By Fr. Thomas J. Lane
Fr. Thomas J. Lane is a priest of the Diocese of Cloyne (Ireland) and is Assistant Professor of Sacred Scripture at Mount St. Mary’s Seminary, Emmitsburg, Maryland. He is the author of The Catholic Priesthood: Biblical Foundations.
The priestly people, although overlooked in most catechesis, precede the ministerial priests. Christ had called many disciples before he chose twelve apostles out of them. Similarly, those ordained to the ministerial priesthood in the Sacrament of Holy Orders are called out of the priestly people who are living the Sacrament of Baptism. The two priesthoods are intimately connected, since both are a response to Christ and they are bound together. The ministerial priesthood is serving the priestly people, and the priestly people receive the sacraments from the ministerial priesthood.
In Exodus 19:6, God promised the Israelites would be a royal priesthood and a holy nation if they kept his covenant. However, in Isaiah 61:6, the priestly role of the people was being rekindled by the prophet, so it seems the promise of Exodus 19:6 had not become a reality. In 2 Maccabees 2:17, in a letter from Jerusalem Jews to their brethren in Egypt sharing the good news of the rededication of the temple, there is an allusion to Exodus 19:6, revealing the expectation that it would be fulfilled. Two books of the New Testament, the First Letter of Peter and the Book of Revelation, refer to all Christians as priests.
The Septuagint employs different Greek words, with the exception of Isaiah 61:6, to distinguish between the Levitical priests and the priestly understanding of all Israel: hiereus (ἱερεύς) for the Levitical priests and hierateia (ἱερατεία) for their priestly office, but hierateuma (ἱεράτευμα) for the priestly role of the people. Both 1 Peter and the Book of Revelation show that Exodus 19:6 is now fulfilled in all Christians. Significantly, the First Letter of Peter uses the same Greek word found in the Septuagintal version of Exodus 19:6 for the priesthood of the people, hierateuma (ἱεράτευμα). However, the Book of Revelation instead uses the Greek word hiereus (ἱερεύς)—the word for Levitical priests—for Christians as priests, but there is no room for confusion with the Levitical Old Covenant priesthood and the book indicates that all Christians are called since Baptism to exercise their priesthood.
Peter writes to the Christians in Asia Minor (1 Pet 1:1) and invites them to draw near to Christ, the living stone rejected by men but chosen by God (1 Pet 2:4), an allusion to Psalm 118:22. There has long been speculation that his letter contains catechesis for Baptism based on the understanding that the newborn babies longing for pure spiritual milk in 2:2 refers to the newly baptized being born spiritually in Baptism. I will take it that baptismal catechesis is the context for Peter’s comments. Disciples are in relationship with Jesus the living stone (2:4). Since Jesus is a living stone, disciples too will become living stones by drawing near to Jesus (2:5). Stones build a house, and so Peter then alludes to Exodus 19:6 to explain what it means to be Christ’s spiritual house built of living stones. For Peter, the spiritual house is Christians being a holy priesthood, hierateuma (ἱεράτευμα), offering spiritual sacrifices to God through Jesus (2:5). In the context of baptismal catechesis, Peter is saying that Christ’s life is in them since Baptism makes them living stones, a holy priesthood.
How will Christian disciples exercise a priestly ministry? The Levitical priests offered sacrifice (Heb 8:3; 10:11), Christ the high priest sacrificed himself on the Cross, and Peter says the disciples also, Christ’s holy priesthood, are to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus (1 Pet 2:5). Peter does not explain precisely what he means by these spiritual sacrifices, but commenting on this verse, Pope Benedict XVI said, “And what is this offering which we are called to make, if not to direct our every thought, word and action to the truth of the Gospel and to harness all our energies in the service of God’s Kingdom?” In Romans 12:1, Paul asks Christians to offer their bodies, meaning themselves, to Christ as a living sacrifice. Everything Christians do, everything done with their bodies, is to be holy and capable of being offered to the Father as a sacrifice. Christians’ daily activities are a means of sanctifying themselves and the world. So, just as Peter reminded Christians of their priesthood in 1 Peter 2:5, Paul does also in Romans 12:1. In summary, Christians receive their priesthood from Christ in Baptism and exercise that priesthood by living their daily lives for the service of God’s kingdom.
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During the time of Jesus Christ, neither he nor his apostles would have had the term “priest” applied to their mission or identity. The priesthood was exclusive to the tribe of Levi and at that time was associated primarily with their sacrificial liturgies in the temple. But with Christ’s death on the Cross, a new understanding of Christ as priest began to grow in light of his priestly self-sacrifice. The Catholic Priesthood: Biblical Foundations by Fr. Thomas Lane highlights the Scriptural evidence indicating that Christ’s intention was to establish a New Covenant priesthood that he would share with his apostles and their successors.