MORE MOVING THAN DESCARTES
John Gribben compares the Christian priest to the stars of the silver screen, who affirm truth by realising aspirations
WHEN THE HIGH PRIEST went into the sanctuary he wore a breastpiece over his vestments. This breastpiece contained twelve precious stones on which were engraved the names of the twelve tribes of Israel. This was to symbolise that when he stood before Godís altar he bore the people of God on his heart. The ordination hymn ĎPour out thy Spirit from on high.í applies this theme to the Christian priesthood:
Wisdom and zeal and faith impart, Firmness with meekness from above, To bear thy people in their heart, And love the souls which thou dost love.
At ordination the priest takes on the responsibility for the people of God, he represents them at the altar he bears them in his prayers. This means that in a sense there is a priestly spirituality, the priestís prayer life is conditioned by his responsibilities. But there is also another way in which the priest is a representative - he represents Christ in the place where he is sent. Recently I was preaching at the ceremony for the blessing of the stoles belonging to those students who are about to be ordained and I urged them that when they wear their stoles to remember three things about them:
i) The stole worn across the neck symbolises a yoke or a halter. It is a reminder that we are to bear the burden of Christ - an easy yoke and a light burden, when borne in love. But it does mean that we are not our own man any more. We canít say, ĎI donít want to do that, the Church canít ask that of me, I want my freedoms, I want fulfilment, Iíve got my rights.í Before you accept the path towards ordination reflect that you may be asked to give up everything.
ii) The stole symbolises the towel with which Christ washed the disciples feet. To be a priest is to be an outward sign of Christ the servant and that does mean being a servant both in the parish and to the world. It is an evangelical sign and it is an effective sign for where it is performed, people will see the Gospel in action. It is not that the priest is to be a better servant than other Christians but it is that his service will enable those to whom he is sent to represent Christ the servant each in his or her own place.
iii) Thirdly, and youíll need to polish up your Greek for this one. In the New Testament it is the stole that is the vestment of Angels. In St Matthewís Gospel the Angel who announces the Resurrection is wearing a white stolas. The Gospel that you are called to preached is everlasting, it is heavenly it is full of joy. We bring good tidings of great joy. The Gospel of which the priest is the official representatives and which makes all the people of God priestly, is a gospel of healing and reconciliation, bringing heaven into a broken world where hell once reigned.
When I was registrar at the College of the Resurrection, Mirfield I can remember processing an application form and seeing the details of the applicantís occupation - a sub-mariner! It sounded so wonderfully adventurous and romantic especially to some-one like me who, at that time, spent the greater part of the day behind a desk doing administrative jobs and marking essays. It evoked memories of all those films about submarines, the terror of depth-charges, the fear of being trapped at the bottom of the sea.
I guess all our jobs are pretty dull when we are doing them and I guess that all our jobs probably sound interesting and exciting to somebody else. We are all inclined to day-dream about the different kind of life that we might have had. This is an age when day-dreams are made for us. Cinema and television dramas bring us into worlds where anything is possible. We can sit on the edge of our seats while Indiana Jones escapes certain death from crocodiles, snakes and sinister Nazis, or James Bond fresh from the wreckage of a blazing ship settles down in the life raft to be friendly with some beautiful girl. It is from such day-dreams that the cult of the screen idol was born. The heart-throb, the pathetic clown, the swashbuckling hero, the femme fatale, each had his or her special appeal. For some the appeal was their talents for which the film was just a backdrop - such were the great singer, the marvellous dancer, the Fred Astaire, the Betty Hutton. With others again it was shear sex-appeal, Marilyn Monroe, Sabrina, James Dean. For these we were prepared to queue in the cold and rain. Theirs were the shrines that we visited, and theirs were the favours we sought as we left behind a world bereft of imagination or beauty.
Now what is the explanation for this devotion to Valentino who with a flutter of his eyes could cause mass hysteria; Doris Day whose fresh sweet face and golden bobbing hair could leave you light-hearted and with a sense of well-being; Harpo Marx who could wring laughter and tears from the most heartless of audiences; Bela Lagousi whose gentlemanly Dracula sent shivers down the spine?
They were good actors and were loved for their entertainment value, but it wasnít in themselves that they were popular or loveable. Doris Day who is the perfect image of domestic stability and married bliss has had more than her fair share of pain and disaster in her home life. Chaplin, the little man who is always put-upon, was in fact a very hard-headed businessman and in real life there was nothing romantic about Valentino.
What makes a good screen idol is not just his or her ability to act but their ability to act for me. It is not so much that I admire Indiana Jones as a great adventurer. Rather it is that Harrison Ford can make me feel that itís me out there feeling the tension, the fear, the relief. When the violins reach their crescendo and in close-up the heads move together for the kiss of the evening, itís not Clarke Gable or Kevin Costner but me who is the great lover about to live happily ever after. The screen idol vicariously lives the romance, the excitement, the nobility, the dignity and sometimes even the shear charismatic outrageousness that is in my heart but beyond my hope.
Nor it is that this is just a good trip into virtual reality. However unlikely the plot, however thin the story, this identification with the actor is really an activity of the soul because it is really the things that he is representing that I identify with. He is opening me up to the possibility of being noble, courageous, free... On the screen the star is able to represent truth, beauty, goodness and to draw us into those virtues for ourselves.
When Olivier makes the St Crispin Day speech, I want to be English, to save my country. When Buster Crabbe faces the Emperor Ming, I want to be on the side of right, I want oppose evil. When I weep at ĎMrs Miniverí or ĎThe Hasty Heartí it is because Greer Garson or Richard Todd have taken me into the regions of the soul where matters of life and death stand before me and I reflect on them in a way that Descartes or Socrates could never have moved me to.
Now, in a way that is what the Christian priest is called on to do for the people of God in his parish. His priestly ministry involves him in being a representative, an icon, a curtain raiser. He will represent the truth of Christ to us, leading us to the things of Salvation. The function of a priest of the Church is to help the Christian congregation become more fully what it is already - a people who love and serve God. We might say that in the services he is the close-up that draws us into the action. By being our representative at the altar he draws us into the one Body of Christ that offers the sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving to the Father. It is he who says the words but our hearts and minds go with him.
In the Christian Church there is only one priest in the full sense of the word. Only Christ can lift the veil of human limitation and death and take us into the presence of the Father. What happens in ordination is that the Church gives to the priest the authority sacramentally to represent Christís priesthood. By preaching the Gospel, by celebrating the Holy Communion, by telling us of Christís forgiveness when we confess, by ministering to the sick and comforting the troubled, he will be raising the curtain so that we can see the love of God.
When he leads us in the eucharist, he is leading us into the mystery, he is involving us in the truth. He is lifting the curtain, he is leading us to Calvary, to resurrection, to the Last Day when all our joys and sorrows will be received and blessed by our Father. This is our celebration as much as his and we give praise to God that by this means we can participate once more in all the work that Jesus did for us two thousand years ago.
And yet this is still just Fred or John or Algernon, weak, sinful, lovable, foolish - just like the rest of us, for the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ delights to come to us by the means of earthly things. He comes to us in the waters of baptism, he comes to us in bread and wine, he comes to us by means of anointing when we are sick and he comes to us through the ministers, the frail human beings that he has ordained to preach the Gospel and to serve the kingdom. I speak as an Anglican and a catholic and therefore with a particular interpretation of Ministry and of who may minister. The expectations of some communities will be different from mine and therefore the form of the drama may well be different but still the curtain will be lifted on the mystery of salvation.
So let us rejoice in our fellowship with one-another tonight. Let us sing the praise of Christ the Eternal Priest and King for he has called good people to be his priests and our servants in order that we might all become Ďa royal priesthood, a holy nation, Godís own peopleí.
John Gribben is Novice Master of the Community of the Resurrection at Mirfield in the diocese of Wakefield.
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