Philip Barnes reflects on the nature of priesthood
One of the regular side-lines for Clerks-in-Holy-Orders is the counter signing of passport applications. The gift of Orders doesn’t just bring spiritual graces, but recognition from the state that you might be responsible enough to act as a witness to the validity of a person’s identification. My own church is situated just around the corner from the Irish Passport Office, and over the past few months there’s been a steady stream of requests for my signature. It seems an increasing number of folk are anxious to hedge their bets by getting another passport in addition to their UK one, in the hope that this will get them through passport control quicker in post-Brexit Europe.
This kind of dual nationality is, I guess, about convenience, and a broadening of options at Arrivals at Heathrow. But there’s a deeper, more profound sense of dual-nationality in the Scripture readings today, and as we celebrate with Father Aidan his First Mass.
Because St John the Baptist lives on the edge of the old and the new covenants. He lives as the new Elijah, as the fore-runner of the Saviour, the witness to the light that is coming into the world; but he lives too rooted in the experience and hopes of the Jewish people, of the nation, of the dynamic of Old Testament cult and priesthood.
For the story of John the Baptist has deep roots. We’re told that Zechariah his father is a priest from the division of Abijah, and that his mother too is from a priestly tribe – that of Aaron. News that John will be born is given to his father whilst he is performing the worship of the Jerusalem Temple, offering the sacrifice of incense as laid down in the ritual law. And in this system where the service of priesthood is tied to lineage and tribal membership we realise that John the Baptist is a priest. But he has a dual nationality. In him the priesthood of the Old Covenant moves towards Jesus, who will fulfil and renew it.
John emerges then from the heart of Jewish identity, and in his preaching he calls his hearers to be the righteous children of Israel as never before – faithful to the covenant, faithful to what God calls them to be. And all the while pointing to a Kingdom that he doesn’t yet see, that has not yet dawned “of all the children born of women” says Jesus “a greater than John the Baptist has never been seen; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he is.”
There is a similar dual nationality in the lives of those called to be priests in the new covenant. Dear Father Aidan, as far as I know there’s no immediate plan for our native Worcestershire to declare independence from the rest of the nation, and our passport options may be more limited; but in your life as a priest you will be a sign of the two realms that we inhabit.
You have your feet on the ground, a native of the human world with all its hopes and fears, its joys and disappointments; a world of confusion, of pain; a world where there are often no easy answers – and where, because of this many turn away from the good news of redemption that you carry. You will be touched by those things yourself – because priests are not somehow mysteriously protected from the reality of human experience.
You have your feet on the ground, for like John the Baptist, you are not the Christ – you are you (thanks be to God). But you are also a native of the Kingdom, and in what you say and do you will point all of us to a reality that is not quite here, so that with you we might become citizens of the Kingdom of heaven, the body of Christ.
So you will hold up the newly baptised, and show us a new creation; you will hold up a wafer of bread and a cup of wine, and show us the body and blood of Christ; you will anoint the sick, and show us the true depth of what it means to be healthy; you will send out the absolved penitent, and show us the possibility of life as God purposes. In the sacraments you will celebrate, you hold things up for us that have been transformed by the Spirit as signs of the future Kingdom. Like John the Baptist pointing to Jesus, witnessing to the light. “Behold the Lamb of God” says John the Baptist; “Behold the Lamb of God” says the priest – showing us what is most real. That’s the Gaudete, the Joy, that fills the Church at this stage of the Advent journey – the joy of a future kingdom that is coming towards us in our Lord Jesus Christ, to transform our present moment. That’s the Gaudete, the Joy, that marks the life of the priest, as the gift that you make of yourself is used by the Holy Spirit to create a sign of a new world – for as the community gathers around you as you say Mass the Spirit draws us together as a foretaste of the life of the eternal community that is to come.
So we pray for your dual nationality today, that even as you stay alert to the needs and feelings of this human world you may grow more as a citizen of the kingdom whose sacraments you celebrate. Because when those two things fall apart we cease to be an effective sign of the fullness of life in Christ. In James Joyce’s ‘A portrait of the Artist as a Young Man’ he writes of his hero’s decision not to become a priest, because he has a vision of what would happen to his face; it would, he thinks, become like the faces of other religious people he knew “a mirthless mask reflecting a sunken day… sour flavoured and devout, shot with pink tinges of suffocated anger.”
It is not so with you. In you, in all of us today, Gaudete, joy surges in our veins – the joy that glorifies God and saves man, and which will not be silenced; because it is the inexhaustible joy of the Holy Spirit which will be fully given in that future Kingdom which this sacrament proclaims, and where we will rejoice together eternally.
Fr Philip Barnes SSC is the Parish Priest of St Stephen’s Gloucester Road. This sermon was preached on Third Sunday of Advent 2020 at the First Mass of Fr Aidan Bartlett celebrated at Our Most Holy Redeemer, Clerkenwell.