The Royal Priesthood

In saying that the communion of Saints is at the heart of Eastern Orthodox worship, it must also be understood that worship or liturgy is celebrated. More than celebrated, it is co-celebrated by the clergy and the people gathered to praise the one true God. But, it is also co-celebrated with the Saints and the Heavenly Host, for all worshipers in the Church are saints together, equally children of God brought into the Kingdom by the sacrifice of Jesus Christ through the work of the Holy Spirit. It is communion that forms the basis of worship: believers join with those in Heaven before the Throne of God, and offer Him praise and blessing. Those who have been reconciled to God through faith in Jesus Christ in Holy Baptism become members of the royal priesthood (1 Peter 2:9).

What is a priest? One who stands before God and offers to Him in thanksgiving that which He has given to us: life. Because of the fall of Adam and Eve, humanity turned away from the worship of God and became self-centered. In the book of Romans, St. Paul identifies the key mark of sin: unthankfulness (1:21). Man refuses to say thank you to God, to love Him back. But reconciled believers are "an elect race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation" (1 Peter 2:9-10), the people of God. Having been restored to priesthood, believers return to worship.

Fr. Alexander Schmemann writes, "All rational, spiritual and other qualities of man distinguishing him from other creatures have their focus and ultimate fulfillment in this capacity to bless God, to know, so to speak, the meaning of the thirst and hunger that constitute his life. 'Homo Sapien', 'Homo Faber'... yes, but first of all, 'Homo adorans'. The first, the basic definition of man is that he is the priest. He stands in the center of the world and unifies it in his act of blessing God, of both receiving the world from God and offering it to God — and by filling the world with this Eucharist, he transforms his life, the one that he receives from the world, into life in God, into communion with Him." [1]

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Priesthood and Vocation

And at the most practical level, what does this mean for believers? It means that believers were created to bless and praise God, to worship Him. This is the primary human vocation because this is precisely what human beings were created to do: to be in communion with God as His priests, and in that role to worship Him. The dictionary defines vocation as follows: "Any occupation or pursuit for which one qualifies oneself, or to which one devotes one's time or life; a cal1ing." [2] Believers are called to this vocation because human beings are created for it. And in accepting Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, and entering into the Church, believers are enabled by God's Holy Spirit to carry out that for which human beings were created. Liturgy literally means the work of the people. It is not just that which worshipers are to do during the Divine Liturgy, but that work which they are to be doing throughout all of their lives.

There is a personal issue to be considered which has to do with the fulfillment of this fundamental attribute for which all human beings were created. The inherent ability to be a priest may be exercised to varying degrees or not at all. Those who are outside the New Covenant of faith in Jesus Christ and are not members of His Body are not fulfilling this created purpose. They possess the capacity by having been created in the image of God, but they are not able to actualize it until they are reconciled to God in Jesus Christ. Those within the New Covenant have been restored to this priesthood. Then the question of fulfillment becomes the issue.

The understanding of humans as priests is but one part of the created role. In Christian theology Christ is understood to have manifested Himself in three offices, to have worked in three ways: as king, priest and prophet. Jesus Christ is King, He is High Priest and He is Prophet. Christ is King because He is the anointed Messiah; He is Priest because He offered Himself for the life of the world; He is Prophet because He fulfilled all the prophecies in coming in human form.

Notice that all three key off of the human nature which Jesus Christ took upon Himself in the Incarnation. It was through taking on and fulfilling His calling, in human form, that He became King, Priest and Prophet. As Divine, as a part of the Godhead, there is no need to refer to Him in these ways; it is self-evident. The point is that these three offices or characteristics of Christ are also the created offices or characteristics of human beings. Human beings were created to be priestly, prophetic and kingly; and though fallen, it is what they can become in Jesus Christ.

St. Paul observed that "God works all things together for the good, for those who love the Lord and are called according to His purpose" (Rom. 8:28), indicating a fundamental inter-relationship of all that believers are and do in Jesus Christ. This is equally true of the Church. The liturgical and the sacramental character of the Church are linked together, and they are the way the Church is to be and to worship. This was so from the beginning of the New Testament Church. The ability to fulfill this vocation or calling is directly tied to the liturgical and the sacramental and cannot be fulfilled outside the Church.

It is this priesthood that undergirds Christian worship, and most particularly the Divine Liturgy. Why? Because worship of the One True God can and must take place in the only place of true worship, the Kingdom of God. The Liturgy is a celebration of salvation. It is a feast of the joy that is accessible in the Holy Trinity which Christ came to give. It is saying thank you for the grace of God which is continually available through the Holy Spirit in the sacraments. It is a festival with all the accompanying joy and gladness that characterize heaven itself. Jesus described the Kingdom of God in terms of a royal feast, "And they shall come from the east, and from the west, and from the north, and from the south, and shall sit down (lie at table) in the Kingdom of God" (Luke 13:29). And St. John says in Revelation that the Saints at the heavenly wedding feast cry out, "Allelulia! For the Lord our God the Almighty reigns. Let us rejoice and exult and give him glory, for the marriage of the Lord has come, and the Bride has made herself ready" (Rev. 19:6-7).

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The Priesthood In Action: Worship

In worship, celebration takes two forms: con-celebration and co-celebration. Con-celebration is a term used to describe what the priest(s) and deacon(s) do together: they con-celebrate together their part of the Liturgy. Co-celebration describes the role the clergy take in the Liturgy with the congregation. All worshipers in the Church celebrate together, or co-celebrate, this worship which is offered up to the Holy Trinity and is called the Divine Liturgy. The sacramental role which the priest performs is done on behalf of the gathered believers; the priest and the assembly of believers offer their worship to God as a corporate whole. The priest leads the assembly in their corporate worship, as Christ (as the Head) leads the mystical Body. The royal priesthood of all believers — both clergy and laity — assures the access of each person to God as His people, and makes this worship possible.

The priest has a specific sacramental role; he is "called" to the priesthood as the father of the faithful ordained by the bishop. That role includes leading the worship, preaching, and consecrating and serving the Eucharist. The priest is first and foremost the icon of Christ to his people, and the designation "father" connotes the pastoral role he is to have. He is President of the Holy Assembly, "the man who stands in front" representing the bishop and bringing the entire priesthood to the throne of God. Recall that in the early Church, the Bishop was the central figure around whom the congregation gathered to celebrate the Eucharist. The Bishop as direct successor to the Apostles was the representative, the icon of Christ. And so the priest, as the representative of the Bishop, is the icon of Christ to His people.

The key role of the Bishop in maintaining the integrity and continuity of what Christ began was not a late political or medieval development, designed to further the power of the Church within the state. For the fourth-century historian Eusebius, the Apostolic Succession was a crucial and critical issue. It is not only apparent doctrinally, but if one considers the structure of his treatise The History of The Church, one can see that it is linked together like a chain. And what constitutes the links? The Bishops of each Church. His entire history from the time of Christ through the ascension of Constantine is traced from bishop to bishop.

For Eusebius, the Apostolic succession is critical because "that succession includes the whole intellectual, spiritual, and institutional life of the Church, and is the guarantee of the preservation of one unchanging God-given doctrine." [3] He quotes Philo, the Jewish historian, who "writes about the comparative status of those entrusted with the ministries of the Church, from the diaconate to the highest and most important office, the episcopate." [4]

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The Presence of the Lord in Worship

What makes the Church the Church is the presence of the Lord. As the Icon of Christ, the Lord is sacramentally present in the Church through the priest. In Hebrew the word qahal means to congregate, to be gathered together in the presence of the Lord, or the gathering where the Lord is present. The important element is that the Lord is present, that He is doing the gathering, and that believers have assembled in response to and in anticipation of His action in their midst. True, all share the royal priesthood, but sacramentally the Church needs the priest to be the Church. This understanding of the assembly gathered together by the Lord, where He is present to act, can be seen in Exodus 35:1, Deuteronomy 4:10 and 5:22, II Chronicles 20:14, and numerous other Old Testament references, and carries through into the New Testament.

While acknowledging that the priest in his sacramental role as the icon of Christ is necessary for the celebration of the Eucharist, it must be realized that more than the priest is necessary. For the early Christian Church (and this practice continued in the Eastern Orthodox and Western Roman Churches down to this century), it has always been understood that three elements must be present together: people, priest and the Holy Spirit. The liturgy is the work of the people, and people and priest are required. A priest cannot celebrate the Eucharist without the people present. The mystical work whereby the elements become the Body and Blood require the prayers and presence of the priest and people and the work of the Holy Spirit. Christ is present and works through His icon, the priest; the people of God are exercising their royal priesthood; the Holy Spirit mystically works in their midst making the gifts the Body and Blood.

This has been the conviction of the Church from the beginning. This expectation of the presence and action of the Lord within His Body in the proclamation of the Deacon before the Eastern Orthodox Divine Liturgy begins. The Deacon declares to the Priest that "It is time for the Lord to act!" This is a clear anticipation that the Lord through the Holy Spirit will be present and will be so sacramentally through the priest, His icon. This sacramental role of the priest does not reduce the value of each believer, for all are to be icons of Christ because all are made in His image (Genesis Chapters 1 and 5). Rather, it is just this royal priesthood which allows and enables believers to come together — to be present when and where the Lord acts, and to work with Him in this responsibility called worship.

Some might say, does not liturgical worship by its very design and structure create a distinction between clergy and laity? Yes, in an outward or organizational sense — but not in terms of standing before God. No more so than liturgical worship with male priests creates a distinction between men and women. Two observations may expand the understanding of these so-called distinctions. One of these practices is standing during worship. It is still practiced in Orthodox Churches, and was practiced in Western Christianity through the seventeenth century. This was indeed the practice in Jewish synagogues, and in the earliest Christian churches, where the assembly gathered around the bema and then moved to the altar. The historic worship practice has been that of standing most of the time, kneeling for short periods on the ground, but never sitting.

Here is Fr. Bouyer's observation on this practice: "In the view of the modern Western Christian this may seem an intolerable burden. But when one has become accustomed to the practice it is impossible not to realize how much of the feeling of intense participation always felt in an Orthodox liturgy is due to it. A seated assembly is necessarily a passive assembly. And it is not disposed by its position to worship, but at best to accept some instruction, or most of the time just to look more or less curiously at a spectacle in which it takes no part. Even when it kneels to pray it will be for a private prayer and not for a common supplication. And just as a sitting assembly usually sings badly or not at all, it is hopeless to try to bring it together to praise and thanksgiving." [5]

Liturgical services, drawing on the historical forms of early Christian worship, are by definition "sung services." The clergy and people perform the work of worship and the text is chanted or sung by either or both. It is this understanding of the communion of the saints participating ultimately in the Eucharist and made possible by the royal priesthood of believers that makes the liturgical service a dynamic, joyous and beautiful experience. It is the oneness before God as a priesthood restored to its original purpose that allows believers to fulfill this calling and offer up praise and worship to the Lord. It is the Kingdom of God to which believers ascend, for it is there that all true and spiritual worship takes place.

Credits

Parts of this page are excerpted from: Williams, B. and Anstall, H.; Orthodox Worship: A Living Continuity with the Synagogue, the Temple and the Early Church; Light and Life Publishing, Minneapolis, 1990.

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[1] Alexander Schmemann, For The Life Of The World; St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, Crestwood, NY, 1973, p. 64.

[2] New Standard Dictionary of the English Language; Funk & Wagnalls, New York.

[3] Eusebius, The History of the Church, Dorset Press, New York, 1984, p. 21.

[4] ibid, p. 93.

[5] Louis Bouyer, Eucharist, Notre Dame Press, Notre Dame, 1968, p. 97.


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