Wednesday, February 18, 2009

What is the Priesthood?

Alice C. Linsley

The unique nature of the priesthood is inextricably linked to the nature of God.  God is the first priest (Gen. 3:21) and the priesthood, like God, is eternal.  This is what stands behind the biblical references to Melchizedek, of whose ruler-priest line came the Son of God, Jesus Christ, our great High Priest, who promises in the Book of Revelation to be with us always. The question of "What is a Priest?" is taken up in another article, which I recommend reading before this one.

The priesthood of Jesus Christ is the single true Form of the Priesthood. Every authentic priest, either living before or after Christ’s Incarnation, stands as a sign to this one priesthood. The priesthood is unique (not to be confused with the office of shaman) and it is impossible to change it in any essential way. It involves an ontological pattern that is beyond human contrivance. It is a benefit divinely bestowed. All attempts to change the priesthood, such as developed out of Protestant theology or the ordination of women, corrupt the sign so that it no longer points to the Messiah. The Church itself has no authority to change the ontological pattern since the one Priesthood existed before the Church and, though acknowledged by the Apostles, was not established by them.

The priesthood existed before the time of Abraham, as is evidenced by Melchizedek, the Priest-King of Salem. He is the first priest mentioned in the Bible, but clearly Melchizedek does not represent the beginning of the institution of priest, but rather an advanced level of development. This being so, the priesthood was not established by the Apostles nor is its authority drived from the Apostles, though apostolic succession through the laying on of hands is part of the proper ordination of priests. According to St. John Chrysostom, the priesthood "is ranked among heavenly ordinances. And this is only right, for no man, no angel, no archangel, no other created power, but the Paraclete himself ordained this succession..." (On the Priesthood, 1977, St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, p. 70). The question then is whether a "heavenly ordinance" is eternal in essence or is it something man can change.

If the Apostles are not the source of the Christian priesthood, what is the source? It can only be the eternal Christ, who is one with the Father and the Spirit. Christ is the eternal Form of priest and the eternal Truth signified by the Priesthood. He alone is Priest, fulfilling atonement through the shedding of His own Blood. This is why the one Priesthood is inextricably tied to the Blood of the Son of God.

Today there is much confusion about the Priesthood because a false priesthood exists that denies the atoning nature of Jesus' Blood. Whoever denies the necessity of repentance and the uniqueness of Jesus' Blood as the ground of Life and the singular substance for remission of sins, is a false priest.

The author of Hebrews expresses this reality in these words: "This hope we have as an anchor of the soul, both sure and steadfast, and which enters the Presence behind the veil, where the forerunner has entered for us, even Jesus, having become High Priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek." (Hebrews 6:13-20)

What can we say about this priesthood?

First, we can say that the priesthood is verifiably one of the oldest religious institutions in the world, traced back to at least 7000 B.C. It emerges out of the Afro-Asiatic civilization which, at its peak, extended from the Atlantic coast of modern Nigeria to the Indus River Valley. The Brahmanas (Hindu Priest Manuals) express the richness of this institution. The “Brahman” offered sacrifice at fire altars constructed according to geometryand at the proper seasons determined through astronomy. Vedic tradition teaches that "he who desires heaven is to construct a fire-altar in the form of a falcon."  The Vedas also reveal the danger of a priestly order that becomes too powerful and self-serving (as happened also with the priests of Israel).

The priest emerges out of primeval perceptions of blood as the substance of life, purity and rightness. This conception is so old that it has a wide linguistic dispersion. The Hebrew root "thr" = to be pure, corresponds to the Hausa/Hahm "toro" = clean, and to the Tamil "tiru" = holy. All are related to the proto-Dravidian "tor" = blood. These cognates point to an ancient priesthood for which purity, holiness and blood are related concepts. (Go here for linguistics insights into the origins of the Afro-Asiatic priesthood.)

The ritual shedding of blood in animal sacrifice was done by priests and patriarchs, but not a single reference can be found in which the same is performed by a woman. Again, this is because there is but one priesthood (in the Platonic sense, one Form) and it pertains to Jesus Christ, the Man. This is why the author of Hebrews makes the connection between Melchizedek and Christ.

From the dawn of time humans recognized that life is in the blood. They saw offspring born of water and the blood. They knew that the loss of blood could bring death. Killing animals in the hunt also meant life for the community. They sought ways to ensure that their dead entered into life beyond the grave, especially their rulers who could intercede for them. This is why primitive man covered their dead rulers in red ochre dust, a symbol of the Pleromic Blood of Jesus, as early as 80,000 years ago. Sophisticated mining operations in the Lebombo Mountains of southern Africa reveal that thousands of workers were extracting red ochre which was ground into powder and used in the burial of nobles in places as distant as Wales, Czechoslovakia and Australia. Anthropologists agree that this red powder symbolized blood and its use in burial represented hope for the renewal of life.

I've found few who are willing to entertain the idea that this phenomena points to the blood of a Savior, but I believe that God planted eternity in our hearts and that we know innately that Christ's pleromic blood is not only redemptive, but also the very source of our life. This is what St. Paul appreciates and calls "the mystery of Christ". He articulated his understanding of the pleroma as early as his second missionary journey when he preached to the Athenians that, “in Him [Jesus Christ] we live and move and have our being.” (Acts 17:28)

In Him we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of sins, according to the riches of His grace which He made to abound toward us in all wisdom and prudence, having made known to us the mystery of His will, according to His good pleasure which He purposed in Himself, that in the dispensation of the fullness of the times, He might gather together in one all things in Christ, both which are in heaven and which are on earth. (Ephesians 1:7-10)

The Trinity underlies Paul’s understanding of the pleroma. He speaks of the distinct Persons of the Trinity and of the oneness of the Body of Christ in the language of Shema: “There is one Body, one Spirit, just as one hope is the goal of your calling by God. There is one Lord, one Faith, one baptism, and one God and father of all, over all, through all and within all.” (Eph. 4:4-5)

These words follow Paul’s explanation of the saving work of Jesus Christ in Ephesians: But now in Christ Jesus, you that used to be so far apart from us have been brought very close, by the blood of Christ. For He is peace between us, and has made the two into one and broken down the barrier which used to keep them apart, actually destroying in His own person the hostility caused by the rules and decrees of the Law. This was to create one single man in Himself out of the two of them and by restoring peace through the Cross, to unite them both in a single body and reconcile them with God. In His own person He killed the hostility... Through Him, both of us have in one Spirit our way to come to the Father. (Eph. 2:13-14)

Second, we know that the priesthood functions to mitigate blood guilt. Anthropologists have noted that there is considerable anxiety about shed blood among primitive peoples. (This has been discussed in many of the great monographs: Benedict's Patterns of Culture, Lévi-Strauss' The Raw and the Cooked, and Turnbull's The Forest People). Among the Afro-Asiatics, the priesthood served to relieve blood guilt and anxiety and to perform rites of purity. These continue to be the primary functions of the Priest, although he also has pastoral responsibilities. However, when pastoral responsibilities and preaching minimize the sacramental role of the priest in confession and the Eucharist, the priest no longer serves as a unique sign of the Messianic Priesthood of Jesus Christ.

Third, we know that no woman entered into the Holy Place where blood was offered through atoning death. The Afro-Asiatics, from whom we received the unique institution of the Priesthood, believed that the blood shed by men in war, hunting, execution, and animal sacrifice could not be in the same space as the blood shed by women in their monthly flow and in birthing. Sacred law prohibited the blood shed in killing (male) and the blood shed in giving life (female) to share the same space. God doesn't want confusion about the distinctions of life and death. The same distinction of life-taking and life-giving is behind the prohibition against boiling the young goat in its mother’s milk (Deut. 14:21).

The Priest deals with blood impurities by seeking the purification made available in the Pleromic Blood. The priest also addresses anxiety about shed blood for men and women through the Pleromic Blood of Jesus. This is the history of the "churching" of women, a practice regarded by modern western women as offensive. Since they do not understand that there is but one preisthood they are easily swayed by the muddy thinking of contemporary activists. The world religions textbooks are rife with this kind of thinking. They fail to make important distinctions between priests and shamans which serve similar functions within their communities but hold different worldviews.

So called "priestesses" of ancient Greece were not priests at all. They were seers who pronounced oracles in a trace state, like shamans. Likewise, Shinto "priests" are also shamans as they deal with the spirits. Use of the term "priest" in both cases reveals ignorance about the difference between priests and shamans, an ignorance that pervades 20th century writings.

God has not changed this unique office of the priesthood. It survives in Christian communities that preserve catholic Holy Tradition. When the priesthood is held high and priests live above contamination, the world is drawn to Jesus Christ. This happens because, in reality, there is but one Priesthood, One Priest, One Blood.

Related reading:  What is a Priest?; Growing Consensus that WO Must Be Addressed


Anonymous said...

Great article. GRL3

Timothy said...

Thank you again, for a good post. A couple of questions.
1. This might just show my ignorance of Orthodoxy. I'm in agreement that no woman entered the Holy Place. Here is my dilemma: I thought that one of the feasts of Orthodoxy was the presentation at the temple of the Theotokos, where she is escorted into the Most Holy Place by the High Priest. Maybe it's just my Protestantism speaking, but that idea to me is absolutely scandalous, and one of the reasons I cannot be Orthodox. And I thought this was dogma, part of THE Tradition, not just some tradition. I don't see how that can reconcile with this.
2. I don't know if you saw my last post on you Ideologies opposed to the Great Tradition, as I posted several days after your last post. I'd love to hear how that might relate.


Alice C. Linsley said...

Father Tim, Holy Tradition is not synonymous with folk tradition which can become quite elaborate over time. Consider how popular Catholicism has built up "dogmas" about Mary's immaculate conception, Purgatory, and the special role of certain Saints: St. Jude for lost things and lost causes, etc. Anglicans have these also. Consider Our Lady of Walsingham. Mary is said to have appeared in a vision to the devout Saxon noblewoman Richeldis de Faverches in 1061. While I don't mean to be cynical, these elaborations on Mary contribute to tourism (pilgrimages) and therefore become quite popular in certain areas.

The litmus test for me is not in the folksy particulars as much as in the theological implications. Mary was in fact the new Temple, the new Holy of Holy while the Christ was in her womb. She contained in herself the uncontainable One. Her womb enclosed the Maker of the universe. This is the theological point and it is more about who Christ is than about Mary.

I responded to your questions posted at Ideologies Opposed to Holy Tradition today. Sorry for the delay.