This is the second in a series of meditations given to the clergy of the Diocese of Albany. As I read these over I am aware of how easily some of things I say about the priesthood could be misinterpreted. I use words like mediator and intercessor but I mean these things in what I would call a John The Baptist sense, that is that there is a legitmate ministry which must proclaim His coming and then must disappear. This is a work in progress.
The Glory Of The Lord
Glory, kabod in Hebrew, doxa in Greek, here is one of the most important words in all of scripture. The lexicons tell us that the word has to do with weight, heft and also with shimmering light. The word has the sense of power and majesty and even danger and threat. When the lookout put his hand over his forehead and searched the horizon and there saw the shimmering reflection of the desert sun on the spear points and chariot wheels of an approaching army, he would say that he had seen the glory of an army. If it were an enemy army it meant threat and danger, if it were an ally, it meant rescue and salvation. When the people of Israel were encamped before the Red Sea, the lookouts sounded the alarm, “Behold, here comes Pharaoh and all his glory.” Moses stretched out his hand and said, “Behold, the glory of the Lord.”
There is the closest association between the glory of the Lord and the salvation of the Lord in the scriptures. Moses, the Prince of Egypt, is raised in the midst of the glory of Pharaoh. The secret of his birth as a Hebrew slave emerges in his life and he becomes a murderer and an exile. He falls from the glorious life of an Egyptian noble to the humble life of a shepherd. To one who has lost his glory there appears the glory of the Lord in the vision of the burning bush. So Moses turns aside to see this site, this bush that burns and is not consumed and there he encounters the glory of the Lord. He is overcome with wonder and awe at the presence of the God of glory. He hides his face because he was afraid to look upon the glory of the Lord. Here out of His glory God speaks to Moses and calls him to be an agent of God’s answer to the cries of God’s people and to take a role in God’s plan of salvation. It is inconceivable that Moses could persist in his vocation, his calling to bring a message of redemption to Israel, to bring a message of judgment to Egypt, without this vision of the glory of the Lord which he sees and yet dares not look upon. Moses has to persist in the face of the unbelief of both the house of Jacob and the house of Pharaoh. Moses has to persist in bringing the promise of redemption which has hidden within it a word of judgment and a call to repentance. Moses has to persist in bringing a promise of judgment which has hidden within it a word of forgiveness and grace. God has allowed Moses to draw near and to perceive God’s glory so that God can use Moses to forward the plan of salvation.
In this calling of Moses there appears a fundamental aspect of the priestly life. It is a life that is a witness to the glory of the Lord. The priest is someone who has seen something which is beautiful, fearsome and precisely awe-full. The priest is someone who has seen something which one longs to see, which one turns aside to see, which one lays aside the ordinary business of life so that one may see and yet this something, this vision of the glory of God is something from which, at the first real glimpse of it, we draw back and hide our eyes, because we are afraid to look. But the priest has seen enough to know what it is to be afraid to look upon the glory of God, to be caught between the irresistible attraction of that terrible beauty and the fear that one will be incinerated, consumed. The priest has seen something that cannot be seen and this sight changes everything. There is really no possibility of a return to ordinary business, ordinary life. To see this thing which cannot be seen, to become in this way aware of the glory of God, means to be confronted with the demand of God in an irresistible way. The thicket of ordinary life in which we hide from God is burned away in that moment of vision and there is left only this bush which burns but is not consumed. In the light of that fire there is no longer a place to hide from God’s call to be an instrument of God’s plan of salvation. I do not think there is in the scriptures a record of the vision of the glory of God which is not also part of a command and demand by God to become a herald, an instrument, in God’s plan of salvation. So God says to Moses, “Go tell old Pharaoh, Let my people go.” Moses goes with this indefatigable conviction about the glory of the Lord. He is able to persist in his testimony to God’s will to redeem His people. He is able to persist in speaking a word of hope to those who disbelieve because of despair and he is able to persist in speaking a word of warning to those who disbelieve because of an exaggerated self-confidence. Moses demands the impossible from both the slave and the King and he persists in these improbable demands at great cost, at the risk of being thought mad or a fool or a charlatan. Moses persists in giving a testimony to God’s glorious plan of salvation to people who have not seen the glory of the Lord and who in the present moment because of despair or hardness of heart cannot see but Moses has seen, and seen enough so that he cannot pretend that he has not seen. He must continue and persist in his life of worshipping witness and sacrificial service to the vision of glory that the Lord has granted him, to the vocation of message bearer to which this vision commits him. All the while he desires with all his soul to see more and fears the destruction that he knows must come with a fuller vision.
This gift to Moses of a vision of the glory of God is the means by which God calls Moses to his vocation to be a messenger of salvation and it is the means by which God strengthens Moses for the contemptuous and disbelieving reception Moses is bound to encounter from both Hebrew and Egyptian. The purpose of this vision granted to an individual is not to set up some spiritual elite with a monopoly on the vision of the Lord, (Indeed we know that Moses is no clericalist in this sense but that he hopes “that all the Lord’s people might be prophets.”) the purpose is to lead Hebrew and Egyptian alike to perceive the greatness of God and the glory of the Lord. It is the way God works that He calls the many by calling an individual to be a minister, a servant, a priest. The vision of glory granted to Moses consecrates him, sets him apart for a life of witness, worship and sacrifice, makes him a herald of salvation and a priest. The gift of the vision of God’s glory which Moses treasures in his heart makes it possible for him to persist in his vocation of preparing people to see and respond to the glory of the Lord. The Hebrew people are able to answer the call to leave their slavery and go quickly because they have been made ready by the witness of Moses. They are lead out not by Moses but by the glory itself which appears to them in form of a cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night.
There is a relationship between Moses’ own desire to come closer to the glory of the Lord and the growing relationship between God and the people. They come to that mountain and there is fire and smoke on the mountain. The glory of the Lord is there and the people are afraid. We may not doubt that Moses is afraid. Moses has seen enough that he wants to see more. He has seen enough that he knows that his calling is to draw closer and not only for himself to satisfy his own spiritual curiosity but for the sake of these people. It is inherent in the priestly life that the pursuit of the vision of the glory of God is something that has always more than personal consequences. In the response to the call of God, in the response to the vision of God’s glory, in the quest for a fuller vision of that glory there is always at work this desire of God to reach others, to touch other lives and draw them closer. The spirituality of the priest is inherently public. It is not for nothing in the Anglican tradition that the priest is called the parson, the public person. This drama of Moses and the mountain, shall he go higher, shall he go up to meet the face of the Lord, shall he come back with some word of the Lord, is reported with great interest. If here Moses loses courage, if he refuses to make the climb then God’s desire to bring a word to God’s people is thwarted and God must find another way. People instinctively resent the priest who has drawn back and refuses to go farther and who has thus betrayed the priestly vocation. People inherently resent a church that draws back and refuses to go farther and thus has betrayed the call to be a priestly people. Sometimes though there is an inner resentment of this loss of courage and lack of nerve there can be an outward acceptance and even colluding encouragement in superficiality because people rightly fear the glory of the Lord and both hope and fear that the priest will seek the face of God. It is a great blessing when a priest of the church serves among people who encourage the priest to go higher, to draw closer.
The vision of that bush burning within his heart propels Moses up the mountain in spite of his intuition that unlike the bush he might burn and be consumed. Upon the mountain Moses is entrusted with the Torah, with the Word of God’s law. This is part of the gift of glory that God wants to give to the people. The glory of God that dawned the first day of creation and that called to Moses out of the burning bush is in those ten words, in that revelation of God’s law. The Ten Commandments are resplendent with the holiness, righteousness and the majesty of God. In the Torah we see the goodness of God and the glory of God are one. God is awesome, powerful and just and righteous. God reveals His glory by calling the people to goodness and righteousness and shows God’s own goodness by showing the people how to live toward God and how to live toward one another. God had sent them a messenger to call them from the slavery of Egypt to freedom and now through that same messenger God calls them from the slavery of sin and evil to the free life of worship, sacrifice and service. God sends them a priest who calls them to a priestly life. God redeems a man from exile and saves him so that through him God might make plain the path of salvation to God’s people. In all of this God is revealing God’s glory. God is revealing, power, might, majesty, light. The structure of this revelation is first to the one and through the one to the many. It is a pattern that will be repeated again and again and will find a consummation in the ministry of Jesus and which Jesus will reconstitute in His own way as he calls this one and that one so that many may come from East and West, North and South, to eat at table in the Kingdom. The call to live in the light of the glory of God comes through the person who has been drawn into the priestly life through witnessing the glory of God. This initial witness came to Moses through the burning bush. It was confirmed by the miracles of Egypt and the mystery of the Passover, in the revelation of the Ten Words upon the mountain. It continued to be witnessed to and ministered to the people as a living presence in the ministry of Tabernacle and Temple. The weight of this glory was felt as an aching absence when the priests and people turned away from God and toward the idols. This is the glory that descended upon Jesus like a dove at His Baptism, that is revealed in His life of teaching and healing, redeeming and absolving as He restores the lost sheep of Israel. His life was a life attended by signs and wonders in power and glory. This glory is above all seen in that persistence of love in the face of sin and evil which is the cross of Jesus Christ and this glory is the same glory of the risen and ascended Lord and the same glory which is gifted to the church through the Spirit. This glory reveals itself as more than raw power, as not only majesty but goodness in the these words of love that call the people to salvation, that call them to a way of life that is life lived in light of the glory of God, to a way of life that reflects the glory of God.
The path to ordination in the church often begins with a glimpse of the burning bush. For me there were two places where as a child I encountered the vision of the glory of God. One was in nature, in the created order. There was a place where I used to go in the woods when I was a small child of five or so that was full of light and that also spoke to me of an awesome, even fearsome power, that was fearsome not because it was bad but good, that was threatening not because it was bad but good. I both feared and loved to go to that place. Later when I came to the sacraments of the church I saw that this same glory was in the church and at the heart of its worship. As a child the altar where the Eucharist was celebrated held that same light, that same glory that I had witnessed in that clearing in the woods. Later I began to hear that glory, that majesty, that immense and fearsome goodness in the words of the Bible. The priest is one who is a witness to the glory of the Lord in creation, in the mighty deeds of God as He delivers the captives and in the words of God’s Word. Moses is the preeminent priest of the Old Testament. He is the one called to bear the Word of God to God’s disbelieving people and to a hostile world. He is completely consecrated to this task and this calling, this ordination, this anointing by God marks him, changes him. His hair turns white, his face glows with the reflected glory of the encounter with God and the people find the sight of the reflected glory so frightening that he has to veil his face when he talks with them. (The traditional theology of priesthood as an indelible character is not elitist speculation. It is an attempt to put into the language of a theological system the most commonplace of observations that a life set apart for service of God’s Word leaves a mark.)
What did the people see when they saw Moses with the veil upon his face? They saw someone who by his very person, by his being was a witness to the glory of the Lord and to the awesome authority of the Word of God. Through Moses God draws the people to Himself and evokes in them awe, reverence and an attentive listening to God’s Word. When they see the veil and the radiance upon Moses face they know they look upon the prophet of the Lord who bears the Word of God and upon the priest of God, the consecrated mediator between God and His people. The personality of Moses recedes. It does not disappear. He is still a man and in the moments when the radiance is not upon him and veil is not upon his face they have no trouble recognizing him as such. One moment they are in awe of him and the next moment they treat him with contempt and disrespect. But when he first comes down from the mountain having been allowed only to glimpse the glory of the Lord going by and subsequently when he emerges from the Tabernacle when the shekinah glory is upon the tent in a cloud, his veiled face shining from the encounter, his personality does not disappear but recedes into the background and it is his ministry that is in the foreground. When the radiance is upon him they do not see Moses, the man, so much as Moses, the bearer of God’s Word, the witness of God’s glory, God’s representative to them, their intercessor with God. When Moses appears before the people of God, his face veiled and radiant with the reflected glory of God, he is completely identifiable as the priest of the most high God, as the one through whom God makes his terrible yet tender appeal to His people. In the fullness of time God himself will take the veil and the glory, veiled in humanity and by the mystery of the cross, will draw His people unimaginably close to His awesome glory and bring them to the place where they can go boldly behind the veil and come themselves to stand even closer to God then Moses did upon the mountain. “and behold the veil of the Temple was torn in two.”
The Christian priest, the priest of the new Israel is the witness of and servant of the glory, the glory of the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ. “No one has ever seen the Father (not even Moses from whom God held back a complete revelation of His glory lest he die) but we have seen His glory, glory as of the only begotten Son of the Father, in the face of Jesus Christ.” When the priest appears at the Eucharist in radiant vesture there is a veil upon the face of the priest and the personality of the priest recedes. It does not disappear. It cannot. It should not but it recedes and we remember the words of John the Baptist, “I must decrease, the He may increase.” And the words of St. Paul, “Not I, but Christ liveth in me,” and “I carry about in myself the marks of the death of Christ that the life of Christ might be made known as well.” As the priest appears in the holy vestments, veiled for the services of God and the service God’s people, the people see the one who has been set apart by God to be His witness to His glory, to be the messenger of His Word and to be the intercessor and the go-between. The priest vested at the Eucharist is veiled that the people might see the glory of the Lord in the life and death and resurrection of the Messiah and that they might be taken up in that glory as they, “lift up their hearts” and join the song of the angels and archangels who behold the glory of heaven. So the Christian priest, so to speak, dons the veil of Moses and the people see not the glory reflected in the face of Moses but the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ as He takes the bread and says, “this is my body broken for you,” and takes the cup and says, “this is my blood of the New Covenant.” “Take eat for my flesh is food indeed and my blood is drink indeed.” And once again the veil of the Temple is torn from top to bottom and the tombs are opened and the dead are seen alive.
I have passed quickly from the veil upon the face of Moses, to the veiled divinity of the Incarnate Son by whose death and resurrection God is able to unveil His glory amongst us and bring us by, with and in Christ to the glory of eternal life. I have not lingered on the wilderness Tabernacle or the Temple of Jerusalem with its holy holies behind the veil and have gone quickly to the removal of that veil and the long awaited revealing of the glory of God in Jesus Christ. In the Tabernacle and the Temple the veil upon the radiant face of Moses gives rise to two garments, the veil that separates the holy of holies and hides the overwhelming glory of the Lord upon the mercy seat and the vestments of Aaron and his sons. These beautiful garments represent to the people the radiance upon the face of Moses. They are witnesses to the glory of the Lord and they allow the people to se God at work in and through His ministers making His people holy. The vested priests and the service of the Tabernacle make possible a continuing liturgical presence of the revelation of the Word of God in power and glory. The sacraments of Baptism and Eucharist perform the same function for the new Israel.
There is a recent tendency in the churches which have cherished a priesthood for the clergy to abandon their distinctive dress in their day to day work and even to abandon all but the most simple and plain Eucharistic vestments. The reason given is a commendable desire to eschew “elitism” and “clericalism” and to avoid ostentation and show solidarity with the poor. In fact what happens is that the veil of Moses which is the distinctive mark of the biblical priesthood of Moses and Aaron and more perfectly of Jesus Christ, is laid aside. Instead of the role of priest having the preeminence and the personality of the priest its rightful but secondary place in the background, the personality and agenda of the person takes the front ground and the center stage. We should not be surprised if it becomes difficult for the people to know when we are appearing not in our own right with our own word but with the radiance of the Lord upon as we speak not our word but His. We should not be surprised if a reluctance to don the veil, which expresses itself in so many ways including such apparently indifferent things as the manner of dress, should not cause us who are priests to become confused ourselves between our understandable human agendas and our role as witnesses to a glory not our own, mediators of a life not our own, intercessors for a mercy not our own, as priests through whom the Father makes present His glory in the service of Word and sacrament.
This service of Word and sacrament is a witness to the glory of God in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ and of the gift of the ascended Lord’s glorified life to His people in the power of the Spirit. The priest is a witness to the transfiguring power of the glorified Lord both to individual souls and to the gathered community. This witness is on the model of the witness of Aaron and his sons. It is not a witness to a past event but to a present, living reality whose glory is perceived and understood as the continuing presence of the God of glory who has acted decisively for the salvation of His people. The Tabernacle is a witness to the present active glory of the God who has definitively revealed Himself on Sinai. Moses dies. The original witnesses of Moses die but in the worship and ministry of the Old Testament, God has provided that His glory will never lack a witness consecrated to make present as a living reality the mighty deeds of God on behalf of His people to to recount to the people the words God spake to Moses as a living Word which calls out faith, worship, thanksgiving and sacrificial obedience. Likewise the witness of the Apostles is not a witness to an event which is past but to the decisive intervention of God into the life of the world in the life, death and resurrection of the Lord and to the continuing presence of the Risen Lord in the midst of the church as he redeems, saves and transfigures His people. The priest is a witness to the glory of God who speaks and acts to save His people. The liturgy, the energetic and energizing work, of the priest (in the case of both the Old Testament and the New Testament itself given as a gift directly from the hands of God) is to make it possible for the people to reconstitute themselves as a saved company, as the people of God in such a way that they come once again to Sinai and a reverent hearing of God’s Word, come once again to the night in which He was betrayed and hear the words of the Word made flesh as He offers them His Life of worship and obedience, of sacrifice and service which is to be poured out for them on the cross, which is to be raised victorious and which will pour forth by the power of the Spirit at Pentecost.
The priest offers this liturgy of witness to the glory of God, a witness that is an active representation of a living reality, of a hidden but ever present glory most completely in the celebration of the Holy Eucharist. For here the whole history of the saving deeds of God come to completion and fulfillment as the sacramental priests of the church witness and represent the living presence of the Great High Priest as He forgives and absolves His people and blesses them with the gift of His eternal life. Away from the Eucharist, the great act of thankful witness, the priest continues the work of absolution and blessing by bringing forward and making active outside the liturgy, the glory of God in forgiveness and blessing and the glory of His people repentant, forgiven and blessed with everlasting fellowship with God.
To persist in the priestly life the ordained priest needs to be convicted and reconvicted with the reality of the glory of God in God’s word. For the people to persist as a priestly people they need to be convicted and reconvicted with the reality of the glory of God in God’s word. To be the messenger and witness of this glory is the vocation of God’s priest and God sends Moses down the mountain consecrated in a new way to the service of God’s word. The word of God is no longer only a word in the ear of Moses. The word is a text, a collection of words that must be cherished, communicated, learned, studied and transmitted from one generation to the next. It is the ministry of Moses now to bring these words to the people in such a way that they perceive the glory of God, that they feel the weight of them and see the light in them. Lord your word is a lamp unto my path and a light unto my way. But this ministry of the Word is precisely a priestly ministry. It is a sacrificial ministry which is effective only when it draws forth sacrifice from the people. It is a prophetic ministry of proclamation that fails in its mission if it does not elicit adoration and worship and this ministry of being the herald of God’s Word cannot be done apart from liturgy. The proclamation of God’s Word requires a consecration of the messenger and a consecration of the people. So Moses takes the blood of a bull and throws it both upon the people and upon the tablets and the reading of the Word becomes the most aweful, solemn and sacred event and in the most visceral way the life and death struggle by which they have been redeemed by God, the preciousness of the new life, the debt and honor owed to God and the peril of denying their God are evoked. All of this Moses literally throws in their face by the crudest and yet profound ritual.
Children of the Reformation and a somewhat anti-Semitic tradition of Biblical scholarship we are prone to overdraw the distinction between the ministry of the priest and the prophet and to create an imaginary religion which unlike the actual religion of the Bible imagines a Word which is delivered without a liturgy and without a priesthood. The attack of the prophets on the priesthood is not an attack on a superfluous office but upon one which does not fulfill its function, on a priesthood which has failed to lead people to perceive the glory of the Lord and the awesomeness of His word, on a priesthood which has domesticated God and robbed God of His glory. The priesthood is criticized by the prophets because it has abandoned its function of creating a holy, a consecrated, a priestly people, a nation of witnesses to the glory of the Lord.
In the Bible God’s Word, God’s glory, the messenger who is the witness and herald of this glory, who is consecrated by this glory and thus the priest of the glory of the Lord and the people who respond in praise and adoration, in sacrifice and service and are thus the priestly people of the Lord, witnesses to the glory of God by worship and obedience, these things are indissoluble parts of the one act of God by which He saves and redeems His people. The Word never appears apart from a liturgy of praise and sacrifice even if it is only the pouring forth of the messenger’s own blood in witness. This perfect priesthood is indeed the form of the perfect prophecy of Jesus Christ and in the sacred liturgy of the cross the Word of God is perfectly proclaimed and the people see the glory of the Lord and are made holy by it.
The path to ordination will be different for different people. It is doubtful anyone would persist in that path without some vision of the glory of God. It might be in creation, or in the worship of the church or in some more private, inner vision, or in the love given by a parent or some other witness to the glory of God. To persist in the priestly life the ordained minister cannot do without a profound experience of the presence of the glory of God in God’s Word, in the Bible and the desire to witness to that glory will allow one to persist as a preacher and teacher. Just to the extent that glory is recognized in the words of Bible, the priest will bring to the liturgy of the church and especially to that liturgy that is shot through with the glory of the proclamation of His own death and resurrection on “the night in which He was betrayed” a witness of reverence and awe which give glory to God and which serve God’s one act of redemption through which God glorifies His people.
To “rightly and duly administer the sacraments must mean among other things that the priest by virtue of a posture of awe, wonder reverence and care communicates to the people that its the same glory of the Lord that is there at Red Sea and upon the mountain, that shines forth in all the law and the prophets, that descends upon the Tabernacle in the desert and the Temple in Jerusalem, that Isaiah saw in the year king Uziah died and heard the witness song of the angels, “Holy, Holy, Holy,” that Ezekiel saw leave the Temple and which he saw on the banks of the river of exile like wheels of fire, “way up in the middle of the air,” that is the same glory that the prophets foresaw in the coming of the messiah, the one anointed to restore the glory of the kingdom and the Temple, all the same glory that appears at last in completion and fulfillment in the face of Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh, whose one glory is in the cross and the resurrection and by the Spirit given by the ascended Lord in His people who become His body and His glory in the world and a token of the glory to come, that it is the one glory that is in the words of the Bible, in the sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving which is the Eucharist and in the people repentant and restored to fellowship with God and each other. This is the ministry and the witness of the priest.
©Leander Harding+ 2003