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Gandalf The Grey

October 20, 2010

One of the characters that I like the most was Gandalf. He’s the guy you love to have around, but every time you turn around he’s gone missing, only to turn up again at the last second. Even when he gets mad, as long as you’re not on the other end of his anger, he’s pretty funny.

To the hobbits, he is the delightful maker of fireworks and smoke rings. To men he is a mysterious wanderer. The elves and dwarves each have their views of him as well. But veiled under figure of an old man with a long beard, pointed hat and a staff, is a power beyond what any of them realize. More than just a quirky wizard with a short temper.

As I have been sharing in a few of the recent posts, I am discussing the book The Mystery Of Faith by Bishop Hilarion Alfeyev with my priest as the text of my catechism. We are going over the section on the sacraments. The sacrament that I found most interesting is that of Ordination. As I have been learning there are three ordinations in the Orthodox Church. Those are Deacons, Priests (or Presbyters) and Bishops. The authority of their ordinations is traced directly back to the Apostles themselves.

The initial ordinations were done by the laying on of hands by the Apostles themselves, but subsequent ordinations by their successors were done with the anointing of myron. Myron is a very special anointing oil mixed with several ingredients, which is only made by a certain group of bishops once a year. This passing down of authority by anointing is known an Apostolic Succession. This Succession is not only based on the anointing, but the faithful holding to the Tradition and teachings of the Church.

Father Patrick and I talked about the economy of the Old Testament priesthood through the descendants of Levi, especially the sons of Aaron, the relationship was quite different than that of the New Testament priesthood. In the priesthood of the OT, the priest took the prayers of the people to God, then took the word of God to the people. He was an intermediary for God and the children of Israel. In the New Testament we are all a part of the royal priesthood, as it is not based on the sons of Levi, but is an extension of Christ whose priesthood is after the order of Melchizadek, and is untransferable. The anointing of priesthood within the Orthodox Church is sacramental. Even though we are all a “kingdom of priests”, the position of a presbyter is unique and sacred. The priest becomes the hands, feet and mouth of Christ to His people the Church.

The idea of priests had always bothered me as a Protestant. But that was based on an understanding of priesthood that was like the Levitical and Aaronic priesthood. Since now we have the ability to pray to God directly and can boldly approach the Throne of Grace (Hebrews 4:16) and have “one Mediator between God and man; the man Christ Jesus.” (1Timothy 2:5), I assumed that there was no longer a priesthood other than that of all believers and followers of Christ. I became especially uncomfortable when I first came to a liturgy and saw the people kissing the priest’s hand. Boy am I glad I was wrong.

I have come to realize that when we kiss the priest’s hand, we are, in a mystery kissing the very hand of Christ. Just as giving a glass of water to the poor is like giving it to Our Lord, so is the kiss of respect. When we confess our sins, it is in the presence of the priest, but we pray in front of an icon of Christ, to Christ. The priest is there as a witness. Yet he speaks the words of absolution as the very mouth of Christ to us. When we receive a blessing, it is a blessing from Christ Himself. He ministers the Holy Mysteries to God’s people. He teaches the Word. He represents the very ministry of Christ among God’s people.

When I read the qualifications of a presbyter/elder in the letters to Timothy and to Titus, I now understand why they are so stringent. It is not that they need to be good administrators and charismatic teachers, able to get people to follow their “vision”. These are men leading people to holiness. He is acting as the very hands of Christ. I have come to realize that the special anointing to the sacramental priesthood allows for the decency and order spoken of by Paul in his letter to the Corinthians, as apposed to the kind of confusion so prevalent in assuming God speaks directly to us in a way that contradicts the dogmas of the Church. I am not saying God does not speak to each of us individually. But I have come to understand that He will not give us a revelation contrary to that which He has spoken to His Church. For this reason a priest, under the authority of the bishop, ministers to the parish flock. This keeps things in order, instead of in chaos and confusion.

To get to my original point (which I really got off track from), this anointing is veiled from our outward eyes. Indeed, as I read in Bishop Hilarion’s book, this anointing is veiled even from the eyes of the priest. This veil is to keep us from idolatry, and to keep priests humble. I think, like Gandalf, priests have an inner glory that we could not handle if we saw it as it really is. Therefore, like the old wizard, we only see the outward person, and don’t really think much of it (if I’m being honest). Quoting a saint, Bishop Hilarion points out that we would be overwhelmed by the power and glory present within the anointing that is the priesthood.

With that in mind, how much more honor should we give to those who are “in authority over us”? After considering the veiled glory that is possessed by a priest as the representative of Christ, I understand what respect I should have for the office. What a wonder this sacramental understanding is. Lord, gives us eyes to see the glory of You in Your people!

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