen world, I should sweat! Just like the Master did.

4. Be aware of the cycles of consolation and desolation that will affect the experience you have of the Mass. Being faithful through the ups and downs, highs and lows, sweetness and bitterness is just part of the work of covenant love.

5. Be attentive that your failure to receive fruits from the Mass may also be reflective of issues of personal sin, sloth, dissipation, psychological issues or other life circumstances that naturally make things more arduous and present greater obstacles. Be holistic in your examen of the reason for your difficulties as a celebrant who also is meant to receive even as he gives.

6. Make reading about the liturgy, liturgical theology, feasts, scripture, etc a regular part of your spiritual fare so you can nourish a genuinely liturgical spirituality. I think of Aidan Kavanaugh’s Liturgical Theology; David Fagerberg’s Liturgical Asceticism; Pope Benedict’s Spirit of the Liturgy; Alexander Schmemann’s Introduction to Liturgical Theology; Jean Corbon’s The Wellspring of Worship; or even that fascinating look at Coptic monastic liturgical life, Journey Back to Eden by Mark Gruber. Rich fare!

7. Annie Dillard, source of innumerable quotables, has a remarkable thing to say about liturgy. Pray daily that God grants you wonder and awe and holy fear, and that He keeps you far from droning boredom, familiarity’s contempt, caustic cynicism or sterile pragmatism. Keep in mind the Acting Person you become in sacramental celebrations, the extraordinary manner in which you instantiate St. Paul’s words: “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me” (Gal 2:20). The more you surrender yourself to the Christ you become in the liturgy, the more your life outside the celebration will become a Magnum Opus of God! We faithful long for that.

Here’s Annie:

On the whole, I do not find Christians, outside of the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of conditions. Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return.

8. In a word, be after the Heart of the Shepherd and your life will become a divine conspiracy of love:

2 comments on “Priestly entry into the Sacrifice

  1. nosnosnos says:

    AGAPE,,,don’t ya just love it…thank you Thomas, this post was aimed straight at my heart as I have been struggling with accepting a new priest at our parish… his only “sin ” was the unenviable task of following an Icon… I think I’ll take micheal up on his lunch offer I need to be humbled ,,, it’s been awhile since my knees have had a truly productive workout…
    P.B.W.Y.A.A. the jew…

    P.S. small scale “j” is that Chrism oil I smell …stop being so hard on yourself…keep up CHRISTS work j our prayers are with you my northern sister in CHRIST…

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