Thursday, March 12, 2009

The Christian Priesthood: The Originality of Its Being and Action

Study Materials: Mazzanti, G., I Sacramenti: Simbolo e Teologia, Pontificia Universtà Urbaniana (class notes).

This paper is written as a summary for the course TLD 1004 – Il sacerdozio cristiano: l’originalità del suo essere e agire (translated as “The Christian Priesthood: The Originality of Its Being and Action”). It is a required course for licentiate students in the Faculty of Theology, Pontifical University of Urbaniana, Rome.

Scope and Terminology
The lectures of the course TLD 1004 revolved around the theme of the Nuptial Design of God in the Christian Priesthood. This theme can be outlined into the following topics: [1] the Kingly Character of Christ, [2] the Prophetic Character of Christ, [3] the Priestly Character of Christ. It is notable that two terms have been consistently utilized throughout this course, namely sponsale and sponsalità. As such, it is necessary to study the etymology of these terms as well as to see the possibility of finding equivalent English translations for them.

According to DIZIONARIO ETIMOLOGICO ONLINE (, the word sponsale derives from the Latin SPONÀLEM. Thus, the English word “spousal” (adjective) should be the most appropriate for its translation. The term sponsalità, however, is ambiguous as it is nowhere to be found in the dictionary. But it most likely that sponsalità is a noun considering that the Italian words conjugated with –tà (e.g. regalità and sovranità) are all nouns. Nonetheless, giving the benefit of doubts, the Italian terms sponsale and sponsalità will be retained throughout this paper.

The Kingly Character of Christ
In the history of Israel the institution of the Old Testament priesthood traces its origin to Aaron, the brother of Moses. It is also a hereditary of the tribe of Levi, one of the twelve tribes of Israel (Sir 45:7). However, Jesus is the heir of David whose lineage comes from the tribe of Juda. Thus, his priesthood is not from the tribe of Levi but of Juda (Heb 7:14). In this sense, Jesus’ priesthood is different from that of Levi’s priesthood. In fact, his priesthood is one which has been elevated. He is the "king-priest after the order of Melchizedek" (cf. Mt 26:63-64; Ps 109; Heb 5:9-10).

Melchizedek is a mysterious figure who appeared in Gen 14:18-20. He is linked to the Messiah, who is promised to the nations in Psalm 109:4. That Jesus is from the order of Melchizedek is important in order to understand Jesus’ Kingly Character. Melchizedek is a King of Salem (Gen 14:18) and Jesus Christ is accredited a king in his entrance to Jerusalem (Mt 21:1-11). As such, Jesus’ kingship is not only linked to Melchizedek but is different to that of the worldly kings. His kingship is a Kingship over all creation as testified in the Gospel of John “..the Father had given him all things into his hands..” (Jn 13:3).

The kingship of Jesus is also attested by a woman by a symbolic gesture when Jesus was at the house of Simon the leper. The woman “came to him with an alabaster box of precious ointment and poured it on his head” (Mt 26:7, Mk 14:3). In the Gospel of John, this woman, identified as Mary the sister of Lazarus, is mentioned to have anointed Jesus’ feet with the ointment and wiped his feet with her hair (Jn 12:3). The connection of this gesture is seen in the last supper when, by washing the feet of his disciples, Jesus manifests to his disciple the true nature of his kingship (Jn 13). He is a servant-king not a dictator-king.

The nuptial design of God in this respect is seen from the fact that in Jesus Christ, the plan of God for humanity to be the King of creation is realized. Jesus the King mediated human being in receiving “all things that the Father has given him in his hands”. Thus, human being is understood as the authorized master of all other creations through Jesus Christ. On the other hand, in the Eucharist, Jesus the Priest represents human being in offering a perfect offering of thanksgiving to the Father for this wonderful gift. This reciprocal event in the king-priest of Jesus realizes the sponsale and sponsalità dimension of God’s nuptial plan.

The Prophetic Character of Christ
There are two closely interweaving aspects that constitute the theme of the Nuptial Design of God from the dimension of the Prophetic Character of Christ: [1] the corporate personality and [2] the original-destination of God’s plan. In both aspects, Christ the prophesied Messiah is seen as the embodied Word that fulfilled God’s plan for His creation.

The corporate personality sees the design of God in a manner of complementing pair (coppia). It begins with the creation of Adam and Eve (Gen 1:27; 2:2-25) who represent the whole human beings and continues with story of Abraham and Sarah (Gen 12) the patristic padre and madre of all humanity. In fact, the pair-up designation of God is evident since Noah’s time (Gen 7:2-9). This element of cooperate personality conveys not only God’s original plan for His creations to be in communion with Him but also the character of His communal divine image.

God’s original plan of communion implies “freedom” of both involved parties. Already in the first creations of Adam and Eve, God has bestowed freedom to them but the freedom was violated. As a consequence, the original sin came into the picture of human history and separated the communion between the God and humanity (Gen 3). However, the incarnation of Jesus, foretold in Isaiah 7:14, brings new hope for humanity to restore the original blessing of God. In this moment of incarnation, the perfect freedom is manifested. The divinities, in the form of the Son, willingly entered into human history and as such fulfilled the prophecy of old.

This fullness of time is not only a moment of creation for the new Adam (1 Cor 15:22; 45-49) but also a creation of the new Eve. In the book of Genesis, Adam called Eve "woman" (Gen 3:12). At the wedding in Cana nobody was identified but Jesus and his mother and Jesus called her "woman" (Jn 2:4). In this regard, the sponsale and sponsalità dimension in God’s nuptial plan once again takes place. But above all, it is important to acknowledge that the new Adam, the Word becomes flesh, is not of a man but of a woman (Gal 4:4). That seems to be a reverse from the original formation of the first woman, who is taken from the flesh man (Gen 2:21-22). Nonetheless, precisely on this basis, the prophecy about Christ the “seed of a woman” (Gen 3:15) is fulfilled and the design of God takes place.

The sponsale and sponsalità elements are also seen in the context of the Ark of Covenant and Mary’s womb. The Ark of the Covenant was significant to the Israelite as it is the Holy Place of God’s dwelling. The letter to the Hebrews reveals that the Ark contains the manna, the rod of Aaron and the tables of the testament (Heb 9:4). Mary, having bore Jesus in her womb, now becomes the new Ark of the New Covenant. Her womb is likened to the “bosom of the Father” as testified in the book of John (Jn 1:18). Thus, the “bosom of the Father” is understood as the Holy Spirit. Further, the manna which was given by God as the food for the Israelite is parallel to Jesus, who comes to the humanity as the bread of life.

The nuptial design of God in the prophetic character of Christ is seen in the sense that Jesus the embodied word, who was prophesied in the Old Testament now fulfills God’s original-destination plan of communion. This communion is understood as the union of love between God and human being. This so-called “wedding of the divine and humanity”, continues to take place in the celebration of the Eucharist. The bread is the consecrated body of Christ but also the embodied word. Thus, in the person of Christ, the communion of love between the human and divine is indeed being mediated.

The Priestly Character of Christ
Already from the topics of Kingly and Prophetic Character of Christ, the Eucharist is seen as a significant event in mediating the nuptial design of God. To construct the nuptial design of God from the dimension of the Priestly Character of Christ is naturally giving a significant place for the Eucharist. After all, a priest essentially exists for the Eucharist and vice versa. However, it is also necessary to come back to the crucifixion event as it was also a momentous revelation of Christ’s priesthood. Thus, this topic will focus on two main aspects: [1] the priesthood of Christ from the horizon of the cross as a gift and sacrifice; [2] the priesthood of Christ that as the “preside” of the Eucharistic.

The cross has been always seen both as a sign of suffering and also victory (Colossians 2:13-15). The crucifixion of Christ, therefore, is both a sacrificial offering to God and also a gift of life to humanity. As such, the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross is an act of love (un atto di amore) in obedience to the Father. It is an act of love of God the Father to the humanity. The obedience of Christ is a ransom for the human being not in the sense of “levy” (un dazio) but of “heart” (dal cuore). It is in this sense that we see the sacrifice of Christ the “High priest” as a spousal love sacrifice, a perfect love sacrifice of the bridegroom to his bride the Church. “Because of the insufficiency of the sacrifices of the law, Christ our high priest shed his own blood for us, offering up once for all the sacrifice of our redemption..” (cf. Heb 10).

As the “presider” of the Eucharistic, the nuptial design of God in the priesthood of Christ must be looked from two perspectives: [1] the Eucharistic act inherited from the synoptic tradition (Mt 26:26-29; Mk 14:22-25; Lk 22:19-20) and [2] the Eucharistic act inherited from the account of John’s Gospel (Jn 13-16).

In the synoptic gospels, the conduct of the Last Super is designated in such a way that actually bring across the element of sponsale and sponsalità . First of all, the sponsale element is seen the choice of a place in the upper room. The upper room characterize a spousal room (camera sponsale), a private place. Secondly, in the Last Supper which has a typical Jewish character Jesus was with the twelve. The twelve is his family but also his spouse. In fact, the twelve are representing the Church the bride of Christ. Thirdly, the banquet has a character of a wedding banquet (un banchetto messianic nuziale) where everyone is welcomed, sinners included. Fourthly, the interval in the banquet namely the offering of the bread and wine completed the spousal union between God and human being but also in a special way the sponsale and sponsalità between man and woman. It is interesting to notice the elements in the making of bread namely the water and fire. These elements are symbol of the Holy Spirit. Likewise, the wine which is transformed into the blood of Christ symbolized life the gift of the Holy Spirit. Hence, the Holy Spirit is never absent in the nuptial design of God.

The symbolic actions and elements in the Last Supper are re-enacted again and again in the celebration of the Eucharist. The priest, being the presider or minister of the Eucharist, represents Christ the bridegroom whereas the people of God, the Church is the bride of Christ. However, equally important to consider is the “version of the Eucharist” according to John the evangelist. The Gospel of John replaced the account of the Eucharist in the Synoptic Gospel with the washing of feet and followed by a long discourse to his disciples. This “version of the Eucharist” reveals the dynamic aspect of the Eucharist namely all Christians are called to serve one another. But it is also an event where the nuptial design of God is revealed. The washing of the feet symbolize a spousal act of a husband and wife by the example of Christ and of the Church (Eph 5:25-27). On the other hand, the discourse that follows immediately is the prayer of Christ the Bridegroom for his Bride the Church. This prayer is continued by the apostolic work of the Church ministers in anticipation of the eschatological banquet, an eternal nuptial of the divinity and humanity.

The originality of the being and action in the Christian Priesthood obviously has the characters of sponsale and sponsalità. These characters reveal the beautiful plan of God for the eschatological wedding namely the eternal union between divinity and humanity in the Kingdom of God. However, the Kingdom of God is also here on earth. Thus, the wedding between divinity and humanity is already here and now. It takes place each time in the re-enactment of the paschal mystery of Christ especially through the Eucharist - the supreme manifestation of Christ's action and being.

This action and being of Christ constitute the Christian Priesthood. The priestly, kingly and prophetic characters of the priesthood, therefore, are not just an office per se but mediation for the nuptial design of God. It connects the whole events in the salvation history with the paschal mystery of Christ. It brings across the truest reality of God’s original design for human being. Understanding the elements that constitute the celebration of the paschal mystery in the Eucharist will not only enhance a liturgical participation in the Holy Mass but also a perception and encouragement to meditate more on the Holy Scripture. In a special way, the role of the Blessed Virgin Mary is also acknowledged and in fact closely associated in the nuptial plan of God. As such, the place of honour to Mary that especially prevalent in the Catholic tradition is not only secured but fortified.


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