Ian McCormack on the gift of priesthood
There was an article in The Spectator magazine a couple of weeks ago which described the traditional wine glass – with a long stem – as ‘the world’s most ludicrous object’. You can imagine my shock – fortunately I had a beaker of gin to hand to revive me. But maybe the author had a point. He went on: ‘Nobody briefed to design a receptacle from scratch would say: “let’s give it a high centre of gravity for maximum instability, with a base so small and a stem so long that one misjudged gesticulation will catapult the contents into the lap of someone three feet away. We’ll also make sure it doesn’t fit in the dishwasher”.’
You can see what he’s getting at, especially if what you’re drinking is not Tesco’s cooking claret but a really fine vintage. Why put something so precious into so fragile a receptacle?
St Paul makes a similar point in today’s second reading, when he says, ‘we have this treasure in clay jars’ (2 Corinthians 4:7). The treasure is the light of the knowledge of the glory of God which shines in our hearts. The clay jar – the fragile vessel – is humanity: you and me.
Biblical scholars tell us that Paul was probably thinking first and foremost of his own position here: his own trials and tribulations, plus his own physical weakness, were used by his opponents as evidence that he could not possibly be an apostle, for God Almighty would hardly deign to work through such weakness. Paul says that precisely the opposite is true: the apostles have achieved so much that it must be the case that divine power has been at work in them.
But as so often, St Paul begins with a particular point and ends up with a universal truth. God has the most amazing gifts to offer the world – and he offers them not through some kind of super-heroic race or magical power, but through humanity itself – people like you and me.
And that might seem a bit strange at first: perhaps Paul’s enemies had a point. Even when we’re fully fit, we humans are not always the most impressive of beings: we smell, we make funny noises, we sprout things in funny places, we get tired and that impairs both our physical and mental capacity. As we become ill or old, these things only get worse, they become more embarrassing as we grow frailer, and society finds it incredibly hard to talk about frailty. I suspect one of the reasons for some of the more hysterical reactions to Covid 19 is the fact that western society has built for itself a myth that human beings – as a breed, if not as individuals – are indestructible, and the slightest reminder that that is not so throws people into a panic.
But if we live in a society that increasingly struggles with physical frailty, we also live in a church that increasingly struggles with moral frailty – what we used to call sin. The Church of England is increasingly harsh and unforgiving of human weakness, and yet we’re all just one miss-step away from becoming a shattered clay jar, a broken wine glass. That might sound gloomy, but to say otherwise is to deny the necessity of the Cross.
So, we live in a world which struggles to talk about physical frailty, and a Church which struggles to talk about moral frailty. Yet both are a fundamental part of human existence. And despite both, God continues to pour down his gifts in abundance, so that in and through these fragile vessels, these clay jars, the light of the knowledge of the glory of God might shine into new hearts, new disciples might be grown, new vessels might be prepared to receive the healing and saving power of God’s grace.
Today, working through the clay jar that is the Bishop of Beverley, God will pour down some particular gifts – some particular treasure – onto a particular person. Fr Jamie has been here at St George’s for some 18 months now. We have got to know something of his strengths and weaknesses – just as he has got to know something of ours. That’s important, because he will bring those strengths and weaknesses into his priesthood. Being a priest does not suddenly change a personality. It does not suddenly make one better, or more holy, or less frail. It does set one apart for a particular purpose and function within the Church, but it does not raise one to a higher level in any sense. So God will work in and through the long-stemmed wine glass that is Fr Jamie. The paradox is that while it may very well be his strengths that bring him the most notable successes and triumphs, it will – if he is anything like the rest of us – be in the crucible of his weaknesses that the real meaning and value of his priesthood is forged.
Again, that may sound melodramatic, but it is not so. It is in fact a statement of the obvious. For the priesthood in which Fr Jamie will soon share does not belong to him, any more than it belongs to me, or Bishop Glyn, or any other human being. It belongs to Jesus Christ. Christ’s is the priesthood in which we share. And Christ’s priesthood reached its fulfilment not in a moment of blazing glory, not in a scene that could be described as triumphant in any earthly sense. No: Christ’s priesthood reached its fulfilment in bloody agony upon the Cross. It was there that salvation was secured. Never has there been a more fragile vessel – a more brittle clay jar – than the Incarnate Son of God, and yet never has the power and authority and goodness of God been more fully displayed to the world than in Christ Jesus – and him crucified. In brokenness lay Christ’s triumph. In defeat was victory won. In death was life regained. God’s strength is made perfect in human weakness, as St Paul says a few chapters after the passage about the clay jars.
And – the Christian priest is called to share in this priesthood of Jesus Christ’s – in its power and in its weakness. Specifically, he is called to re-present again and again the once-and-for-all sacrifice of Christ upon the Cross. Every time the Christian priest goes to the altar to celebrate Mass, he carries with him the hopes and fears, joys and sorrows of the people he serves. And for them and with them, he offers once more the saving victory of Calvary: not a new sacrifice, but an un-bloody participation in the sacrifice of Good Friday: the brokenness and the death – yes; but through them also the restoration and new life, the triumph and the glory of Easter Day.
And why? Why does God continue to entrust this unique and extraordinary treasure to something as fragile as a human being? Well, so that God’s people in every generation might be fed with the saving Body and Blood of Christ and so truly know Jesus as a living reality within them, just as the disciples did. So that strengthened by the bread of life, God’s people in every generation may go out into society and announce the Good News to a world which so desperately needs to hear it, just as the Apostles did. So that God’s people in every generation might know what it means to experience the forgiveness of sins and the blessing of Almighty God, just as Zacchaeus, and the woman caught in adultery, and all those who encountered Jesus in the flesh did.
For there are two further gifts which God gives specifically to the Christian priest. One, as we heard in today’s Gospel reading, is the power to forgive sins. Here again, in the Sacrament of Reconciliation, the priest is doing nothing new. He is simply making effective in our own time one of the greatest gifts of Christ himself: the knowledge that God yearns to forgive, and that all we have to do is ask. The second is the gift of blessing. To bless is defined as pronouncing words ‘in order to confer or invoke divine favour’. It is the priest’s privilege to pronounce such blessings, upon people, places, and things.
And then in addition to these specifically priestly duties, there any number of other things that a priest may also be called upon to do: from running an Alpha course to clearing the drains; from comforting the bereaved to partying with the newly married; from preparing candidates for Confirmation to writing risk assessments.
All of these things may be necessary – some of them may even be important. But they are all – along with every aspect of a priest’s life – brought to the altar in the celebration of the Eucharist. For it is here that the life and ministry of the Christian priest is most completely fulfilled – just as Christ’s life and ministry was fulfilled on the altar of the Cross.
In this Advent season, the Church traditionally watches and waits for the coming of Christ, looking for signs that the kingdom is at hand. Well here’s a big one. We’re about to receive a new priest. The whole Church of God is about to receive a new priest. He will celebrate the sacraments of salvation. He will bless and absolve God’s people and celebrate Mass in Christ’s name. He will bring people to know and love God, and in so doing will heal their brokenness and transform their frailty. This is treasure indeed. ‘But we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us’.
Fr Ian McCormack SSC has recently been made Vicar of the Parish of St George in the Meadows, Nottingham. He preached this homily at the ordination to the priesthood of Fr Jamie Franklin on Saturday 5th December 2020. The readings at the Mass were Isaiah 61:1-3, 2 Corinthians 4:1-2,5-7, and John 20:19-23.