The preparation for the Synod on Synodality is enabling the Church to take a deeper look at her own reality. What constitutes the Church? What makes us the Church? How do the members of the Church fit and work together? As part of this journey of self-discovery, I recently wrote an article on the priesthood of the faithful in which I showed that the perfect model of lay priesthood is Mary, the first and most outstanding disciple of her Son.

This insight into the common priesthood that all Catholics are called to exercise opens out to a panorama of questions: Is the priesthood of the faithful a true and real priesthood? How is it exercised? What does it accomplish? Each of these questions gives us further scope for investigation, and to begin, we need to ask:

What is a priest? We cannot look into any form of priesthood until we have some sort of idea of what a priest is. Since I am not a theologian, I will offer a simple definition: a priest is one who offers sacrifice. And this leads us to ask What is a sacrifice?

The word “sacrifice” has acquired a negative resonance. It is associated with killing, slaughtering, doing without, or giving up what we value or enjoy. In other words, it has come to signify an act of destruction or loss of something dear or worthwhile. There is very little associated with the word “sacrifice” that brings joy to the heart and peace of mind.

A study of the Biblical languages supports this negative understanding. In Hebrew, the word most commonly used for “sacrifice” is zabach, which means “to slaughter for sacrifice.”[1] The Greek word is thusia as a noun and thuo[2] as a verb. The verb means “to offer by burning.” In both languages, the images that come to mind are those of destruction.

Yet the word “sacrifice” in its etymology gives a different image. The word comes from two Latin words sacer” meaning “holy, sacred,” and “facere” meaning “to make.” So to sacrifice means to make something holy. “Holy” is the word used some 500 times in the Bible to describe God. To make something holy is to make it like God, to cause it to share in the essential being of God.

There is another Hebrew word used to denote a sacrifice and that is korban. Jesus uses this word in the Gospel of Mark: “’But you say that if anyone tells father or mother, ‘Whatever support you might have had from me is Corban’ (that is, an offering to God ) – then you no longer permit doing anything for a father or mother.’”[3] The root of the word korban means “to come near, to approach” and from that “to bring near, to present.”[4] Again, this gives a very different resonance to the act of sacrificing. We see here that to make an offering is to establish a relationship. This is easily understood when we think of giving a gift to someone we love. I draw near to the beloved and offer my gift in the hope that the other will reach out in love to me. The mutual reaching out of our hands creates a bond between us, witnessed by the gift that we exchange.

When I hold out my gift to God, then that gift becomes a conduit of God’s being to me. The gift partakes of His holiness and that holiness flows into me. God, the gift, and I all share something that is essentially God’s. We give the name of “grace” to this sharing between God and us.

This is what it means to “sacrifice,” and before the Fall it was perfectly natural to Adam and Eve. They lived in God’s grace and everything they did was a sharing in God’s life. Everything they did was a “sacrifice,” a “making holy” of both themselves and the objects they used.

Then they listened to whispers that were not from God. They were influenced by another spirit, and they grew suspicious and mistrusted God’s loving will. Instead of stretching out their hands to God in communion, they stretched them out to something else in rebellion. Fleeing from communion with God, they fell into fear and hid from Him.

The veil of death came down between God and us. Sacrifice was no longer natural to us. It became painful. We were still made for communion with God, but now we had to reach out through death to achieve it. Sacrifice, making holy ourselves and our world, had to pass through destruction of the gift. Fire became the means to send our offering out of this world up to God.

Hiding from God in our fear, we could never know if what we offered was offered to the God who made us or to a god of our own making. We needed a recognized mediator to assure us that what we offered really put us in touch with God. God established the Aaronic priesthood so that His people could know that the offerings they made truly established communion with Him.

Yet the veil of death still remained. We had not regained the communion with God that we forfeited in the Fall. The Aaronic priesthood was a true priesthood; its sacrifices were true sacrifices, but its communion was only partial. We needed a greater priest, one who could destroy the veil of death and reunite us to God.

God made Himself our priest in Jesus. “Consequently, when Christ came into the world, he said, ‘Sacrifices and offerings you have not desired, but a body you have prepared for me; in burnt offerings and sin offerings you have taken no pleasure. Then I said, ‘See, God, I have come to do your will, O God’ (in the scroll of the book it is written of me).’[5]” On the cross, Jesus Himself passed through death, and the veil of death was torn as He did so. “At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom.”[6] Thus, “when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, ‘he sat down at the right hand of God’…For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are sanctified…Therefore, my friends, since we have confidence to enter the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain (that is, through his flesh), and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us approach with a true heart in full assurance of faith.”[7]

This sounds all very beautiful and poetic, but is it true? Do we really have communion with God through Jesus? Well, when we look at the Church, we certainly see that He established a priesthood to enact rites for establishing a relationship with Him. The ministerial priesthood empowers men to perform the rites of initiation and sanctification, the seven sacraments. We believe that these sacraments give us the grace of communion with God and enable us to live His life already here in this world. We see this in the lives of the saints, especially in the life of Mary who lived in herself the perfect communion with God – beyond even what existed before the Fall. We are called to share that communion. God gives us His own life and empowers us with His love that “has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.”[8] This is most truly shown in the Eucharist in which we receive Jesus Himself.

“Priests by sacred ordination and mission which they receive from the bishops are promoted to the service of Christ the Teacher, Priest, and King. They share in his ministry, a ministry whereby the Church here on earth is unceasingly built up into the People of God, the Body of Christ, and the Temple of the Holy Spirit.”[9] By their ordination, they are called to bring to birth the members of Christ, as St. Paul wrote to the Galatians, “My little children, for whom I am again in the pain of childbirth until Christ is formed in you.”[10] So the ministerial priesthood reestablishes the communion we lost through sin. But what about the priesthood of the faithful that Adam and Eve lived so naturally before their rejection of God? Is that reestablished in Jesus Christ?

We have seen that priesthood exists to offer sacrifice, and sacrifice means to make sacred, to make the offerer and the offering holy, sharing in God’s life. We have been restored to that priesthood through Baptism into Christ. Sacrifice has been expanded to include our whole life and actions. “Through him, then, let us continually offer a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that confess his name. Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God.”[11] Like Mary and with Mary, “my soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord, and my being rejoices in God my savior.”[12]

How does this work out in our everyday lives, as we struggle with family situations, work difficulties, strained relationships, traffic jams, clogged sinks, soaring prices, crime in the streets, and the untold challenges that we face in trying to live our Christian life in the present-day world?

In our next article, we will look at the challenges we face and at the graces that we are given.


[1] “Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testament,” Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1978, p.257

[2] “Greek-English Lexicon,” Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1968, p. 813

[3] Mark 7, 11-12

[4] “Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testament,” Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1978, p.897

[5] Heb. 10, 5-7

[6] Matt. 27, 51

[7] Heb. 10, 12, 14, 19-22

[8] Rom. 5, 5

[9] Presbyterum ordinis, 1

[10] Gal. 4, 19

[11] Heb. 13, 15-16

[12] Lk 1, 46-47

Image: Adobe Stock. By wideonet.

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Sr. Gabriela of the Incarnation, O.C.D. (Sr. Gabriela Hicks) was born in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, in the Gold Rush country of California, which she remembers as heaven on earth for a child! She lived a number of years in Europe, and then entered the Discalced Carmelite Monastery in Flemington, New Jersey, where she has been a member for forty years. www.flemingtoncarmel.org.

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