As I promised yesterday, here’s another excerpt from St. John Chrysostom’s book On The Priesthood, with my thoughts and comments along the way.
If anyone will consider how great a thing it is for one, being a man, and compassed with flesh and blood, to be enabled to draw near to that blessed and pure nature, he will then clearly see what great honor the grace of the Spirit has vouchsafed to priests; since by their agency these rites are celebrated, and other nowise inferior to these both in respect of our dignity and salvation.
This quote picks up almost exactly where yesterday’s quote left off. There, we heard about the glory of the Sacrament of Holy Communion. Now, St. John Chrysostom is reflecting more directly on the nature of the priesthood. Even though priests are no different to other people in terms of human dignity and salvation, they have been set aside by “the grace of the Spirit” to be God’s agents in celebrating sacramental rites, such as Holy Communion. The glory of the sacraments reveal that priesthood is a very special privilege.
For it has not been said to [angels and archangels] “Whatsoever you shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatsoever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (Matthew 18:18). They who rule on earth have indeed authority to bind, but only the body: whereas this binding lays hold of soul and penetrates the heavens; and what priests do here below God ratifies above, and the Master confirms the sentence of his servants. For indeed what is it but all manner of heavenly authority which He has given them when He says “Whose sins ye remit they are remitted, and whose sins ye retain they are retained? (John 20:23). What authority could be greater than this?
The first tool that Chrysostom names as a means by which priests function is authority. Like a servant given stewardship of his master’s household, a priest carries authority to bind and loose, even remit and retain sin. A common misunderstanding here might be that this turns God into a puppet, doing whatever his priests say. But Chrysostom emphasizes “what priests do here below, God ratifies above.” Should a priest get it wrong and make a mistake, God is not bound to uphold it, any more than a master is bound to do the will of his steward. And, as a wayward servants eventually get punished by their masters in several of Jesus’ parables, so too will wayward priests be held strictly accountable for every part of their ministry on the Last Day.
Still, most Protestants today are wary about talking about priests having authority to forgive sins. Surely only God can do that? Chrysostom continues…
“The Father has committed all judgment to the Son? (John 5:22). But I see it all put into the hands of these men by the Son. For they have been conducted to this dignity as if they were already translated to Heaven, and had transcended human nature, and were released from the passions to which we are liable. Moreover, if a king should bestow this honor upon any of his subjects, authorizing him to cast into prison whom he pleased and to release them again, he becomes an object of envy and respect to all men…
Relying on his earlier citations of Matthew 18 and John 20, Chrysostom shows the flow of giving authority moved from the Father to the Son, and from the Son to his appointed ministers (the Apostles originally, and priests who continue their ministry today). So the heavenly nature of the spiritual authority is emphasized throughout, to the point where he even describes priests as people who are as if they were somehow beyond earthly existence. Priests aren’t super-humans, they’re simply given a gift that is not of this world. It’s like an earthly king giving one of his subjects authority to rule: that subject is still a subject of the king, but shares in kingly authority as if he were the king himself. But the difference between them is still great: the king can change his minister’s decisions; the minister cannot change the king’s decisions.
…but he who has received from God an authority as much greater as heaven is more precious than earth, and souls more precious than bodies, seems to some to have received so small an honor that they are actually able to imagine that one of those who have been entrusted with these things will despise the gift. Away with such madness! For transparent madness it is to despise so great a dignity, without which it is not possible to obtain either our own salvation, or the good things which have been promised to us. For if no one can enter into the kingdom of Heaven except he be regenerate through water and the Spirit, and he who does not eat the flesh of the Lord and drink His blood is excluded from eternal life, and if all these things are accomplished only be means of those holy hands, I mean the hands of the priest, how will anyone, without these, be able to escape the fire of hell, or to win those crowns which are reserved for the victorious?
There’s some backstory that’s missing here, which explains why Chrysostom bring up the idea of people despising the gift of the priesthood. Suffice it to say here that he esteems the office very highly – its worth immeasurably more than an earthly king giving authority to one of his subjects. Indeed, he goes so far as to say that the normal operation of salvation cannot happen without priests, because they are the appointed ministers of the sacraments, which are considered generally necessary to salvation! Again, this may strike some Protestant readers as blasphemous, or at least overly-dramatic and exaggerated. But the belief was once universal that Baptism and Holy Communion are indeed sacraments – means of grace – which unite us with Christ and thereby bring us into the life of the Trinity.
(Exceptions to this were understood, such as when one is martyred before Baptism, or inability to participate in the Mass due to isolation or other such unusual cases. This is not a strictly legalistic theology, but a general and pastoral theology. People need to be fed in order to survive.)
In short, St. John Chrysostom is pointing out that priests in the Church are given a role that is necessary for the life of the Church as a whole, as well as her members individually. It is therefore to be regarded highly, approached carefully, and carried out faithfully. How often people scorn the clergy! How often people feel entitled to the office! How often clergy are slack in their duties! Our culture today tends to be very disrespectful, and irreverent, clinging to notions of entitlement and radical equalization… there’s hardly any room left for the Christian priesthood in the modern way of thinking. Yet somehow we’ve got to re-learn what it means for someone to be a priest, and re-discover the gravity and dignity of the office.