priest\prest\n: one authorized to perform the sacred rites of a religion esp. as a mediatory agent between man and God; specif: an Anglican, Eastern Orthodox, or Roman Catholic clergyman ranking below a bishop and above a deacon.
As carefully worded as this definition is, it only begins to hint at the full calling and identity of a priest. In fact, we might just skim over these words and file them in the back of our minds, preferring instead the image of our local pastor, or a beloved priest from our childhood, as a better definition of what a priest is supposed to be.
But if we look at this definition more closely, we will find a phrase that sounds technical but has awe-inspiring ramifications: A priest is a mediatory agent between God and humanity! Imagine the responsibility of such a role! Imagine what it must be like to know that your calling in life is to act as a bridge between God and his people. Every time you consecrate the bread and wine at Mass, you are bringing Jesus into people’s lives. Every time you say, "I absolve you" in the confessional, you are taking away people’s sins—the very sins that were separating them from Almighty God!
As St. John Vianney, the patron saint of priests and special patron of this Year for Priests, once said: "Without the Sacrament of Holy Orders, we would not have the Lord. Who put him there in that tabernacle? The priest. Who welcomed your soul at the beginning of your life? The priest. Who feeds your soul and gives it strength for its journey? The priest. Who will prepare it to appear before God, bathing it one last time in the blood of Jesus Christ? The priest, always the priest."
This Easter season, we want to take a look at the priesthood. We want to examine the calling of a priest by looking at Jesus himself, our great high priest. We will look at how Jesus stands before the Father every day, interceding for us and showing us what the perfect priesthood is like. We will also look at what it means that all of us are called to this priesthood, either in a general way as God’s people or in a more formal way as a person called to the ordained priesthood of the church. And a good way to begin is by looking at the way God set the stage for this holy calling as Israel’s history unfolded in the Old Testament.
Priests and Levites. The Old Testament priesthood finds its roots in the tribe of Levi, one of the twelve tribes of Israel. After the exodus, as the people began to occupy the Promised Land, God gave the Levites the privilege of ministering to him in the shrines of Israel. The Levites were a people set apart in Israel. Unlike the other tribes, they had no ancestral land to call their own. Rather, the Lord himself was their inheritance, as they were called to an especially close relationship with him.
Now within the tribe of Levi were the priests—Aaron’s own descendants. While the Levites were called to take care of Israel’s shrines, the priests were called to minister before the ark of the covenant itself (Numbers 18:7). So let’s look at the two central callings of priests and Levites together: the service of the word and the service of the altar.
Men of the Word. As God’s special possession within Israel, the Levites and priests had the task of making sure that the people heard the word of God and were taught how to live it. In a sense, they were the preachers and catechists of their day. It was up to them to explain the laws contained within the covenant and to preserve the history of God’s work in their lives. They were the keepers of the very story of Israel itself: their deliverance from Egypt, their meeting with God on Mount Sinai, their wanderings in the desert, and their taking hold of the Promised Land.
But the priests and Levites didn’t just retell their history. They also explained it (Nehemiah 8:1-18). They took the eternal, holy word of God and applied it to the people’s lives, showing them how to embrace the word and live according to God’s ways. At the great feasts like Passover and Pentecost, they recounted God’s mighty works to the people and taught them what their past meant for their present and future. "God rescued you from slavery," they might say, "so you must be kind to those who are outcast and enslaved among you." Or "God told Moses that his name is I am. He is the one true God. So you must not have any idols or false gods in your lives."
It was in the proclamation of the word and the telling of their history that the people knew God was with them. As the Scriptures were proclaimed, the people were brought back to those miraculous events and given a taste once again of God’s mighty power and great mercy.
Men of the Altar. In addition to teaching the word of the Lord, the priests were also ministers at the altar of the Lord. In Israel’s early days, before the Temple was built, it was the priests who guarded the ark of the covenant as it was housed in an elaborate tent (1 Samuel 1:3; 6:10–7:1). Together with the Levities, they also maintained the shrines that dotted Israel’s landscape. But as the tribes became unified under King David and as Jerusalem was established as the capital of this unified nation, the priests took on a more central role.
David brought the ark to Jerusalem, cementing the city’s stature as not only the political but also the religious center for the people ?(2 Samuel 6:12-18). Then his son Solomon, who succeeded him, built a magnificent home for the ark: the Temple, where all Israel came to celebrate their great annual feasts. And it was the priests, the descendants of Aaron, who ministered in the Temple. It was the priests who offered the daily sacrifices and who taught the people how to live according to God’s holy word.
Chief among the priests’ duties was the Day of Atonement, or Yom Kippur. On this day, the high priest took the blood of sacrificed animals into the innermost court of the Temple and sprinkled it on the altar. That blood, offered by the high priest, cleansed the people of all their sins from the previous year. Only the high priest was permitted to do this, and only after he had first purified himself so that he could stand before the presence of the Lord.
Of course, offerings for specific sins were made almost daily in the Temple and throughout the nation. But Yom Kippur was the greatest day, the time when the entire nation was purified of all defilement. It was a solemn feast when the people celebrated the kindness and mercy of their God—a God who was always ready to welcome them back (Leviticus 16:29-34).
And it was all made possible through the ministry of the priests.
Word and Altar Today. In light of this history, it’s not hard to see the connection between the Old Testament priests and priests today. Just as the priests and Levites of old were charged to be ministers of God’s word, so our priests are called to open the word of God for us. It is their special task to keep alive the story of our salvation in Christ. It is their calling to inspire and exhort us to live a life worthy of the redemption Jesus won for us on the cross. Both in their preaching at Mass and in all their other ministries, priests are called to show us how to take hold of the salvation that Jesus has won for us.
But their ministry does not end with the word of God. Priests are also called to the double ministry of word and sacrament. So like the priests of old, they too are men of the altar. Only now, the rites that they perform do even greater things than bring about yearly atonement for sin. The altar for their ministry is the table of the Eucharist, where they celebrate our eternal redemption. They don’t offer sacrificed animals. Their offering now is the bread of life and the cup of salvation.
Brothers and sisters, in this Year for Priests, let’s make it a point to honor the men who have dedicated themselves to this ministry. Let’s look at them with new eyes, seeing both the privilege and the burden of their calling. So much of our spiritual life depends on them. So many of them have poured themselves out for us for years and years. They have given so much. Let’s honor them with our gratitude and love.