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The Catholic understanding of priesthood
June 14, 2013, 11:00 am
Filed under: Opinion

[The argument: the Aaronic Priesthood was a foreshadowing of the unique Priesthood of Christ, the Mediator between God and mankind, whose priesthood was supremely exercised in the Sacrifice of the Cross. The Eucharist is the anamnesis of that Sacrifice, so that whoever presides over it represents Christ as Priest, and so also reflects the pattern of the Aaronic priesthood.]

In the Catholic Christian understanding of priesthood, Jesus Christ is the paradigm: “Seeing we have a great High Priest, Jesus the Son of God,” etc. The priesthood outlined in the Epistle to the Hebrews is, however, modelled on the Aaronic priesthood of the Old Testament. Hence to understand Christ’s priesthood, and its implications for Christian ministry, we need to understand the place and function of priesthood in Israel.

In general, the notion of priesthood is closely connected with the idea of worship, especially worship in community. Worship concerns the relationship of human beings with “the Divine”, however “the Divine” may be conceived. It is generally accepted that even primitive people had a sense of dependency on forces greater and stronger than themselves, regularly personified as “gods”. They wished to be on good terms with such powers, requesting favours and blessings on crops, flocks, family life and so on, and giving thanks for such blessings as they received. In a general way, even without any specific request or thanksgiving, they acknowledged the power and “worthiness” of the Divine; and when the Divine Power was also conceived of as a moral power, concerned with the right behaviour of human beings amongst themselves, it also involved requests for forgiveness and reconciliation when behaviour fell short of the required standard. (Already we see in outline the traditional distinction of adoration, confession, petition and thanksgiving).

The form of such worship typically involved “sacrifice”, offering to God or the gods (for instance) the first-fruits of the harvest, or the first-born of the flock, reflecting the particular concerns of agriculturalists or pastoralists. Anyone might offer such sacrifices, although it usually fell to the head of the family actually to officiate, and while the great Thanksgivings would clearly fall as and when the harvest-gifts were available, request and reconciliation might be appropriate at any time.

As societies became larger and more differentiated in tribes and cities, the function of offering worship on behalf of the community came to be reserved to a dedicated class. In Israel, whatever the actual historical development, it came to be believed that, by divine institution, the priestly office had been committed to the tribe of Levi, and in particular to the descendants of Aaron the brother of Moses. What we have in our canonical Old Testament is (it is now generally accepted) a post-exilic interpretation of much more ancient traditions and practices. It is less important for us to establish precisely what these ancient customs were, historically, than to see how they came to be understood in the period immediately preceding the New Testament. This is what colours the New Testament understanding of Christ’s priesthood, and came to influence the Church’s understanding of its own ordained ministry.

From the Christian perspective, two levels of priesthood had already emerged in Israel: the Aaronic ministerial priesthood within the community, and Israel’s own role as a “priestly people” in respect of humanity generally. This latter conception is expressed in the vision of various prophets who speak of “the nations” coming to worship the One True God with and through Israel. Thus the Church as the “New Israel” was seen as being a “priestly people” in itself, and as having a specific ministerial priesthood within it. The presbyterate gathered around the bishop transposed the old priesthood into its new context.

What special features of the Aaronic priesthood, then, are relevant to our understanding of the High Priesthood of Christ, and the ministerial priesthood within the Church? Theologically, the basic concept is that of “mediator” or representative spokesman. The priest speaks for the people to God. He also speaks to the people for God, as the custodian of Torah, the divine Teaching, although this belonged also to the prophetic office, and later to the scribes. Both functions of course belong to Christ, and also to the ministerial priest.

God is the Holy One, and in Israel “holiness” meant “apartness”. God is different from us, distant not spatially but in quality. His power and majesty evoke awe- he is “awesome”, “aweful.” No man can see God and live, no one is fit to stand in his presence. It is thus only by “grace” and by divine invitation that a representative of the people can presume to come before God. From this perception much of the ritual surrounding the priesthood is derived. The priest is set apart from the rest of the people by ordination, he wears special clothes when he is about his sacred duties, he observes various other rules about ritual and moral purity. His principal duty is to offer sacrifice to God on behalf of himself and the whole people, in supplication or thanksgiving, or in atonement for sin.

The gist of the argument in Hebrews is that Christ as High Priest is the Archetype of Israelite priesthood. He is set apart, his robes are his human flesh, he is utterly pure. On the cross he offered himself on behalf of humanity, in supplication, thanksgiving and atonement.

Although Christ’s priesthood is uniquely personal to him, it was foreshadowed by the Aaronic priesthood. It is not surprising, then, that as the Church came to be seen as “Israel renewed”, the principal ministry within the Church, deriving from the apostolate instituted by Christ and passed on to those called “episkopoi” and “presbyteroi”, should also be seen as reflecting the same pattern. As the Eucharist was the anamnesis of Christ’s once-for-all sacrifice, so the presbyter who presided over it came to be perceived as exercising a role closely equivalent to that of the Aaronic priests (and who now had no function after the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple). This development did not happen overnight, but it undoubtedly happened. The “presbyter” really is a “priest”, in the sacramental order, just as the Eucharist is truly the sacramental re-presentation of Christ’s sacrifice. He is appropriately set apart by laying-on of hands and anointing; he wears special robes to carry out his priestly ministry; he is held to a high standard of moral probity.

The priestly ministry is (in a special sense) a ministry of “headship”, in that the priest represents Christ who, as Head of the Church, offers himself to the Father. In St Paul’s letters, “headship” of the Body is closely related to marital imagery, where Christ is Bridegroom. Christ the Bridegroom/Head offers himself for the Bride/Body which is the Church (potentially including all humanity). It is from this line of thought that the requirement that the ministerial priest should be male comes. However, we must note that, in Christ, “headship” does not mean exercising power or issuing orders. Therefore, whether in priesthood or in matrimony, a doctrine of “headship” does not imply a right to dominate. It does not justify “clericalism”, a diminution of the dignity of the lay Christian compared with priests, nor a diminution of the dignity of wives compared with husbands. And it certainly has no bearing at all on the general relationship of men and women outside the areas of priesthood and marriage.


3 Comments so far
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Very interesting article, thank you. Two questions:

1. How does the mysterious high priest Melchizedek figure into the Aaronic line?

2. Would the fact that Orders are properly “not to be counted for [a sacrament] of the Gospel” have to do with the fact that they are already in existence prior to the establishment of the New Covenant, only to be brought into a higher significance thereby (same question applying to the other four “commonly called sacraments”)?

Comment by Kyle Mulholland

Two good questions.
1) Melchizedek is clearly not in the Aaronic line, since he is associated with Abraham. I suspect that the “Zadokite” priesthood belonged to Jerusalem before its conquest by David, and was somehow retained afterwards- with perhaps the Davidic kings taking on some of the characteristics of the “MLK-ZDK” (King of righteousness) from the earlier Jerusalem dynasty. I don’t know. But it might explain the Psalmist’s association of Melchizedek with the Messianic theme. All this needs more thought.
2) I am not an expert on the technicalities of sacramental theology, but I wonder if there is mileage in seeing the “Melchizedek” theme in connection with the “baptismal” priesthood of all believers, and the “Aaronic” theme as more closely related to the ministerial (ordained) priesthood?

Comment by Fr Paul Spilsbury SSC

Could the Eucharist also be considered the sacrifice of the whole Church, each member being grafted.into the Body of Christ by baptism, and thus and only thus able to plead his wounds before the Father?

If I’m understanding this correctly these are excellent theological reasons for having the priest face “ad orientem” when celebrating.

Comment by Kyle Mulholland

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