Jonathan Baker explores the mystery of the priestly call
Angus, Mike, William, Yaro, dear holy deacons. This is not the ordination day you or I, or anyone else expected. In the light of eternity, the time of waiting for this day to arrive, prolonged by the pandemic, is less than the blink of an eye, and perhaps – no, surely – we should be grateful for the reminder that ordination is not a job with a contractual starting date which begins on a scheduled day come what may. It is an action of the Church, the whole Church, visibly constituted as the Body of Christ, which means, of course, gathered around the Bishop, gathered for the Eucharist. Those few short months ago, the Church could not meet, could not gather, and so your ordinations could not take place. Though there have been some wobbles here and there about the fitting and necessary conferral of Holy Order in the context of the celebration of the Eucharist, at least – to my knowledge at least – no-one suggested sending certificates in the post to say that you were now ordained to the priesthood, and no-one suggested ordination over Zoom. And now thank God we can come together around the altar as we are bound, on these occasions, to do; and we rejoice that, in a few moments, God will bless His Church with four new priests.
You were to have been ordained priest on the 3rd July, the Feast of St Thomas the Apostle, the date of my own ordination to the priesthood. There would have been a real joy for me, as I hope for all of you, on celebrating the sacrament of ordination on my own ordination day, and I had begun not only to think about what I might say to mark such a happy coincidence, but also to try and find something new to say about ‘believing Thomas,’ as Fr Davage called him in this church on 3rd July last year. Well, you know the saying, if you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans.
So, instead of the Feast of S Thomas, a lesser commemoration. Today the Church honours two of the early Roman martyrs, put to death during the persecution of Diocletian; martyred in Rome, yes, but born in Arabia, tradition tells us, and who spent most of their adult lives in Syria. SS Cosmas and Damian, twins, were physicians, their trade was healing the sick, so they are truly saints for our times. So convinced were they that their Christian faith was not only a matter of what they professed with their lips or believed in their hearts, but of how they conducted their lives day by day, that they refused ever to take payment from the sick for the medicines they prescribed for them, but rather gave them away, free of charge. Because of this generosity, this reckless generosity, they were known as ‘the moneyless.’ It all puts our periodic discussions in the Church of England about clerical pay and rations rather into perspective. Because of their willingness to embrace poverty in the service of others, we are told, they attracted many to the faith: and their fame as those gifted in winning souls for Christ made them obvious targets for the murderous hatred of the Emperor.
If you want to find images of these two saints who feast we keep, then go the sixth century basilica in Rome which bears their name, the first to be founded in the imperial forum, when in the year 527 Pope Felix IV converted a fourth century rectangular hall into a church. There, in the apse, you can still see the gorgeous sixth century frescoes which depict Christ at his second coming flanked by St Peter and St Paul who present Cosmas and Damian, each holding a martyr’s crown and one carrying a surgeon’s box. (Being twins, its hard to know for certain which is Cosmas and which Damian, there we go.) The figures all stand on the waters of the River Jordan, symbolically depicted, a palm tree on each side, and, on the left side, a phoenix, symbol of resurrection. Below this is the Lamb of God, who stands on a hill, with Bethlehem on one side and Jerusalem on the other, from which flow the four rivers of paradise. Surrounding the Lamb of God are twelve other sheep, each representing one of the apostles. When I visited this church, it was those sheepy apostles which made me think, as much as the beauty of the rest of the mosaic. The apostles – the shepherds – look like Christ the Lamb, the Lamb of Sacrifice. To be one who is sent in Christ’s name – which is what an apostle and by extension a bishop and a priest or presbyter is – is to be called to share in His sacrifice. The servant is not better than the Master.
If Cosmas and Damian are depicted in the glorious sixth century mosaics which I have been trying to describe to you, then they are mentioned in a liturgical text which is even older. I mean of course the ancient canon of the mass of the Western church, the Roman Canon, which dates from – well who knows for certain – but in part at least from the fourth century, from the time when the canon of Scripture is also emerging in something approaching a settled form. They are numbered among the many martyrs of the city and diocese of Rome who suffered in those early periods of persecution. To approach the altar of God is always to be in company with those who witnessed to Christ by giving up even their whole lives for Him. Cosmas and Damian shared in Christ’s priesthood, as do all the holy martyrs, by virtue of their willingness to have their blood spilled for Him.
Another name which appears in this morning’s liturgy also features in this ancient text which we call the Roman Canon: I mean of course Melchizedek, who is named in Chapter 5 and elsewhere in the Epistle to the Hebrews, from which our second reading is taken. Melchizedek is the mysterious priest-king mentioned in Genesis chapter 14, he brings bread and wine and blesses Abraham and receives from him a tithe of all he has. Melchizedek, a priest forever, without beginning or end, is a type of Christ, who Himself takes bread and wine and associates them, at the Last Supper, with the sacrifice of himself which he will make on the next day, upon the Cross. Alongside Melchizedek in the Roman Canon we find Abel, than whose blood, the writer to the Hebrews also tells us, the blood of Jesus pleads more insistently; and Abraham, whose willingness to sacrifice his own son in accordance with divine command God averts by providing a ram instead. Abel, Melchizedek, Abraham – each points us forward to the nexus of Supper and Cross which together creates, at the Lord’s own command, this ‘newer rite’ in which we are presently engaged.
Priests are ordained to be and to do many things, and the ordination rite which we are celebrating now does a pretty good job of listing some of them. But of course priests are ordained to do one thing above all else, and that is to celebrate the Eucharist, to stand at the altar of the New Covenant and to offer sacrifice to God. They – you, my brothers – are to remember always that the sacrifice is not theirs –not yours – but Christ’s. Your priesthood is nothing but a share in his High Priesthood, after the order of Melchizedek. Under the sacramental signs of bread and wine, the priest offers the sacrifice of calvary; not a repetition of calvary, that would be impossible, not a new sacrifice, that is unnecessary, but the same sacrifice, Christ’s sacrifice, in unbloody form. Bread and wine become body and blood, by virtue of the Lord’s command. Here at the mass, the priest does what Jesus did and says what Jesus said, and the perpetual memorial of the one full, perfect and sufficient sacrifice is made – until the Lord comes, and sacraments shall cease.
So, the priest is given a job to do, a task to carry out. The priest must have his altar, the priest must return again and again to the words which Jesus said and the things which Jesus did on that night before he died. Is that it? Well, in once sense yes, because the grace and the glory of the church’s theology of Holy Order is that the gift of ordination once given is real and objective and can never be taken away, it does not have constantly to be re-defined and re-negotiated. But of course that bare and bold statement does not exhaust the priestly life, the priestly character. Our Lord Himself, the writer to the Hebrews explains, learned obedience through suffering. The servant is not better than the Master. There is only one Good Shepherd, but priests, dear Fathers, are called, in a particular way, to have a heart like unto His Sacred Heart – for the sake of all the people of God, for the sake of the world. What will this look like? That would be another sermon, and time is short. But prayer; mercy; humility; wisdom; fortitude; perseverance; faith. There is a little list for you of some priestly qualities, some account of priestly character. St Thomas Aquinas teaches us that the mass offered by the bad priest will be as efficacious as that offered by the good: but the prayers of the good priest will be the more fruitful. Think about that.
My dear Fathers we rejoice that the Lord has brought you, and us, to this moment, to this day. May the Lord bless you – you upon whom, as upon the elders of old, His Spirit now comes to rest. Amen.
This homily was preached by the Bishop of Fulham at St Andrew’s Holborn for the ordination of priests.