Reflection for the 30th Sunday in Ordinary Time (Cycle B)
Priests like prophets, entered into human history and culture as persons called to a unique vocation of embodying an intimate connection with the Divine.
They may exercise a social leadership framed within the context of an instituted religion or within the mutual understanding of divine reality i.e., their governance over the people places the influence of a perceived sacredness over a desacralized cosmos, the divine reality shaping the temporal affairs of the community. The extent with which such leadership is exercised over various affairs or issues, may depend on how this role is accepted by the people as its “conscience” which seeks to check and balance the powers of those who hold similar leadership positions. The word “priest” was originally meant to refer to a community elder, particularly of ancient Jewish or Christian communities; it emanates from the Greek word for “elder,” which is “presbyter” or “presbúteros” [πρεσβύτερος].
Aside from being leaders, they are also given a highly particularized authority to perform rites in relation to the system of its religion. Culturally, these prayers are humanly contrived formulas of entreaty, set within the preconception of an otherworldly portal to the divine reality i.e., prayers are premised on the conviction that an “open channel” can exist between the people and the Other, that we can freely communicate with the Spirit. They serve as agents of mediation for concerns much broader than our ordinary petitions, such as those which may impact the common good. When the priest now began to be comprehended in its mediating role through sacred rites, they were defined in the Latin “sacerdos,” which corresponds to the Greek “hiereús” [ἱερεύς].
Throughout history, there were a myriad of reasons why and what rites are for, and of ways in which the rites are performed so that it becomes a successful “agreement” between the people and the venerated deity. Either the people through prescribed rituals, are asking or thanking the god or gods for some specific form of assistance or blessing; and the manner in which the petitioning rites are publicly celebrated usually has taken on a propitiatory nature i.e., with the initial presumption of a god angered by the people’s transgressions, and who needs to be appeased. Such appeasement which is achieved within the rites typically involves the sacrifice of an object of expiation, who either is compelled to or voluntarily takes and absorbs the people’s guilt, and is immolated in substitutionary atonement on their behalf, literally “dying for them.” With the sacrificial rite consummated, the “fury” is understood to have been appeased, thereby paving the way for a supernatural reconciliation.
So essentially, in spite of our shortcomings, priests help bring about the deliverance of the Spirit who commits, “I will gather them from the ends of the world, with the blind and the lame in their midst …,” and are thus a cause for the people’s joy in the light of a rejuvenation from the sorrow of having succumbed to the allurements and pains of earthly life, comforting us with the Spirit’s assurance “those that sow in tears shall reap rejoicing.”
The service of priests is in complementation of the service of prophets. While prophets lead us towards a careful discernment of God’s will for his people, disturbing us with divinely-inspired admonitions in order to evoke compunction for our faults and shortcomings, priests lead us towards a spiritually-uplifting settlement and closure of such debts, mirroring God’s mercy and compassion thereby encouraging us to express gratitude and to persevere in personal reformation and social transformation. Prophet are representatives of God to the people, while priests are representatives of God for the people to himself; in a way, the sacerdotal function of the priest continues what the chastising function of the prophet has accomplished.
The author of the letter to the Hebrews reminds us of the calling to this vocation, a ministry that is not earned by any merit, but by the enigmatic instinct of the divine will: “No one takes this honor upon himself, but only when called by God.” But a priest must also learn and to become fully grown in being honest with himself, so that he can become patient with others: Only when he “is able to deal patiently with the ignorant and erring, for he himself is beset by weakness” that he is deemed worthy of the duty of making “sin offerings for himself as well as for the people.”
The Christ however, teaches above all that the priest must become an exemplary spiritual guide and companion for “the priesthood of all believers.” We are the blind man Bartimaeus, incapacitated by the darkness of our own evil; we need to be opened up to see the reality of our foolish ways, and it is this fervent desire to be opened up that we can call “faith.” He clearly demonstrates that “Your faith has saved you;” salvation comes not from priest-ministers, but from each one of us as priest-believers. We are all called to participate in a much larger mediation process of bringing back for the world the harmony of the heavens; that through a persistent collective expression of faith, we can beseech God to grant us our desire to be opened up, to see again and once more to be free to follow authentic goodness and achieve his kingdom. And why would God not listen to the appeals to give what he wishes for us all along?
Brother Jess Matias is a professed brother of the Secular Franciscan Order. He serves as minister of the St. Pio of Pietrelcina Fraternity at St. Francis of Assisi Parish in Mandaluyong City, coordinator of the Padre Pio Prayer Groups of the Capuchins in the Philippines and prison counselor and catechist for the Bureau of Jail Management and Penology.
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