Priest and people: Complementary roles in the one People of God.
Once we grasp that real involvement in the Mass is deeply interior, in prayer and self-offering, we might still think there a vast separation between the priest up there at the altar and the people. Or is that a misperception?
What the priest is doing at the altar pertains to the people and the prayers of the people support the priest.
With the priest we have to consider two things: he is a priest, clothed with the grace and power of Jesus Christ to make the sacrament and place the sacrifice on the altar; then he is also a sinful human being.
Before the priest invites the faithful to pray that his sacrifice and theirs might be acceptable, he quietly recites two prayers that reveal his dangerous position as a sinful human being. When he stands at the altar he is entering into spiritual combat on behalf of the faithful. He must become like the Good Shepherd, ready to lay down his life for the sheep. (cf. Jn 10:11)
First, after placing the bread and wine on the altar he bows down and quietly says, “With humble spirit and contrite heart may we be accepted by you, O Lord, and may our sacrifice in your sight this day be pleasing to you, Lord God.” He too is helpless before God; of his own he can offer nothing but a “humble spirit and contrite heart”.
Then, after incensing the gifts, cross, and altar, if this takes place, he goes to the side of the altar and washes his hands, saying, “Wash me, O Lord, from my iniquity and cleanse me of my sin.”
Immediately after this he turns and invites the people to pray that his sacrifice and theirs might be acceptable to God, the almighty Father.
In other words, before the priest fully assumes the mantle of Christ, the High Priest, at the altar, he must bow down and acknowledge his own helplessness and unworthiness. Only then is he able to join with Christ in offering his priestly prayer.
Finally, though, we need to consider that while the public sacrifice offered at Mass is the present source of salvation that binds us together as the people of God, God does not favor the members of his people according to their public role at the Mass. The most important member of the people is not the priest standing at the altar.
Let us return again to the beginning of Luke’s Gospel where I took the example of the priest Zechariah entering the temple to offer incense, while the people were outside praying. The angel Gabriel first appeared to Zechariah while he stood at the altar of incense so as to announce to him the birth of St. John the Baptist. Nevertheless, six months later the angel Gabriel went to an unknown and (in the eyes of men) unimportant Virgin, to announce to her that she will become the Mother of the Son of God, Jesus Christ. There can be no doubt that God favored the lowly Virgin of Nazareth over the priest Zechariah. Further, while the priest rebuked for his weak faith, the Virgin is praised for her great faith. (cf. Lk 1:20, 1:45)
Nevertheless, the two scenes from the Gospel complement each other. The sacrifice offered in the Temple binds the people together as the People of God. The angel goes to Mary, who is one among the people, and the role that she will take on as Mother of God, will be in favor again of the whole people. Indeed, it becomes the greatest role after that of Jesus himself.
The priest at the altar offers the sacrifice that binds the people together as the People of God – he does that even though he might himself be in a state of mortal sin – but the more important roles, so to speak, belong to those among the People of God who, after the pattern of Mary, open their hearts to the working of the Holy Spirit. The most important contribution to the People of God is made by those who, offering themselves and being nourished by the sacrifice, let God freely work in them and through them.
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