Sweet miracle of our empty hands

Young priest in the Chapel of the Transfiguration, Grand Tetons National Park (1976)

Young priest in the Chapel of the Transfiguration, Grand Tetons National Park (1976)

When I preached at my wife Karen’s ordination on All Souls Day, 2010, I reflected on the peculiar vocation of priesthood. Since today, the Feast of Hildegard of Bingen, is the 45th anniversary of my own ordination, it seems fitting to publish it here.

In nineteenth-century Paris, there was a certain priest who was not quite right in the head, and one day he walked into a bakery, made the sign of the cross over the assorted breads, and said Hoc est corpus meum (This is my body) – the Words of Institution from the eucharistic prayer. When the Archbishop of Paris heard what had happened, he bought up every baguette and croissant in the shop, and reverently consumed them.

This story reflects an understanding of priesthood and sacrament which we do not share, but it does raise questions about the power that is conferred in ordination. What will happen to Karen tonight when the Holy Spirit is called down, and the hands of bishop and priests are laid on her head? How will she be different? What is the nature of the gift she will receive?

Priesthood has a certain aura. You wear special vestments, preside over worship in the name of the whole assembly, and stand at altar and pulpit to speak for God and Christ as though you were heaven’s ambassador. You are called and set apart by God and the Church to do holy things.

Eventually, the doers of holy things are sometimes regarded as possessors of an occupational holiness. The distinctiveness of what priests do becomes a distinctiveness in who priests are. The parson is seen as a kind of model person.

At its best, this understanding of a priest as a walking icon of the Christian life has produced some remarkable saints, clergy who have indeed exemplified a godly life, clergy whose words, actions, and faithfulness manage to bring God a little closer. At its worst, this attribution of holiness to the priest has let everyone else off the hook. We don’t have to be faithful or devout. The priest does that for us.

But in our own day, we have been rediscovering, to our joy, the ministry of all the baptized. All of us, clergy and laity, are empowered and called to be ministers of the gospel, to be doers of the Word in all the times and places of our lives.

Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable [i] – that’s on every Christian’s agenda. When the saints go marching in, we are all “in that number.”

Our common vocation as ministers was beautifully summarized by Paul Moore, the late bishop of New York. When he retired, his last words to his people were these: “You are messengers clothed in the beauty of God. Take hope, be strong, be brave, be free, be open, be loving, and hold up the vision of the Heavenly City.”

You are all messengers clothed in the beauty of God, and you will be reminded of that again tonight, when you renew your baptismal vows and are sprinkled with water from the baptismal font, in the hope that Isaiah’s cry may ever be on your own lips: Here am I; send me.

But if we are all ministers, then what is so distinctive about the role of priest? If your understanding of priesthood is purely functional, based on what a priest does, the ministry of the baptized creates a crisis of definition as more and more of the priest’s jobs are outsourced to the laity.

Parish administration, pastoral counseling, preaching, teaching, evangelism, social witness and outreach, worship planning and a great deal of worship leading can all be done by laypeople. There are really only three things that a priest can do that a layperson cannot: preside at the eucharist, pronounce God’s forgiveness after confession, and give God’s blessing.

Just these three things. But perhaps they are not such little things.
Bread, forgiveness, blessing.
The things that priests give, in the name of God, in the name of Christ.
Bread, forgiveness, blessing.

It’s actually quite a lot, really, requiring no less than everything – and a lifetime of preparation. Why a lifetime of preparation? Can’t anyone do these things? Speak some words, perform a few actions? Simple, yes. Easy, not so much.

Ritual is like art, requiring natural gifts, extensive training, and a deep grasp of the cluster of conditions that constitute ritual practice: theology, history, the meaning of sign and symbol, the nuances of body language, gesture and gaze, and so forth.

Karen comes to this calling with her own particular identity, her own unique blend of gifts and qualities. Priesthood is always an embodied phenomenon, something only realized in the form of particular persons. In that respect, each priest is different.

But when the Church sets a person apart in ordination, she becomes more than her individual self. Whenever Karen puts on her priestly stole, she will become 2000 years old, a public representative of the cumulative tradition and collective wisdom of the Church.

As priest, she will be a keeper and guardian of our sacred stories, whose task it is to tend the flame of their saving grace. At the same time, she is given the privilege of being entrusted with the stories of her people, helping them to understand that their own lives are also sacred stories.

The priestly role is not for everyone. It requires a delicate balance between self-awareness and transparency to Spirit, the sensitivity to be attuned not only to one’s own self but also to all the other selves in the room, and to the Holy One in whose presence we gather.

At the eucharist, who the presider is, and how the presider is, both have an effect on the assembly’s understanding of what is really going on when we gather to worship.

The performance of ritual doesn’t happen by accident. It is the product of charism, call and holiness of life. It is a full-time, serious business, as Richard Baxter insisted in the seventeenth century when he said to worship leaders:

[A]bove all be much in secret prayer and meditation. There you must fetch the heavenly fire that must kindle your sacrifices. Remember that you cannot decline and neglect your duty to your own hurt alone; many will be losers by it as well as you. For your people’s sake, therefore, look to your hearts… If [your hearts] be then cold, how [are they] likely to warm the hearts of [your] hearers?[ii]

In its essence, priesthood is a concrete and visible expression of belief: belief in the presence of God, and belief in the meaning and destiny of the eucharistic assembly as the body of Christ.

Every time the priest stands at the altar and says the holy words, the whole assembly is alerted to the fact that we all stand on the border between earth and heaven, the visible and the invisible. The border is where worship is conducted: it is where God gives us the bread of life and we offer in return “our selves, our souls and bodies, to be a reasonable, holy and living sacrifice”[iii] unto God.

The priest’s ritual words and actions make clear to the assembly what is going on at the border. It’s not a place where we escape the world; it’s where we discover just how sacred the world is. Ordinary bread and wine become the food of heaven and the cup of salvation.

As Gordon Lathrop puts it, the eucharistic assembly is “a hole in the fabric of things, through which life-giving power flows into the world.”[iv]

But the priestly work of bread, forgiveness and blessing is something that belongs to the entire body of Christ – not just the priest, not just this particular assembly, but the whole Church of God’s people throughout the world and throughout all time.

You and I are all priests in a cosmic sacrament, standing in the place of Christ, seeing with the eyes of Christ, in order to make visible and tangible the eucharistic nature of all things. As priests, we look at our neighbor with the most sacred attention – and intention – and say, This is my body, that is to say, Christ’s body.

We look at the stranger and say, This is my body.
We look at our enemy and say, This is my body.
We even look at bread and wine,
ordinary matter, the stuff of the universe,
and say, This is my body.

And so, to return to that bakery in Paris, we may assume that the bread was already sacred before the priest ever got there, and that every crumb was already worthy of reverent consumption. But we would never know these things had not Jesus, and every priest since, taken bread, said the blessing, broken it, and passed it around.

When I was preparing to preach this sermon, I emailed some of my ordained friends around the country, asking if they had any words of counsel or encouragement for a priest at the beginning of her journey.

One priest repeated what a Methodist minister told him at his own ordination 30 years ago: “You can’t help anybody in their relationship with God unless you are completely human.”

Another said that “who you are is infinitely more important to God and the world than the words you speak, the lists you complete or the sermons you write.”

A priest ordained for 46 years offered this advice: “Try to see [God’s people] the way God sees them.”

A seminary classmate who went on to become parish priest, cathedral dean, and diocesan bishop said, “Never leave or forget your diaconal calling. Jesus came as one who serves. As a priest, you must first of all be a servant.”

And a priest I’ve known since elementary school simply said, “Give all to God.”

I also asked my friends if they could provide a few words that distilled for them the essence of priesthood. One of the best teachers I’ve ever had – an Old Testament professor, seminary dean, parish rector, and priest for 63 years – described it this way:

living with and for sisters and brothers
being the body of christ
celebrating with brothers and sisters
word and sacrament and pastoral act
christ recalling us reshaping us refreshing us
being christ’s body for the world

A priest and poet who has worked since the 1960’s in parishes, campus ministry, foreign missions, and the national church office, offered this succinct couplet:

Everything we share is broken;
and yet we remember the whole and make it present.

Another longtime priest wrote: “Yours is to walk with people to the Mystery and back.”

 And finally, the canon to the ordinary in a Midwest diocese, a woman ordained five years ago, quoted a 16th century Sufi mystic:

Go where you are sent
Wait until you are shown what to do
Do it with your whole self
Remain until you have done what you were sent to do
Walk away with empty hands

Empty hands. I have loved this image ever since I first encountered it, just before my own ordination, in Robert Bresson’s film of the Georges Bernanos novel, Diary of a Country Priest.

The story, a retrospective account narrated with passages from a young priest’s journal, turns on a dramatic and transformative pastoral encounter with a parishioner. In one of the great scenes of cinema, fraught with a severe and holy beauty, we witness “a supernatural storm.”[v] And somehow, by what the young and inexperienced priest says to this woman, but even more by who he is, the woman’s hardened heart is broken open, and she is filled with grace and peace.

That night, the priest learns the woman has suddenly died. He hurries to the vigil where her body lies. We see him kneel by her bed to make the sign of the cross over her. At the same time, we hear his voice describe the moment as he would later record it in his journal:

“Be at peace,” I told her.
And she had knelt to
receive this peace.
May she keep it forever.
It will be I that gave it to her.
Oh miracle –
thus to be able to give
what we ourselves do not possess,
sweet miracle of our empty hands.

Sweet miracle of our empty hands. Let us pray that Karen, like every priest before her, may go to the altar of God, the God of her joy, with empty hands:

Hands that offer, and hands that receive,
hands that feed, and hands that heal,
hands that welcome, and hands that bless.

[i] Philippians 4:8

[ii] Christopher Cocksworth and Rosalind Brown, Being a Priest Today: Exploring Priestly Identity (Norwich: Canterbury Press, 2006), 150

[iii] From Thomas Cranmer’s 16th century eucharistic prayer, retained in Rite I of The Book of Common Prayer (1979), 336

[iv] Gordon Lathrop, q. in Graham Hughes, Worship as Meaning: A Liturgical Theology for Late Modernity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 150

[v] André Bazin, trans. Hugh Gray, What is Cinema? (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1967), 137

2 thoughts on “Sweet miracle of our empty hands

  1. Pingback: “The artist formerly known as priest” | The religious imagineer

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