There’s one more image from St. John’s Chrysostom’s book On the Priesthood that I want to share and comment upon, because like the previous one, it’s one that resonates with me in a quiet but profound way: the priest as a warrior (or more specifically, a commander).
Do not … suppose that because we are … unable to see anything of the invisible world, that what has been said is overstated. For you would see a far greater and more formidable conflict than this, couldest thou ever behold, with these eyes of yours, the devil’s most gloomy battle array, and his frantic onset. For there is no brass or iron there. No horses, or chariots or wheels, no fire and darts. These are visible things. But there are other much more fearful engines than these. One does not need against these enemies breastplate or shield, sword and spear, yet the sight only of this accursed array is enough to paralyze the soul, unless it happen to be very noble, and to enjoy in a high degree as a protection to its own courage the providential care of God. And if it were possible by putting off this body, or still keeping it, to see clearly and fearlessly with the naked eye the whole of his battle array, and his warfare against us, you would see no torrents of blood, nor dead bodies, but so many fallen souls, and such disastrous wounds that the whole of that description of warfare which I just now detailed to you you would think to be mere child’s sport and pastime rather than war: so many are there smitten every day, and the wounds in the two cases do not bring about the same death, but as great as is the difference between the soul from the body, so great is the difference between that death and this.
We start out with a descriptive reminder of the concept of spiritual warfare. St. Paul gave a useful introduction to it, too, in Ephesians 6 when he describes the “whole armor of God.” Here, though, Chrysostom is focusing us on the horrible reality of Satan’s armies. He started us off with a picture of earthly war where people’s physical lives are destroyed, and uses it to remind us that in spiritual warfare, spiritual lives are destroyed – and that is a far worse thing than physical death!
But if any one choose out the fiercest and most savage of beasts, and is minded to set their fury against his, he will find that they were meek and quiet in comparison, such rage does he breathe forth when he attacks our souls; and the period of the warfare indeed in the former case is brief, and in this brief space there are respites; for the approach of the night and the fatigue of slaughter, meal-times also, and many other things, afford a respite to the soldier, so that he can doff his armor and breathe a little, and refresh himself with food and drink, and in many other ways recover his former strength. But in the case of the evil one it is not possible ever to lay aside one’s armor, it is not possible even to take sleep, for one who would remain always unscathed. For one of two things must be: either to fall and perish unarmed, or to stand equipped and ever watchful. For he ever stands with his own battle array, watching for our indolence, and laboring more zealously for our destruction, than we for our salvation.
Chrysostom notes here that earthly battles stop from time to time – even if the war is still on, soldiers aren’t fighting 24/7. They can take breaks, be withdrawn from the front, and so forth. In spiritual warfare, however, there is no real break; there is always temptation to sin, there is always evil around us seeking to drag us down. And, as evidenced by the fact that we all sin, Satan is “laboring more zealously for our destruction, than we for our salvation.”
And that he is not seen by us, and suddenly assails us, which things are a source of countless evils to those who are not always on the watch, proves this kind of war to be harder than the other. Couldest thou wish us, then, in such a case to command the soldiers of Christ? Yea, this were to command them for the devil’s service, for whenever he who ought to marshal and order others is the most inexperienced and feeble of all men, by betraying through this inexperience those who have been entrusted to his charge, he commands them in the devil’s interests rather than in Christ’s.
These comments need some back-story reminders: Chrysostom is explaining why he avoided being ordained, at first. He didn’t think he was mature enough and ready for the great ministry. What he’s saying in this last quote here is that, as a priest, he would make a bad commander of the soldiers of Christ. His inexperience would cause him to fight “in the devil’s interests rather than in Christ’s.”
Sin is catchy. Demons have convincing arguments. It’s very easy to take their side even though we profess to stand with Christ. All Christians are called to make that stand and must fight these spiritual battles. Priests and pastors are supposed to be organizers, leaders, mobilizers of their respective congregations. Each local church is like a company or platoon of soldiers, led by their ministers ordained for the job. This is why personal holiness and good character are so strongly emphasized when the Bible describes qualifications for ministry. A holy life is evidence of a good Christian soldier, after all, and it’s vitally important to have a commander who knows how to fight!
I want to close with an example of how a priest wields the authority of a commander in God’s army. The ministry of pronouncing to God’s people, being penitent, the pardon and absolution of sins fits really well into this paradigm. The Priest forgiving sins is a subject that this series has already touched upon twice, so I won’t repeat what has been said there. When a soldier goes AWOL or disobeys orders, he’s in a lot of trouble. He could be reprimanded, punished, court-martialed, or even executed, depending on the severity of his crime. In the Church, there is a powerful discipline known as excommunication, wherein an unrepentant sinning Christian is excluded from the life of the Church until he or she does repent. But that is very rare, and a priest can only recommend this sentence to a Bishop to enact. Instead, the normal ministry of a Priest is to pardon (or absolve) sins in the name of Christ. This is an act of forgiveness, of assurance, and of reinstatement into Christ’s army. The Priest effectually says “Yes, you have sinned and betrayed Christ and your brethren, but you are forgiven, and we welcome you back and want to strengthen you to continue this fight and be victorious.”