Called to mediate the presence of Christ in the world, priests are set apart to serve the church in every way: as reconciler, as healer, as teacher, and as friend. This is a demanding and often thankless calling. It is also a calling that would be impossible without the grace they receive from the Lord—especially the grace that comes from celebrating the Eucharist.
We believe that when a priest follows Jesus’ command to "do this in memory of me" (Luke 22:19), he is acting in the person of the Christ himself. And he is not only acting on his own behalf, as if the Eucharist were a private act of devotion between the priest and Christ. No, he is bringing with him to the altar all the people whom he serves, just as Jesus did. Just as Jesus did on the cross, even today the priest takes us, with all our sadness and pain and all of our joy and gladness, to the Father so that he can transform us by his grace and mercy. In this sense, the priest is a living icon of Christ.
So let’s take a look at what it means that the priest acts in the person of Christ when he celebrates the Eucharist. Let’s look at the close bond that exists between a priest’s ministry and Jesus, our great high priest.
Jesus, Our High Priest. In order to understand how the priest acts in the person of Christ, we first must identify what we mean when we say that Jesus is a high priest. More than any other book, the Letter to the Hebrews answers this question. Hebrews tells us that the high priest in Jerusalem entered the Temple’s sanctuary with sacrificial blood in order to set people free from sin. He acted as a mediator between God and his people. He brought the people’s needs to God and he ministered God’s grace and mercy to the people in return.
Like the high priest, Jesus became a mediator as well, bringing the people’s needs to God and pouring out redemption and salvation to the people in return. Like the high priest, Jesus also lives to make intercession for us, praying for us before the throne of God (Hebrews 7:25).
But as much as Jesus is like the high priests of Israel, his ministry also surpasses theirs (Hebrews 8:6). First, the high priests offered "the blood of goats and bulls" to make atonement for the people, but Jesus offered "his own blood"—blood that was filled with God’s own power and grace (9:12-13).
This divine blood of Christ is superior in a second way. The blood sacrifices of the high priests were meant to "sanctify those who are defiled so that their flesh is cleansed" (Hebrews 9:13). It was an act of atonement for the sins committed over the past year, and it gave the people a chance to start afresh. By contrast, Jesus’ blood sacrifice was "once for all" (10:10). It didn’t just atone for the sins of the past but for all sins committed for all time.
Called to Be Icons of Christ. When Jesus said "Do this in memory of me," he set his apostles apart as priests in his image. It was as if he established a new order of priests who would be ministers of his new covenant. From that point on, we believe that through the Sacrament of Holy Orders priests receive a special anointing to continue Jesus’ priesthood on earth. They continue to represent Jesus to us, speaking his words to us and exercising his ministry in our midst.
We might say that priests are icons of Jesus, representing him in a special way. They freely choose to give up their independence so that they can find their identity in the Lord and not only in their accomplishments. As an icon of Christ, every priest, despite imperfection and weakness, is set apart for the Lord. It’s not a personal decision or a career choice. It’s a divine commission, a calling from God. This calling is the reason why he seeks ordination. It’s also at the root of why he is enabled to assume the authority of Jesus, acting in the person of Christ in our very midst.
A Mediator between God and His People. At the heart of the authority and responsibility that a priest has been entrusted with is the role of mediator—a role that the priest takes on in a special way at Mass. It’s there on the altar that a priest continues Jesus’ priestly ministry most fully. It’s there that he enters the sanctuary of God, offering a sacrifice of bread and wine to God. It’s there that he brings God’s grace and favor to the people who are gathered around him. It’s there that the miracle of Calvary is made present over and over again.
As mediator, a priest has the privilege of joining the human with the divine. He presents the calling and commands of God to the people—his desire that we partake in his body and blood, his invitation for us to receive his love, and his call that we follow him and his teachings. At the same time, he also presents our needs and requests to God—our praise, our petitions, and the sacrifices we make. Just as Jesus did, he acts as our go-between.
But priests offer their own lives as well. By making this very personal offering, they reaffirm their calling and their dedication to God. They present themselves to their heavenly Father as a sacrifice for the sake of the church and its people. United with the perfect sacrifice of Christ, the priest’s imperfect sacrifice of his life brings him closer to the Lord and gives him continued grace for his ministry.
Furthermore, when the priest offers the Eucharist, he is not only joining his life with the sacrifice of bread and wine. He is offering our lives to the Lord as well. All our sins, all our fears and failings, all our hopes and dreams—they are all gathered in the bread and brought before our heavenly Father, who accepts us warmly and holds us close to his heart.
A Divine Exchange in His Memory. Jesus once said: "Whoever loses his life for my sake will find it" (Matthew 10:39). During the Offertory, we give our lives to the Lord—represented by the gifts we place on the altar. Then, when we approach the same altar at communion, we receive Jesus’ own divine, risen life into our bodies and into our hearts. At this divine exchange, something very powerful happens. Not only do we give ourselves to Jesus and receive his life: We receive our own lives back from him—the very lives that we gave to the Lord during the Offertory. In effect by "losing ourselves" in Jesus, we "find ourselves" in him. But the life we find in him is now transformed; it is no longer the same life we offered up to him.
Jesus was put to death, and he was raised to life three days later. A similar human-divine exchange occurs every time we celebrate the Mass. At communion, we can experience what it is like to be brought closer to Jesus, to be lifted up with him. We know it in our hearts by the reverence we feel at communion. We know it because we can feel his presence in our bodies. We know we have been transformed!
This is why Jesus ordained priests on the night before he died—so that we might continue to "do this" in his memory, so that we might continually offer our lives to him, share in his gifts to us, and receive back from him lives that are transformed and lifted up to his divine presence.
A Year for Priests. Brothers and sisters, as we continue in this Year for Priests, let’s try to look on each priest as an icon of Christ, especially when he is celebrating Mass. It can be easy to reduce priests to the status of "good men" dedicated to a noble cause. But God wants to lift our vision so that we can see Jesus at work through his servant, through an imperfect man who has been set apart by him and for him.
In a larger sense, this is a special year for each one of us. Jesus, our great high priest, has offered his life for us—a life like ours in all things but sin. And our priests have offered their lives for us as well—lives like ours in every way, including sin. As we unite ourselves to their offering, we too can lay our lives down at the altar. As one body, united with the Lord, each one of us can be transformed at each and every Mass, growing closer and closer to Jesus.