One of the most significant factors that kept me firmly on the road to the Priesthood (both in my own resolve, and in my public discernment process) was a deep-seated love for the Church. I didn’t know how to express it in words for a while – probably not even until after I became a Deacon. I’d have to check my journal.
Towards the end of St. John Chrysostom’s short book, On the Priesthood, he gives a couple analogies to describe the ordained priesthood and the Church. As I’ve mentioned earlier in this series, Chrysostom is explaining why he initially avoided ordination. He wrote these final analogies to show how great the Church and the ministry are, compared to his great unworthiness. Granted, he eventually went on to become not just a priest but also a bishop and one of the greatest Christian teachers of all time. But early in his life, he took the cautious steps of humility to make sure he didn’t jump into ordained ministry too quickly. This particular analogy resonated with me quite deeply.
Let us suppose that the daughter of the King of all the earth under the sun is the betrothed of a certain man, and that this damsel has matchless beauty, transcending that of human nature, and that in this respect she outstrips by a long distance the whole race of women; also that she has virtues of the soul, so great as to distance by a long way the whole generation of men that have been, or that shall be; and that the grace of her manners transcends all standards of art, and that the loveliness of her person is eclipsed by the beauty of her countenance; and that her betrothed, not only for the sake of these things, is enamored of the maiden, but apart from these things has an affection for her, and by his ardor throws into the shade the most passionate of lovers that ever were. Then let us suppose, while he is burning with love, he hears from some quarter that some mean, abject man, low born, and crippled in body, in fact a thoroughly bad fellow, was about to wed this wondrous, well-beloved maiden. Have we then presented to you some small portion of our grief? And is it enough to stay my illustration at this point? So far as my despondency is concerned, I think it is enough; for this was the only purpose for which I introduced the comparison, but that I may show you the measure of my fear, and my terror, let me proceed to another description.
In this analogy (or parable, really), the woman is the Church, her betrothed is someone preparing for ministry, and the “mean, abject man” who’s about to marry her instead is someone unworthily preparing for ministry. Chrysostom was terrified that he would prove to be the second man, rather than the first. He saw the Church as a beautiful bride to be cherished, and he saw the priesthood as a sort of marriage to that bride: a priest therefore ought to be someone unusually virtuous, worthy of that spotless bride.
An objection to this image might be that Jesus is the husband and the Church is his bride. How can anyone, priest or otherwise, be the husband when we’re all supposed to be the bride? The answer to that objection is that, first of all, we Christians are baptized into Christ. The Church is, in the Bible, called the Body of Christ. In other words, the Bride is the Body of Christ. How can that be possible? Basic marriage theology gives us the answer: the two become on flesh. The distinction between Christ and Church, therefore, is not necessarily as simple as we might sometimes assume.
For example, how do we distinguish between the ministry of Christ and the ministry of the Church? Ministry is a co-mingling of the activity of God and mankind; it’s impossible to say “I did it,” and it’s not quite appropriate to say “only God did it.” Even when we talk about the ministry of evangelism, and ‘leading people to Christ,’ a mature Christian will recognize that “God did it,” but at the same recognize that “God worked through me” for some part of that process. All of ministry takes place in this dynamic of divine power and human cooperation (or instrumentality, if you like).
The priesthood, and pastoral ministry in general, is an area of ministry whose specific target is Christians. When someone acts as a pastor (shepherd), they are ministering to part of the Church; there’s a Christ-like role being taken on, in imitation of the Good Shepherd himself. Or, to switch from pastoral imagery to spousal imagery, a priest is a minister to the Bride as if he were her husband. Yes, priests are part of the Bride, but the ministry of ordained priesthood functions like a husband to the bride, just as how shepherds are part of the flock, yet the ministry of shepherding functions like a shepherd to the flock.
Like Chrysostom, I tend to see the Church as a beautiful bride. Therefore, as a priest, and a sort of mini-husband for the Church, I am called to strive towards the ministry of Jesus, the true and perfect Husband, who “gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish” (Ephesians 5:25-27). Part of the ordained ministry is to participate in that work of Christ, facilitating sanctification and cleansing, presenting Christians to God through water and the word so that they’ll turn out holy and blameless at the end. It’s a very beautiful ministry, when you keep your eyes on the final product. And as a priest grows deeper into Christ’s love, that burning love for the Church will only grow with time.
I sometimes like to say that if you’re going to a priest, or pastor, you have to love the Church. Not just people, not just Christians, but the Church – the flock, Christ’s bride of “matchless beauty.”