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Retreat on the Priesthood

Christ the High Priest on Earth

Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.

As we begin our meditation on the priesthood of Christ, we should immediately distinguish the two stages of its existence: namely, His life on earth and His life in heaven. We carefully note that while the Son of God, the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity, had no beginning since He was from all eternity, yet Jesus Christ had a beginning. He began at the moment of the Incarnation when Mary told the angel: “I am the handmaid of the Lord, let what you have said be done to me.”

In having a beginning, Jesus Christ will have no end. He began at Nazareth but will continue forever. Within this span which began in time, we further note that Christ had a mortal ending when He died on the cross. He had an absolute beginning at the Incarnation; he had an end when He died mortally on Calvary. Consequently, the priesthood of Jesus was terrestrial, temporal, and mortal and the priesthood of Christ is celestial, eternal and immortal.

Our concern in this meditation is with the first: the priesthood of the Savior on earth in time and in His human, natural capacity for suffering and for death. We can ask a few questions and answer them briefly, but reflection on these answers is indispensable, because all the grandeur and mystery of our salvation is locked up in the priesthood of Christ; it took place in history, but its effects transcend history and will go on eternally.

When did Christ’s priesthood begin? The priesthood of the Savior began at the Incarnation. The Son of God could not have been a priest before His Incarnation because He was not yet the God-man. God as God cannot be a priest. God had to become man to become priestly. His priesthood, therefore, began at the moment that He assumed humanity. But what is perhaps more surprising is that no less than anyone else, Christ had to be ordained. He was ordained to the priesthood. In other words, not even the Son of God ordained Himself. He had to be ordained. The language is filled with mystery but mystery hides great truth.

In the Old Testament, ordination to the priesthood was done by having the Levites anointed with visible oil. The unction was, of course, purely accidental. It flowed on their skin, and because Yahweh so ordained, this unction or anointing conferred on them the privilege and the right that no one else enjoyed—to offer sacrifice to the divine majesty. So selective were those who were chosen to be ordained that all the rest of Israel was to support them in order that they might devote themselves exclusively to the work of the Almighty.

The God-man Jesus Christ was also anointed. The language in spite of its apparent symbolism is not symbolic at all. In fact, if anything is symbolic, it is the anointing with oil; but not Christ’s anointing. His unction was of course not with the visible oil, as the Fathers of the Church unanimously declared; He was anointed with the invisible oil of the divinity. The moment the hypostatic union took place, when the divinity of the Son of God was united with the humanity provided by Mary that humanity was covered over, was enveloped, had poured over it the divinity of the Second Person of the Trinity. The anointing of Christ was not merely external or less still, merely accidental. It was, in the profoundest sense in which words can be used, substantial and interior. The whole of the human nature of Christ was entirely anointed by the divinity. Christ was ordained in the womb of Mary. As Saint Paul tells us, the moment He was ordained, His divinity, which before the ordination was incapable of offering sacrifice, was now enabled. The Almighty God had to acquire something! He was enabled to suffer and to experience pain. He was enabled to shed blood. He was enabled to die. What a terrifying enablement!

We marvel at the infinite goodness of God who sent His Son into the world and by the power of the Holy Spirit had Him anointed a priest at that moment He entered the world. God did not just want to become man. He wanted to become a priest so that as a priest He might be able to sacrifice—not outside of Himself as in the Old Law, but sacrifice Himself. Christ was indeed a priest, but only because He became a priest. He did not have to. He became a priest at the instant He assumed our passable humanity. That means a humanity capable of suffering. At the instant He assumed our human mortality, God wanted to die; and at that instant, He assumed our human capacity to endure. That is what a priest is for—to endure. We are, according to our respective states of life, as priestly in our lives as we imitate the priestliness of Jesus who, having joy set before Him, chose the cross.

How did Christ exercise His priestly office? Christ exercised His priestly office in two ways: by sacrifice and by prayer at all times until the end of time. Priestliness implies sacrifice and prayer, which we may combine by calling it prayerful sacrifice or sacrificial prayer. You see how profound the combination is!

First then, the Savior exercised His priesthood by sacrifice. This means that Jesus from the instant of His Incarnation surrendered Himself entirely to the will of His heavenly Father. Get the picture! There is a will on earth and there is a will in heaven. The essence of sacrifice is the surrender of a will on earth to that will in heaven. Sacrifice means surrender. In Christ’s case this surrender had some remarkable qualities, each a meditation for our long prayerful reflection.

His surrender was, first of all, continual. It was never interrupted by any self-will. Of course Christ remained a free agent. This is the only fear that foolish man has, that somehow (what madness!) by surrendering his will to God, man will cease to be himself, whereas the very opposite is true. We are most human when we most completely surrender our wills to God. In fact, the opposite is not to be human but to be demonic. Was that not the temptation to Eve from the evil one, and through Eve to Adam? The essence of being a demon is to do one’s will contrary to the will of the Almighty.

In Christ’s case His surrender was constant. There was no reservation for even a moment of anything that Christ did because He wanted to. There are only two great mysteries in the universe, one in heaven (the Trinity) and the other on earth (man’s liberty). The mystery is that our liberty is best used and most free when it is least free, least free to do what it wants. In Christ, doing what it wants –His will apart from the will of the Father—never existed. He did always and only what the Father desired.

This surrender of the Savior was entire. It was in everything He did—in great and small things. In fact, the distinction between great and small disappears against the backdrop of doing the will of God. What is small? Nothing is small. What is big? Everything is big when what we are doing is what the Almighty wants us to do. He surrendered Himself at His conception in Mary’s womb. This was a fully conscious and totally voluntary surrender: His journey to Elizabeth in His mother’s womb, His flight into Egypt in her arms, His long hidden years at Nazareth, His temptation in the desert, His leaving home, His preaching, His being thwarted and opposed, His poverty, His exhaustless patience with those apostles, and above all, His foreseeing the Passion and voluntarily, as He insisted, choosing it. In fact, in Christ’s case, because He had the vision of God, the surrender was not as we surrender, often unanticipated and unexpected. In Christ’s case, He anticipated what He was going to surrender and He did so anyway.

Christ’s exercise of His priestly office in sacrifice was by a surrender that was painful. There was the social pain of rejection by His own people. There was the spiritual pain of knowing that in spite of His Passion so many would reject His grace and refuse to be saved. There was the psychological pain of seeing Himself taunted and ridiculed and, by all human estimates, a failure. A Man who had the desires of God found Himself condemned as a criminal and dying on the cross. This failure that Christ both saw and foresaw was not only in Palestine at that time but into the centuries to come. After nineteen hundred years, less than one half of the human race, all of which He came to redeem, even believes in His name. That was hard!

This surrender of the Savior was bloody. In other words, we can never separate the sacrifice of Christ the Priest on earth from His shedding of blood. In fact, that is what His precious blood means. It means the exercise of His priesthood by draining His blood. It began symbolically at the Circumcision. Then He shed His blood because of the interior agony He experienced in the Garden of Gethsemane. He shed His blood from the scourging, the crowning of thorns, but most especially by His being nailed to and dying on the cross.

Finally and most importantly, the sixth attribute of Christ’s sacrificial surrender was that it was loving. Christ endured what He did because He loved the Father and He loved us. Thus did Christ exercise His priesthood on earth by offering sacrifice.

The Savior also exercised His priestly office by prayer. For a moment we should distinguish between what may be called Christ’s private prayer, which we may be sure He often offered to His heavenly Father, and His priestly prayer. Among Christ’s priestly prayers none is more important than the prayer He said at the institution of the Holy Eucharist. If ever we were tempted to doubt the efficacy and the power of Christ’s prayer, we have the answer in what that prayer effected at the Last Supper. It changed bread and wine into His own body and blood. Or, as we say theologically, Christ’s priestly prayer is always efficacious. It always achieves what He prays for.

But immediately after He instituted the Blessed Sacrament, gave us the Holy Sacrifice and Holy Communion, Christ offered another priestly prayer which compels further reflection: the whole seventeenth chapter of Saint John’s Gospel. It is a prayer that contains four remarkable petitions, each of which we are to make our own, and joining our priestliness with His, further advance and insure that what He prayed for would be accomplished. It was in this context that He gave us that unforgettable definition of everlasting life.

Christ’s priestly prayer was, first of all, that the whole human race might come to know and believe in His Son who became man. And we, in our way, live out that priestly prayer and help to achieve its fulfillment by our own prayer and sacrifice for that same end.

It was also in this prayer that Jesus pleaded for unity: “Father that they may be one in us, as you are in me and I am in you.” This may aptly be called His prayer for community. How we must pray and sacrifice that this unity in community. How we must pray and sacrifice that this unity in community might be achieved! Who could possibly doubt that for the followers of Christ to live together in loving community requires much prayer and sacrifice?

It was in this priestly prayer that Christ begged His Father that His followers might be protected from evil. It was here that Jesus said those incredible words: “I am not praying for the world….” Dear Lord, what do you mean? He did not pray does not now pray for those who do not want to do His will. But for those who are His disciples He prays that they might be protected from this world. How we need to put this prayer into practice today when, perhaps, the most seductive single word in our contemporary vocabulary is “world.” We are being told to relate to the world; to be relevant to the world; to be in the world; to be with the world. How we need to pray to have the wisdom to distinguish between the world of sin and the world of God’s creation, and the strength to protect ourselves, and through our prayer and sacrifice to protect others from a sinful world!

Finally, Christ prayed in that seventeenth chapter of Saint John for holiness for His followers. But not any kind of holiness. He prayed for a holiness in truth; a holiness that is founded on God’s revelation; a holiness that recognizes that being holy is being like God and acting according to the norms of God. In a word, Christ prayed that His followers might be sanctified by becoming like Himself because they had first come to know Him. That kind of sanctity is safe and secure because it is the holiness patterned on Jesus.

The names Jesus, Savior, and Priest, faith tells us are perfectly synonymous terms. Let us ask this Jesus to help us understand His priestliness, that becoming more like Him we might, like Him and with Him, help Him redeem the world.

Conference transcription from a retreat that
Father Hardon gave in December, 1977 to the
Handmaids of the Precious Blood

Copyright © 1998 Inter Mirifica

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