Good Friday reflections on my not being a priest.
Imagine it’s the World Cup final and Messi pulls you from the stands, throws a jersey on your back, and subs you in as Argentine goalie, when all you’ve ever done is watch from the stands, armchair coach, and read about soccer strategy.
Imagine being sent into an operating room as a surgical nurse for a heart transplant, when all you’ve ever done is watch from the operating theatre while perusing Gray’s Anatomy.
Imagine Virgil grabs you (instead of Dante) for a stroll through a divine comedy. Here’s some Italian history…read up!
Excitement grips you. Exhilaration enlivens you. Awe fills you. Fear shakes you. At once you realize your dream has come true yet perhaps you’d rather it hadn’t. Like a man at a wedding without a wedding garment, you are out of place. You are, in a word, incompetent.
Such was my experience this Holy Week while serving as “straw” sub deacon for the Palm Sunday and Holy Thursday masses in the extraordinary form at my parish. As if by an infusion of spiritual caffeine, when the procession from the sacristy began I awoke to a heightened awareness of my own proper place in liturgy as a lay person. I thought I’d have it pat. I’m a theology professor, after all! I’ve read the rubrics. I’ve practiced my chant. We even did a run-through the day before. Plus, I’ve seen this a hundred times (at least). In fact, I did not have it pat. In fact, I didn’t even deserve a pat on the back. Having messed up the epistle chant, moved where I should have stood still, stood where I should have sat, and doffed where I should have donned, I understood for the first time the enormous distinction between my normal full, conscious, active participation in the pew, and the priest’s ministry at the altar of the most holy Trinity.
I am not a priest.
Yes, I am baptized priest, prophet and king in Christ (as are all the baptized), but I have not the vocation, office, or sacramental ordination to holy orders. I do not enjoy that sacred consecration and share in the ministry of the sacraments handed on to the Apostles. On any given Sunday (and weekdays for that matter) I may be assisting at the mass, praying the mass, but the priest, in persona Christi, makes present again the one sacrifice of Calvary. This is no dramatic re-enactment. This is a solemn participation in the one and perfect sacrifice of Christ, who is at once both high priest and sacrifice.
I never really understood the world that lay beyond the altar rail. I still don’t. But I now know that the sanctuary is the place where a person is at once closest to and farthest from home. It was a land at once alien and familiar. To see up close the mass, the source and summit of my life in Christ, was like staring a fire hose in the face. Who could dare to drink? It’d be like stealing a sip from Niagara Falls!
My failure as “straw” subdeacon was (after my matrimonial mass) among the most important liturgical moments of my life. A strange sense of joy overtook me in my incompetence. Praise be to God that he was able to play the symphony of that mass with broken instruments. Praise be to God for revealing to me how necessary is the grace of sacramental ordination for the priesthood, how uniquely consecrated priests are for the celebration of the holy sacrifice of the mass. The phrase “Domine, non sub dignus…” took on new meaning for me this week, as I discovered that whatever it is I do in the pews, it stands a far cry from the priest’s action at the altar. Standing behind the deacon, behind the priest, hearing the choir sing the credo just after the three of us spoke it, knowing that the laity sat praying the creed themselves, amidst squirming babies, aching knees, tittering toddlers, I saw and heard in my soul the polyphonic yet univocal prayer of the liturgy. The celebrant’s voice, the choir’s voice, the voice of the faithful always different yet the same. The incense, as our prayers arising to heaven, a sweet aroma before the Lord, finally made sense; for the first time I felt the swirling, rising presence of each of the many and varied participations in the miracle that was taking place before me without me. Amidst so many imperfect, broken efforts the perfect one deigned to make himself present to us.
Let me give you a brief tour of some of the subdeacon’s activity. Apart from the chanting of the Epistle, the subdeacon spends much of the mass as a living bookstand, and a blind man. For the Gospel, the subdeacon and deacon process to the nave, where the subdeacon stands between the acolytes (with candles), behind the MC and thurifer (incense on the rise), with the Evangelarium open and resting on his head at the service of the deacon. After the deacon sings the Gospel, the subdeacon immediately proceeds back to the altar where the celebrant reverences by kissing the divine name at the Gospel’s beginning. As for being a blind man: at the beginning of the liturgy of the Eucharist the subdeacon carries the chalice over to the high altar after donning the humeral veil. Having delivered the chalice, and participated in the offering of wine and water, the subdeacon awaits to receive the paten from the deacon. The subdeacon covers the paten in the humeral veil, returns to his place in line behind the deacon, and holds the paten up before his face for the majority of the liturgy of the Eucharist. So, here I am, standing behind the deacon, who’s behind the priest, able to see only the gold veil an inch in front of my face. Before I know it we’re kneeling. Before I know it, bells ring. Before I know it, the consecrated host rises above me, elevated to the heavens in the hands of the celebrant. Elevated above the paten that blocked my view, the host commands upward my eyes, lifts my heart, yet humbles my soul. My Lord and my God! My arm seemed a thousand pounds under the weight of the humeral veil and the paten (which should have been quite light). As I returned the paten to the deacon for use in the priest’s communion and the communion of the faithful, the weight of participation in a ministry alien to me was lifted.
Serving as servant to the deacon (who serves the celebrant) was, as I’ve said, both enobling and humbling. I would do it again any day. How about Easter Sunday? More than anything, though, the liturgical role revealed to me just how great a distinction exists between the laity’s and the celebrant’s role at the mass. Praise God for it. The peace, contemplation, and activity of the soul available to the laity during the mass are not the priesthood-lite; they are a gift and opportunity made available to us by the ministry of the ordained priesthood. Glory be to God for the gift of the priesthood.
I’ll end with this anecdote. Remember when you were a kid taking your first airplane ride? Remember when the pilot of the big airplane invited you to sit (for a moment) in the cockpit, then gave you the plastic wings to pin on your shirt? You were both frightened and exhilarated, and somewhat relieved when the cockpit tour had ended. Serving as subdeacon this week I’ve been that kid, and the sanctuary of my parish was that cockpit. As a child struck in awe at the hundreds of lighted buttons and dials, at the pilot’s mastery of the seeming mystery of flight, I stood in awe of the priest’s ministry before me–a ministry not only of a seeming mystery but the real, paschal mystery.
May God bless you on this Good Friday and bring you to the joy of Easter!