Sunday, 28 June 2009

The priest: an icon of Christ


Patrick Comerford

Trinity 3, Sunday 28 June 2009,

Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin, 11 a.m.: The Cathedral Eucharist

Wisdom of Solomon 1: 13-15; 2: 23-24; Psalm 30; II Corinthians 8: 7-15; Mark 5: 21-43.


May I speak to you in the name of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

This afternoon three deacons will be ordained to the priesthood in this cathedral: Stephen Farrell of Taney, Robert Lawson of Celbridge, Straffan and Newcastle Lyons, and Ann-Marie O’Farrell of Sandford and Milltown.

This is always a joyous occasion for the new priests, for their families and friends, and for the parishes in which they serve.

But let’s set pride apart. Priesthood is first-and-foremost not an honour, but a charge to service. It is a grave and serious undertaking for everyone who is being ordained.

Prior to their ordination, the candidates will be reminded of this by the archbishop before he puts very searching and serious questions to them. And by no means are these mere formalities or preliminaries to be gone through before the ordination – they are essential, integral and vital parts of the service.

They will be reminded by the archbishop this afternoon first of all that priests are shepherds. Then they will be told what they are to do.

They are to proclaim the Word of the Lord, to call us to repentance and to pronounce absolution and forgiveness; to baptise and to catechise; to preside at the Eucharist; to lead God’s people in prayer and worship, to bless them, teach them and encourage them by word and example; to minister to the sick; and to prepare those who are dying for death.

They are to be caring and loving, to pray, read and study, to respect those in authority in the Church, to visit the sick, to care for the poor and needy, and to promote peace and unity.

They are to do all this with Christ as their example. And in this morning’s Gospel reading, Christ provides some very real examples of what it is to be a priest who lives up to this vocation and calling.

All of this is set before us as an example of the pastoral and sacramental ministry of the priest in our Gospel reading this morning.

In this morning’s Gospel reading, there is a large cast of dramatis personae … of people who receive the gentle, caring, loving pastoral attention of Jesus in equal measure, each within the list of people priests are told are our priority:

The crowd who gather around Jesus by the lake are going to learn what the Kingdom of God is like not through another sermon or another lecture, but by seeing what Jesus does. After the episodes in this morning’s Gospel, would each and every one of them been happy to wear one of those wristbands with the initials ”WWJD” – What Would Jesus Do? If they looked at the actions of our priests for an example of Christian lifestyle, would they know what Jesus does?

Jairus is a respected provincial leader of the day. He shows us what true worship is when he throws himself at the feet of Jesus. He prays, entreats, begs, not on behalf of himself, but on behalf of a sick and dying girl. If we were to look at our religious leaders today, would we be happy that they place their life and their leadership at the feet of Christ and make their first priority the needs of others who cannot speak for themselves?

By now the large crowd is pressing in on Jesus. They really want to see what religious leadership and Christian lifestyle is about. And who becomes the focus of attention within this crowd?

Too often when in a crowd, it is those who get to the front first, who have the loudest voices, who are heard, whose demands are met.

But in this case, though, it is not the loud and the proud, the rich or the famous, who grab the attention of Jesus – it’s a weak, timid, neglected impoverished, exploited and sick woman. All her money has gone on quacks, and she has no man to speak up for her.

But look at what Jesus does for her. Without knowing it, he heals her. And when he realises what has happened, he calls her “Daughter.”

In a society where men had the only voices, where to have a full place in society was to be known as a Son of Israel, she is called “Daughter.” She too has a full and equal place in society, she is commended for her faith, she is restored personally and communally, she is offered healing, and she is also offered peace. From now on she can be at one with herself, with her society, with the world and with God.

But perhaps there was a danger that all this could become a sideshow for the crowd. Poor Jairus appears to have been forgotten. His household – perhaps religious and community leaders too – tell him to give up on Jesus. The girl is dead. Was Jesus only worth what he could do for their inner circle? If so, why bother with him any further?

Jesus doesn’t want to put on a show, either to impress the pressing crowd or to prove wrong the inner circle around Jairus. Instead, with just his three closest friends – Peter, James and John … the three disciples who would soon witness the Transfiguration – he goes directly to the house of the dying girl, where her family and neighbours are in the greatest distress.

Even as he was being told not to bother coming, even when he was being laughed at, Jesus keeps focussed on who is important here – not those who shout the loudest and who press their demands.

Twelve-year-olds have no say and no voice and no power. But Jesus now offers her new life, new hope, a new future, a full place in society. When Jesus was her age, he was in the Temple. Now she is walking with her God.

In our Gospel reading, Jesus behaves just like a priest should. He calls people to faith and to right worship; he goes out of his way to care for the sick and the dying, and their families; he offers peace and he calls people to full dignity as themselves, in their families, in their communities, and in the world. This is what the priests ordained this afternoon are being called to do. To care for people, by bringing them close to God and God close to them in sacrament, word and pastoral care.

However, as they are being ordained, some of their families and friends may be frustrated. Like the people who were left outside the door in the house of Jairus, they may not be able to see much if they are in the side aisles. As we found out last week, the icon exhibition means that some people in the side aisles may find it difficult to see what is going on.

Yet I think it is a great blessing that this exhibition is taking place in this cathedral at the same time as the ordinations are taking pace.

All icons are supposed to point to Christ. Icons of the Virgin Mary always have her hands and eyes pointing to Christ. The saints who are celebrated in icons are only represented because they point to the glory of Christ. And in that sense, it is often said, particularly in the Orthodox tradition, that the priest must be an “Icon of Christ.”

As members of the Church, all Christians share in Christ’s unique priesthood. But through the ordained priest, Christ himself makes his members an eternal gift to the Father (cf. I Peter 3: 18). At the mysteries of the Eucharist, the ordained priest is “the sacramental representation of Christ the head and shepherd.” In other words, the priest is an icon of Christ the Great High Priest.

But discipleship remains a prerequisite for priesthood. The priesthood is about service, not power. An ordained priest must believe that what the Church offers the world is not another brand-name product in a supermarket of spiritualities, but the truth about the world itself, its origins and its destiny. Not a truth that’s true for Christians alone, but the truth.

At their ordination this afternoon, the priests are being set apart from the world for the world’s sake. In a culture like ours, a priest's life should be a living lesson to the world that self-giving, not self-assertion, is the royal road to human flourishing.

As priests they will present God’s gift to his people and present the people’s gift to God. And, in a very unique way, in a very special way, they do this through the sacraments, as well as through their preaching, through their prayers and through their pastoral care.

An icon conveys a spiritual reality to the worshipper, it serves as an image of the Divine, even though it has no divine power of its own. An icon has the spiritual function of helping us receive into our souls the spiritual awareness of what it depicts.

We are reminded in our reading from the Wisdom of Solomon this morning that God has created us in the image or as icons of his own eternity (Wisdom 2: 23). We are all – laity and priests – icons of God and God’s goodness. But there is a unique way in which bishops, priests and deacons are called to be icons of Christ.

And if the priests ordained this afternoon are icons of Christ as he is presented to us in this morning’s Gospel reading – caring for the poor, the sick, the dying, the marginalised, presenting Christ as the living, incarnate love of God before whom we should all fall down, to whom all our worship and service should be directed – then they will be wonderful icons of Christ indeed.

And now, may all our thoughts, words and deeds be to the praise, honour and glory of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and a Canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin. This sermon was preached at the Cathedral Eucharist on Sunday 28 June 2009, the Third Sunday after Trinity
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