Priest and Sacrifice

Holy Week has come and gone. I shared this with our homeschool group before I had a blog. Now that I’ve got a blog, well I can publish.

One of the things still emphasized in the modern Spanish hymns sung at Mass is the notion that in the Mass, Jesus is both “cordero y pastor,” or lamb and shepherd. The idea, of course, is that Jesus is both priest and victim in the Holy Sacrifice. I recently read an article On Father Z’s blog which emphasized this point, namely that during Mass, the priest acts in persona Christi Capitis, and that we should focus on Jesus in the person of the priest, rather than on the priest himself, during Mass. The article went further, describing the nature of Mass as the drama on Calvary itself.

In focusing on the priest during the Mass as Jesus, both High Priest and Holy Sacrifice, I have found it easy to see Jesus High Priest the few times I have attended the Extraordinary Form of the Mass. The priest is at the head of the assembly, facing the altar, and leading the assembly in the prayers of the Mass. I know that Jesus is at the same time the Sacrifice, and I always thought acknowledging this was enough. Today at Mass in the Ordinary Form at St. Elizabeth, however, something suddenly struck me about the basic posture of the priest in the Ordinary Form. He is facing the assembly, of course, and up till now I might have focused on the conversational aspects of having the priest facing the assembly. Face-to-face is the ordinary way human beings have a conversation, after all, not face-to-back. I might even have focused on the notion that it is easier to fall into the trap of viewing the priest as the object of worship when he is facing the assembly.

But the celebrated Mass was the Palm Sunday Mass in Spanish in the Ordinary Form. The readings related the Passion and death of Jesus. And the priest’s vestments were red. As the Passion was being related, I could not help but see the priest in exactly the sort of position that Jesus would have been in when paraded before the people by Pontius Pilate. Jesus was not initially condemned to death, but Pilate acquiesced readily enough, and once Pilate acquiesced to the crucifixion, we are left contemplating the spectacle of Jesus facing the people who condemn him to death through the machinations of Roman justice. Facing the people is exactly how the priest usually celebrates the Ordinary Form of the Mass.

Thus, given one more premise, I am left with a conclusion which I will relate shortly. The final premise is that the Church does not accidentally do anything when it comes to matters of faith and morals. Every position staked out, every claim that is made, all have theological or natural justification. Usually, they have both. One claim of the Mass is that it is not the priest we should see on the alter but rather Jesus himself, and while Jesus is perfect as both High Priest and Holy Sacrifice simultaneously, human agency can only present one or the other well. It is difficult to present both this side of heaven.

And so the conclusion I draw is this. While in the Extraordinary Form it is simpler to see the priest in the person of Jesus High Priest, I think, perhaps, that it is simpler to see Jesus Holy Sacrifice in the person of the priest who faces the people during the Ordinary Form of the Mass, if only we allow ourselves to see. Jesus is there, preparing himself to be slain, just as he is there, preparing to slay the victim, which is himself. Particularly on Palm Sunday and Good Friday it may be simpler to see this because the red vestments clearly represent the blood of the sacrificial lamb (and perhaps other things which I do not yet understand). Thus, when the priest faces the people during Mass this Palm Sunday it might be fruitful to see not the priest but rather Jesus being paraded before the people as victim, just as he was when Pontius Pilate pronounced sentence 2000 years ago. And it may be that the Ordinary Form of the Mass, with the priest facing the people, does a better job of presenting Jesus Holy Sacrifice than does the Extraordinary Form. And maybe that’s the whole point. Human agency can only go so far in presenting (or re-presenting, in this case), the divine realities which we contemplate at Mass. If the priest does his level best to present Jesus High Priest by gesture and body position, he may inadvertently leave out something of Jesus Holy Sacrifice. Perhaps this is why so much of the theology surrounding the Extraordinary Form has historically emphasized Jesus as Holy Sacrifice. If gesture makes High Priesthood unequivocal, then explanation must step in and re-emphasize Sacrifice. Similarly, if in the Ordinary Form we allow ourselves to clearly see the Victim being presented to the people prior to sacrifice – which I think it is really good at, now that I view the priest’s position in this new light – then perhaps it is appropriate that much theology be spent explaining the priest as Jesus High Priest. Now the fact that neither High Priesthood nor Holy Sacrifice is commonly taught is not the fault of the Ordinary Form; rather that is what can happen when we humans muddle through. But perhaps this Holy Week, we can make a point of seeing how the Ordinary Form really does emphasize the re-presentation of Jesus Holy Sacrifice and does it exceedingly well.

This does force us into some thought-provoking positions. For example, the deacon at Mass is responsible for attending to the sacrificial table. In some sense, this places him in a position similar to that of Pontius Pilate – namely that of preparing the sentence without actually carrying it out (Jesus High Priest carries out the sentence). Similarly, we in the assembly are placed in the position of the people shouting for Jesus’s crucifixion – or else in that of cowering in fear lest Roman justice should find us and similarly sentence us. Either way, both deacon and assembly are forced into the difficult position of participating in the lead-up to the execution of Jesus. In reality, of course, this is necessary. Just as Abraham had need of the ram caught up in that ancient thicket in order to avoid sacrificing Isaac, we have need to catch Jesus up in the thicket of our condemnation and Roman justice in order that someone pay the price of our sins. Those shouting out for the crucifixion of Jesus while Pilate paraded him on that ancient stage probably did not realize that they were calling for exactly the remedy that they truly needed. They just shouted. So, too often, do we – or at least I – just shout. And then there is Jesus Holy Sacrifice facing us down, ready to die.

It is a sobering thought.

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