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The Mystery of the Covenant and Its Connections with the Nature of the Ministerial Priesthood by Gustave Martelet

The Mystery of the Covenant and Its Connections with the Nature of the Ministerial Priesthood

Gustave Martelet, SJ
published in L'Osservatore Romano ( March 17, 1977):6-7.

At first sight it seems hopeless to look for a connection and even more for connections between the mystery of the covenant and the nature of the ministerial priesthood. It is known, in fact, to what extent the history of the ministerial priesthood in the old covenant was complex, contested, and even contestable owing to cases of unfaithfulness. In spite of admirable examples, such as those of Jeremiah and Ezekiel, who were both priests and who struggled throughout their whole life for the purity and holiness of their function, in spite of the influence of those who drew up the code of holiness and the various priestly documents in the Pentateuch, in spite, above all, of the unequaled prestige of Aaron, the brother of Moses, it is clear that the priestly function in the Old Testament had to suffer a great deal from the attraction exercised on men by honors, power, and profits of every kind. Even in the definitive structure of the priestly order, which will be in force from Josiah to the ruin of the temple, Israel will keep the memory of the idolatry that the priests of the high places, ancestors of the "Levites" of the temple, encouraged cynically, it seems, if we are to believe Hosea and even more Amos. As a result the Levites were integrated in a lower rank in the priestly caste, and Ezekiel invites them to remember their past iniquities, to explain this discrimination of which they are still the object.

Then, too, the priests of the line of Zadoc, of better spiritual origin, will not be much more edifying. Ezekiel once more is scandalized by the way they secretly worship reptiles and the sun, even inside the temple (8:12). It is to them that the Lord of hosts is not afraid to say in Malachi: "I will curse your blessings," even adding: "I will spread dung upon your faces, the dung of your offerings" (2:2-3). Nor can it be forgotten that, in the time that precedes the coming of Jesus, the priestly caste had compromised itself with the political power to such an extent that the Qumran sect had seceded, in view of a spiritual reform, imbued with Messianism. In short, the testimony of the old covenant bears no less on the defects of the priests than on the importance of their functions, particularly with regard to the sacrifices (Lev 16) and, for a certain time, to the Law (Deut).

In light of the New Testament, and, in particular, the Letter to the Hebrews, it is the very function of the Aaronic priesthood which is criticized, as compared with the unequaled greatness of the priesthood of Jesus. The now ascertained weakness is no longer only a contingent matter, related to "good" and "bad" Levites, it is clearly structural: it depends on the very nature of the Old Testament priesthood. The author of the Letter to the Hebrews says bluntly: "If perfection had been attained through the Levitical priesthood . . . what further need would there have been for another priest to arise after the order of Melchizedek, rather than one named after the order of Aaron?" (7:11). The fact is that the mystery of Christ has now fully revealed that the whole priestly edifice of the Old Testament was—as St. Paul says in another context—"only a shadow of what is to come" but that "the substance belongs to Christ" (Col 2:17).

What is it about, in fact, this mystery of the covenant which the Old Testament inaugurates without being able to complete it, if not the possibility, to use St. Paul's words again, of "access in one Spirit to the Father" (Eph 2:18) ? A possibility which only the person of the Son can offer not only to Jews but also to pagans, since all nations were blessed in Abraham, with whom the covenant began. Certainly, it was necessary for everything to begin with the flesh, in order that man might really be touched by God. It is not angels in fact but men who are of flesh and blood like Abraham (Heb 2:16) that Christ assists and must deliver by "bringing many sons to glory" (Heb 2:10, 16). Under these conditions, however, questions were raised which were evidently insoluble for men, however qualified they might be. It was a question of fulfilling a promise that was apparently impossible to keep: that God might be able to delight in a people who would see in "knowledge and love of God"—as Hosea says (6:6)—its faithfulness and "worship." Then not just "the country" would be filled with knowledge of God, as Isaiah promises in the marvelous apocalypse of chapter 11, but from every part of the earth, according to Malachi, "incense and a pure offering" (1:11) would be offered. This offering of oneself in love of God evidently presupposes, in Israel and in the whole of humanity, a kind of fantastic recasting of the heart which would pass, as Ezekiel announced, from the order of stone to that of flesh, and then from the order of flesh to that of the spirit (33:26).

Jeremiah, too, had spoken unforgettable words on his point, which the Letter to the Hebrews could not but quote to drive home the unequaled originality of Christ, who accomplished their content: "This is the covenant, that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my laws into their minds, and write them on their hearts, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. And they shall not teach every one his fellow or every one his brother, saying, 'Know the Lord,' for all shall know me, from the least of them to the greatest" (Jer 31:33-34, quoted in Heb 8:10-12). A marvelous new covenant, indeed, which will make knowledge and love of God an instinct which is born with the heart and grows with it!

For such a prophecy to be fulfilled, we said, a recasting of the whole of mankind would be necessary. The prophecies of the Servant of the Lord give us the presentiment that this recasting will take place at the beginning, only in a really extraordinary subject, unique in his kind. We divine from the prophecy that the way in which "this promised man" will recapitulate men in himself and cause "God's arm" to triumph in them, alone capable of molding and remodeling humanity, however rebellious it is, will not be biological in the first place. By means of the biological element, m fact, Adam was able to transmit only a spiritually frail heritage, which vanished, in any case, rapidly. Abraham himself saw his descendants torn apart. As for David, his carnal love for Bathsheba led to the division of his kingdom! It will be necessary, therefore, that the one who has to teach God's justice even to the most distant islands should take man in a specifically spiritual way. Bound to us, might be able to delight in a people who would see in "knowledge and love of God"—as Hosea says (6:6)—its faithfulness and "worship." Then not just "the country" would be filled with knowledge of God, as Isaiah promises in the marvelous apocalypse of chapter 11, but from every part of the earth, according to Malachi, "incense and a pure offering" (1:11) would be offered. This offering of oneself in love of God evidently presupposes, in Israel and in the whole of humanity, a kind of fantastic recasting of the heart which would pass, as Ezekiel announced, from the order of stone to that of flesh, and then from the order of flesh to that of the spirit (33:26).

thanks to a birth that integrates him fully in the human plane, he will also have to be so imbued by the Spirit as to be able, in the offering of himself and in his simplicity, in the uprightness and marvelous patience of his heart, to gather and recapitulate in himself the whole of mankind, which the division of the pastures and the lying multiplicity of the pastors scatter in the wind.

This awaited man, this "messenger of the covenant in whom you delight," to use the expression of Malachi (3:1), is the entirely new man, the perfect man, the second and last Adam, as St. Paul calls him. He is not a meteorite who has nothing to do with our earth, not an intruder, but a man who rises from the earth, a shoot, the branch, as Zechariah says (3:8). While he bears within him all man's authenticity, since, as the second Adam, he is connected with the first, he also contains in himself (this is the paradox) all the newness of God, all the hidden power of the Spirit, who conceived him, moreover, in the Virgin's womb. In him the new covenant is no longer just a promise, of which he is the prophet, but a reality: "all the promises of God find the Yes in him; in him it is always Yes," as St. Paul says (2 Cor 1:19). Having received, in his flesh, in his blood, in his whole humanity, the Spirit, "without measure" (cf. Jn 3:34), he speaks, lives, loves, offers himself, dies, and rises again, renewing completely the cycle of life and death which he traverses like us, in fact better than us, transfiguring it without disfiguring it. In this way he can breathe on us the Spirit which is his, as the Son of God living forever in our flesh.

I said "breathe," according to the text of John (20:22). Exegetes, in fact, are now paying renewed attention to the apparition Jesus made to the eleven, which this evangelist reports in this passage. We are informed of this detail, enlightening for faith, that is, that the Risen Christ "breathed" on his disciples. The verb used here is almost an exception in the Bible. It is found only in the narration of creation of man. What God did for the first man, breathing upon his face the breath of life, Christ, the second Adam, this "lifegiving spirit" as St. Paul says (1 Cor 15:45), does also for those that he does not disdain to call his brothers and friends. In this way he brings them into the completely new life, which is his, that is, the life of the Son himself, which makes possible complete communion with God and, therefore, with others. The free "access to the Father in the Spirit" is now opened to all men by the Christ of the Resurrection, who is also the Christ of the Pentecost, who, returning to the Father, gives us his Spirit (cf. Acts 2:33). The fruits of this Spirit can and must rise over the whole of mankind, like a new spring the sap of which no winter could deaden.

What God Has Promised Is, Therefore, Fulfilled

In what does this new covenant, which Jesus found in his person, donor of the Spirit to his Body, the Church, and through her, to the whole universe, in what does it still imply a priesthood? Compared with this High Priest, who is reconciliation itself and the unfathomable renewal of man, does not every other form of priesthood melt like snow in the sun? Who can claim in fact to fill an office that is in the slightest an addition or a supplement or a help to the strictly personal mission of Christ? Who can liberate himself from sin but the Liberator himself? Who can open the way towards the Father but the Son in our flesh? Who can make men "worshipers in spirit and in truth," who can spread among his followers the Spirit in whom we can cry: "Abba! Father"? Who, but the One who, incorporating us in his life in the Church, permits us to repeat in the Spirit that animates it, the words of perfect oblation and absolute renunciation: "Sacrifices and offerings thou has not desired. . . . Then I said, 'Lo, I have come to do thy will, O God'" (Heb 10:6).

Now this communication of Christ's oblative sonship to all the members of his body is so deep and complete that the priesthood became in Christ no longer a particular institution but the very form of the life of the whole Church. This is the meaning of the famous words in the First Letter of Peter, the extreme newness of which nothing must ever compromise: "Come to him, to that living stone, rejected by men but In God's sight chosen and precious; and like living stones be yourselves built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ" (2:4-5). Here the priesthood is not in the first place a special ministry or a function, it is a baptismal state of life or if you like a charism of existence, which defines every Christian. This aspect of things is so clearly manifested in the Scriptures that our Protestant brothers are unable to go beyond this evident fact, which, however, implies something which is not affirmed in this place but which nothing excludes or denies.

A ministry of "priestly" institution and function does, in fact, spring from the new covenant, provided we are willing to see in it a depth of which Christ is the marvelous realization.

When the prophets reproach Israel with her infidelity in terms of prostitution—remember the famous twenty-third chapter of Ezekiel— they are speaking literally, for in the covenant God actually became the bridegroom of his chosen people. The text of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith recalled this so clearly that I can be content with an allusion here. The covenant is, therefore, a mystery of such deep union between the Lord God and the members of his people that the conjugal life of man and woman is still only an image of the tradition, extraordinary in itself, which defines the Lord as a fiance, a bridegroom, and Israel as a fiancée and a real bride, though unworthy.

To express the mystery which he realizes with the filial communication of the Spirit to his body, the Church, Christ does not reject such a symbolism. As is the second Adam, the one who assumes and recapitulates in himself the whole truth of the first Adam, so he is also the perfect bridegroom, which the first one had difficulty in becoming in an order much more modest. The Church is consequently the bride who receives and shares entirely the very life of Christ. So that the new covenant is a perfectly successful marriage, in Christ and the Spirit, between God, who receives from us the humanity which is ours, and ourselves, who receive from him the divinity which is his.

Here is precisely the foundation of a quite specific ministry, which can be called priestly in the real sense of the word. In fact this astonishing communication between Christ, the bridegroom, and his Church-bride defines the Church of Jesus Christ so much that the latter can rightly take up again and apply to herself the Son's words to his Father, to express her unity with Christ: "all mine are thine, and thine are mine"(Jn 17:10). In fact, there is no separation of the body, far less divorce, there is no room even for reserve in the "tradition" that Christ assures her of himself, in the truth of the Gospel, in the life of the resurrection, in the revelation of secrets of the kingdom. There is nothing that can make the Church think that Christ has withdrawn or is withdrawing himself from her in the order of truth proclaimed evangelically, of transmitted sacramental life, of spiritual existence transformed day by day in her history. Everything is given, everything is transmitted, everything is handed over, nothing is kept. There is no reservation when it is a question of Jesus Christ giving himself to the Church. "You will even do", Jesus says to his followers, "greater things than I have done myself," that in particular of going to the frontiers of the world, of which I have known only Galilee or at least Palestine and some bits of Decapolis. This nuptial communication of his life, this surrender of the whole of himself into the hands of his Church, so that we may thus live of the Spirit, is at the same time the value of the Church and her identity.

But the depth of this gift must not mask the identity of the donor. Love for the bride must not annihilate the personality of the bridegroom. The complete community of property between Christ and his Church must not give rise to a gradual cancellation of Christ. Having become invisible with his resurrection, he must not, however, become evanescent in the visibility of a Church which, having to administer the property of her bridegroom, should reach the point of veiling him or— even worse—of supplanting him gradually. This is an inadmissible prospect, which urges us to consider things differently and say everything in a positive way. The Church, in fact, needs to know always that the riches which she so miraculously has for herself and for the life of the world are nothing but the property of her Christ, and Christ himself. Hence the necessity for her to possess, in her living reality as a society unique in the world, the irrefutable sign that everything she possesses, everything she enjoys, she receives incessantly from Christ and from him alone. Now, since Christ, having become invisible for her, can no longer appear personally to affirm his irreplaceable presence and action, there will be in the Church a visible and efficacious reminder of her absolute and vital dependency on her irreplaceable bridegroom. The ministerial priesthood is this sign.

An institutional charism given by the bridegroom to the body of his bride, so that the latter may always see in him the author of the love that surrounds her, the ministerial priesthood is, In the Church, a primary visible element of the person of the Lord. Its value is not related to the persons who exercise this function, which is disproportionate from every point of view to their qualities and their defects; it depends entirely on the objective gift of Christ in the Spirit, which thus sets up men in a function in which greatness and simplicity are mingled. They are, actually, one of the efficacious signs of the irrefutable identity of the absent one and therefore of his action. Thus the Church can see and know in faith, thanks to this social, functional, and public sign, that Christ has not vanished within her. In the moment of complete communication between the bridegroom and the bride, which is, as is known, the eucharist, the climax of the espousals of the whole Church with Lord, the Church can understand that everything she lives on, quenches her thirst with, and nourishes herself on, comes from Jesus Christ. He is, so to speak, standing in her midst in the efficacious sign of a ministerial priesthood, the whole value of which is to be the visible actuality of him who freely gives himself to his Church in this way. The ministerial priesthood signifies, therefore, in a public way for faith, that the bridegroom, with whom the bride deeply desires to unite, is a Christ that she can take only because he offers himself. So Christ, who has given himself entirely as life and love of his body, maintains towards the Church the personal distinction of the bridegroom, who is the very source of the goods which he lavishes upon her.

There can be no question of tackling here, far less solving them, all the problems that this ministry implies. I wished merely to show its deep logic, by making its existence spring from what is most remarkable and astonishing in the new covenant. What explains best, in fact, the existence of a ministerial priesthood in Christ's mystery is not the priesthood of the Old Testament, as was sometimes clumsily suggested in the Middle Ages, but the incomparable originality of Jesus Christ. A simple remark will enable me to emphasize this point, in conclusion.

It will be remembered that one of the great concerns of the christological councils of the East was to avoid the twofold danger, contradictory and symmetrical, of a unity of the two natures in Jesus Christ that would be confusion, and of a distinction that would become opposition or conflict. Now, this concern can be transposed to illustrate the union between Christ and the Church. The mystery of the new covenant establishes—as we have seen—a nuptial relationship of bridegroom-bride between Christ and the Church. It, too, implies a union without confusion and a difference without opposition between Christ and the Church. In fact, if Christ is not the Church and likewise the Church is not Christ, each one having his or her own personality, they are both inseparable, as are the bridegroom and bride in a perfectly united couple. There is, therefore, a distinction of persons between Christ and the Church, without separation, however, since the Church is really the body of Christ and Christ is fully himself only through the Church his bride.

Certainly, only the Spirit can guarantee this perfect union in the purest distinction, which, moreover, excludes all opposition as well as all confusion. The fact remains, however, that the ministerial priesthood, exercises, by virtue of the Spirit, a function that can easily be distinguished in the economy of salvation. While Christ, with the gift of himself, guarantees the Church a union that abolishes all spiritual distance, which would leave the Church with her hunger unsatisfied, it is necessary for the bride herself, however, to possess within herself the sign that reminds her efficaciously of the incomparable personality of the bridegroom. Since union always presupposes the real difference of persons, theirs will be all the deeper and more successful: all confusion excluded, no distance, however, will be established, but only the distinction which guarantees union will be signified. In this sense the ministerial priesthood, beyond all merit of the subjects invested with it only to serve the whole Church, helps the Church not only not to forget the conditions of her union, but even more to rejoice always in the originality of a bridegroom whose marvelous singularity is incessantly recalled to her by the consecrated ministry.

Finally, since it is a question of a ministry which depends entirely on the identity of the bridegroom, it can be understood that the priestly service of the new covenant should be carried out by men. Are they not by nature bridegrooms and not brides? Man is, therefore, better suited than woman to symbolize in the conjugality that defines the communion of the new covenant the bridegroom from whom the bride knows she receives both love and life.


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