Before we delve into the nature of Holy Orders, especially that of the nature of the priesthood, we must step back for a moment and come to a deeper understanding of the priesthood in light of the priesthood of Jesus Christ, because Jesus Himself is a priest, He possesses the fullness of the priesthood and is most truly our great high priest. The priesthood of priests cannot be fully understood without first examining the nature of Christ’s own priesthood, since all priests participate and are given a share in that priesthood.
The first question we must ask is where does Christ’s own priesthood come from? The Letter to the Hebrews which is, in many ways, a sustained reflection on the priesthood tells us where the priesthood of Christ comes from, we read, “Neither doth any man take the honour to himself, but he that is called by God, as Aaron was. So Christ also did not glorify himself that he might be made a high priest: but he that said unto him: Thou art my Son, this day have I begotten thee. As he saith also in another place: Thou art a priest forever, according to the order of Melchisedech” (Hebrews 5.4-6)
This points out something very important – that the priesthood of such grandeur that not even Christ in His Humanity can take it on Himself, it is something which His Father bestows upon Him. The Father bestows the priesthood on the Humanity of Christ at the first moment of His conception. At that moment, the Father acknowledges that Christ, is the one mediator between heaven and earth. We can rightly say that His consecration as Priest takes place at the Incarnation. In Christ Himself, all humanity is united in order to be purified and sanctified and to be brought back to God – in this we see that the very heart of Christ’s priesthood (and the priesthood itself) is to be the mediator offering oblations and sacrifices to the Father and in return the Father uses the priest to communicate His graces to mankind. As we read in the Letter to the Hebrews, “For every high priest taken from among men, is ordained for men, in the things that appertain to God, that he may offer up gifts and sacrifices for sins” (Hebrews 5.1). St. Thomas Aquinas points out the other dimension of the priesthood – that of handing over sacred things, as he points out that the Latin word for priest, sacerdos, means “one who gives sacred things.”
We now can turn to the second aspect of the priesthood of Christ which must be highlighted, that Christ is both Priest and Victim. In the Old Testament the priest and the victim are distinct. The priest offers up some victim or offering (usually an animal or perhaps the fruits of the field) in order to offer God the praise that is His due and as an offering to make reparation for the sins of the people. This Old Testament priesthood is a type of the priesthood to come, in Christ’s priesthood something radical happens – no longer are priest and victim separate, in Christ both priest and victim are one. His sacrifice constitutes the perfect homage giving glory to God and obtains for us the grace of eternal life. Christ as Priest gives perfect adoration and reverence. Christ as Victim gives also adoration but which finds expression in His acceptance of death. What is accomplished by this offering of Christ on behalf of His people? St. Thomas Aquinas points out that there are three reasons sacrifice must be offered: for the remission of sin, so man be preserved in the state of grace, so the spirit of man may be united perfectly to God. Christ confers all three of these on us. We can also rightly point out that Christ is the principal Priest and Victim at every Mass.
How does Christ exercise His priesthood? We can point to the way it is lived out over the course of His earthly life. From the first moment of His conception, Christ the Priest offered Himself up and this plays out over the course of His entire earthly life – constantly offering Himself up to the Father as a living sacrifice. This offering of Himself up comes to its culmination in the events of the Passion where He completes the sacerdotal act. At the Last Supper He offers Himself to His Apostles in the Eucharist, an action which prefigures the sacrificial offering of Himself on the Cross. We can see then in the Eucharist and the priest celebrating Mass, Christ, both Priest and Victim. At the Last Supper He institutes the Mass, the Eucharist and the Priesthood, all of which are intimately tied together. Christ’s priesthood comes to its pinnacle on the Cross when He offers Himself as a sacrifice to the Father for the forgiveness of our sins and in so doing renders an offering more pleasing to God than all sin has displeased Him. It is a priestly act full of love and obedience and becomes the source of all grace and mercy. Christ’s priesthood does not end with His earthly life, after His Ascension, but instead, Christ continues to have an “everlasting priesthood” (Hebrews 7.24). We enjoy the fruits of Christ’s priesthood in our own lives, for His priesthood is the source of graces received on earth and eternal life in heaven.
(This article is part of a series of articles on The Sacraments which will appear in the bulletin over the course of this year.)