|The ordination of a priest|
And so it was that, during the ordination of Lauren Kilbourn in North Carolina on Thursday night, I found myself deeply moved, once again, by what it is we purport to be doing when we ordain anyone to the Sacred Order of Priests.
That's a pretty high consideration of the laity - more than some are willing to claim - but I find, recently, that I grow more and more concerned about the devaluation of the priesthood by a growing number of Episcopalians.
Perhaps it is a reaction to the abuse some priests have made of the order - arrogantly flaunting their status as "above" or "better than" others.
Some laity defer or surrender their own authority to that of the priest, even when the priest is in error on a particular point. They surrender this all on their own and yet some become angry at - and resentful of - clergy when they have done so.
Perhaps it is symptomatic of the general weariness of our culture about all authority figures who have squandered the trust of the people in a variety of ways - from abuse of power to abuse of children and women, to fiscal irresponsibility and even corruption.
Perhaps it is that we have lost our understanding of what a priest is and does that has led to my perception of the devaluation of the priesthood.
Indeed, I'm not sure I fully understood the role of the priest until I had been ordained about five years.
Conversely, when men become more involved in roles that have been traditionally held by women, those positions are not only held in higher esteem, they receive higher compensation.
Whatever it is, this attitude is finding its way into application of policies which express a cynicism about the role of priests.
Changes to Title IV canon, for example, assume guilt based on allegations and negatively impact the relationship between the priest and the bishop who, because of legal concerns, must suspend the role as chief pastor to the priest.
In this difficult financial climate, churches are feeling especially pinched. "Crunching the numbers" at year's end and trying to forecast figures for the next year's budget become an exercise in anxiety for many.
Clergy who wear black shirts with white collars become easy targets for the old red pencil - especially when it is difficult to articulate the "bang for the buck" to the managerial types among the laity in terms of productivity of priests.
So much of what we do is confidential - even the fact that we are meeting with someone - that an actual Very Busy day can look like a day at the beach in the priest's "official" day appointment calendar. Indeed, I still keep my pastoral counseling schedule in a separate small appointment book even though I no longer have a parish secretary or Senior Warden who might glance over at it.
Fearful of a diminution of the congregational pledge, diocesan types often find it irresistible to balance the diocesan budget on the backs of clergy who, for the most part, never came into this vocation thinking we were going to get rich.
Many of us live a sacrificial life, so we are used to making sacrifices for the greater good. Unfortunately, that is a posture which can be easily taken advantage of - especially when anxiety is heightened in tough financial times.
In the ordination service, we are made "priests forever, after the order of Melchizedek". That means that there is an ancient tradition in which priests stand.
In Genesis 14:18, Melchizedek offers a sacrifice of bread and wine. Christ therefore fulfilled the prophecy of Ps 110:4, that He would be a priest "after the order of Melchizedek," at the Last Supper, when he broke and shared bread with his disciples.
This is different from the Levitical order of Aaron, for whom continual sacrifices were required. Jesus becomes a priest after the order of Melchizedek and is sacrificed, once, and for all.
Episcopalians take seriously Christ's command that the Apostles should "do this in memory of Me." As such, we continue to offer sacrifices of bread and wine as the "outward and visible sign" of the sacrament of the Eucharist. It is a reminder of Christ's sacrifice for us all.
He began his sermon with story about the first time he had presided at Eucharist.
It was an outdoor service and he had very carefully set out the bread and the wine. Just before the service was scheduled to begin, one of the acolytes came running in to tell him that some seagulls had come and ravaged the bread.
Thankfully, he had another loaf, but this time, one of the acolytes held it - all hunched over it during the service so that no other seagull might fly off with it.
Indeed, even as he presided at Eucharist, he found himself cradling the loaf in his arms, protecting that which would become the Body of Christ.
That image has stayed with him, low these many years later, as a symbol of priesthood. In his sermonic "charge" he challenged Lauren to be "fiercely protective", to "safeguard the vulnerable" and be a "guard and shield" to the Body of Christ.
That's as wonderful an image of priesthood as I've heard. It doesn't easily translate into productivity sheets. Neither does in justify, in some people's minds, the compensation we receive for our employ.
Indeed, what I have discovered is that, when one stands in solidarity with those who are most vulnerable in the world, we often take on the very oppression which is directed at the oppressed.
There came a moment in the liturgy, however, when those who were priests acted out our understanding of that in a most deeply profound and moving way.
It is traditional for the one to be ordained to prostrate themselves before the altar during the Litany of Ordination. Lauren didn't do that. To my surprise, however, she prostrated herself during the time when the bishop calls down the Holy Spirit by chanting that ancient hymn, "Come Holy Ghosts, our souls inspire". The congregation chants back, "And lighten with celestial fire".
I think we were all a bit surprised by that but slowly, one by one, we gathered 'round her, kneeling beside and around her on the floor. We were mostly women, there - and a few men - all ordained after the order of Melchizedek.
I was kneeling to her right and put my hand on her arm. Suddenly, Lauren reached up and was holding my hand. Tight. I opened my eyes and saw that one of the women clergy on staff at her church was kneeling besides the bishop, half hidden by his cope. She was holding her left hand.
"That through the ages all along / this may be our endless song."
I felt the hands of other women on my back. I looked up and saw the smiling face of a woman who was a seminary classmate of Lauren, now a priest, who is confined to a wheelchair.
I knew she wouldn't be able to reach over and touch Lauren, so I reached out my left hand and held onto her shoe. I looked up and saw that she was beaming.
"Praise to thy eternal merit / Father, Son, and Holy Spirit."
The chanting ended, we all helped Lauren to her feet, and, as she kneeled before the bishop, we put our hands on her as the bishop prayed.
Again, that also doesn't usually happen. Usually, the bishop prays and then we all move in as the bishop says, "Therefore, Father, through Jesus Christ your son, give your Holy Spirit to Lauren; fill her with grace and power, and make her a priest in your Church."
Usually, after that, we all back off. Not so with this ordination. We continued to surround her, as if she were a loaf of consecrated bread we were fiercely protecting her from any unexpected evil passing by.
Indeed, we didn't take our hands off Lauren until everyone said a loud, "AMEN!"
Even then, we hovered.
It takes great courage to be vulnerable enough to fiercely protect the vulnerable and still not get mortally wounded.
It takes enormous strength to safeguard the weak and still keep your stamina and endurance.
It takes a strong faith to be a guard and a shield and not lose your own faith and belief.
That's not something you understand in the moment of ordination. It certainly doesn't happen overnight.
It is a gradual awakening to the fact that ordination after the order of Melchizedek means that, unlike the Levitial priesthood of Aaron which required endless sacrifices, Christ was sacrificed, once, for all - so our own spiritual lives don't have to be sacrificed on an altar to the God of Expediency and Efficiency and Productivity.
That does not forgive the requirements of the sacrificial life of the priest, but it means that the priest does not have to sacrifice herself because Jesus has already done that.
Being a priest after the order of Melchizedek does not mean that the priest saves anyone or is personally responsible for the salvation of anyone. Jesus is the only savior. Priests are His ordained representatives, allowing Jesus and the Holy Spirit to work salvific grace through us as vehicles.
Finally, being a priest after the order of Melchizedek means that Jesus has ever been, is, and will ever be the only totally perfect priest (Hebrews 9:7). We'll never achieve that perfection - not in our lifetime. This understanding liberates us to be all of who we are, with our perfectly unique gifts and charisms to become midwives to a new creation.
Indeed, since Thursday, we may even have quite a few more new priests ordained in the church. I know of one that will take place on Saturday.
Note to my dear friend, Jonathan: I'll not be able to be with you physically, but I'll be there in prayer and spirit.
This business of being priest is an impossible vocation.
It's an impossible task and one that is almost impossible to explain.
It's certainly one that is increasingly impossible to justify to a culture that has eaten too much of the Bread of Anxiety and an institution that has said, "Peace, peace" when there is no peace - except that which passes all human understanding.
Still, on reflection, I wouldn't trade it for the world.
Especially to a world that seems to value it less and less and would ask us to be compensated less and less for more and more of the impossible vocation to which we have been called.
I suppose that's not unlike those in the "priesthood of all believers" who are called to impossible vocations of teaching young minds, or making music or art, or laboring in fields to bring food to our tables, or the healing art of mending broken bodies or minds, or tending to our families, or struggling for justice amidst corruption and greed.
Perhaps that is the greatest challenge of the priesthood in these times: to lead the People of God to be faithful to our baptismal vows to "seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself" and to "strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being."
Then again, it has ever been thus for priests, who stand forever in the ancient priesthood, after the order of Melchizedek.