But you are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, His own special people, that you may proclaim the praises of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light. 1 Peter 2:9
All right, it’s time to brag. Being born an Orthodox Christian of Greek descent has put me in contact with countless entertaining people. Being Orthodox led to my involvement in OCF, which then led to my being surrounded by clergy; it’s really not unlike that scene in Toy Story with the aliens and the claw machine except I’m not as talented as Tom Hanks and none of the priests I’ve met worship the most bogus arcade concept in all of existence.
In my neck of the woods, being Greek means being surrounded by countless loud, hilarious, loud, outspoken, loud people. I love my family to death, however they all definitely have their opinions, and are always more than eager to share them with me. After a few of my aunts and uncles learned that I spend a lot of time at school doing work for the Church they decided to share this pearl of wisdom with me:
“Be careful that you don’t become a priest!”
Unfortunately, when someone has seen enough church politics, they often become disillusioned with church leadership, and since many of our priests often have the final say on whatever happens in a church, I can see why so many discourage me from joining the priesthood. However, some of my more adamantly opinionated family members may be a little disappointed; I’m already part of the priesthood. In fact, so are they—and some of them didn’t even have to take a single church history class.
In his epistle, St. Peter refers to all of us as being part of “a royal priesthood.” Even for those of us well-versed in Church hierarchy, these words sound slightly daunting. But as daunting as this revelation is, it shouldn’t come as a total surprise. Our understanding of the sacraments is definite proof that we are part of some royal priesthood. During baptisms we sing, “all those who have been baptized in Christ have put on Christ,” and we understand Christ as the Chief Priest of our Church. When we participate in the sacrament of confession, the priest places the epitrachilion over our heads as a sign that his anointing as a priest has passed down to us. (His Grace, Bishop Gregory of Nyssa gives a really nice explanation of how this works here in his College Conference East address). So, this should be crystal clear, right? No concerns? At least everyone who likes wearing black is cool with this whole royal priesthood thing, right?
Well, when I first read this verse, I was still a bit puzzled. After all, if we are a “royal priesthood” why is it necessary for our church to ordain priests and how can we act as priests if we aren’t ordained? To answer this question, let’s consult the authority of all life’s great conundrums—Hollywood. Particularly, the movie Dead Poets Society.
Dead Poets Society is a story about young people with tremendous gifts. The premise of the movie revolves around a boarding school English teacher, Mr. Keating (Robin Williams), who uses unconventional methods to teach his students about free thought and the importance of developing a passion for poetry. The characters’ gift is the ability to use language in a way that gives them a better love of each other and the world around them. If you haven’t seen the movie, the only other thing you really need to know is that it’s full of Walt Whitman, carpe diem, and honestly stellar headpieces.
One of the ways that Keating initially sells the value of poetry to his students is when he tells them that language was invented for the purpose of “wooing women.” This titillating incentive serves as the gateway for Keating’s students to realize the power they possess as linguists and creative minds. They form their secret after-hours poetry club—The Dead Poets Society. They read to each other, they write, and they fall in love with the endless sea of passion and meticulous craftsmanship found in linguistic art.
Now, in the infant moments of the Dead Poets Society, Keating’s students realize the power they have in their new found individualism and love of poetry. However they quickly start to abuse that power by taking part in excessive smoking, drinking, and profanity. When some of the students’ behavior comes to light, Mr. Keating cautions them to tame their new found passion and freedom by being “wise, not stupid.”
There are two really key things to glean from these few paragraphs of cinematic rambling:
- Let Mr. Keating be your model for ordained clergy, and let his students your model for the rest of us—the lay-priesthood. Mr. Keating is trained in the knowledge of literature, and is professionally associated with the institution of learning (school/church). His students have a different association with the school, but they have within them the same power of language as Mr. Keating. They then continue to exercise that power through Mr. Keating’s guidance.
- On occasion, Mr. Keating’s students abuse their power, and when they do, their teacher is responsible for guiding them back to a healthy way of using their gifts. However, the young men’s love for language is no less intense, and their relationships with each other are no less bold and dynamic. The iconic final scene of the movie shows the students’ love of language and each other in action. The film ends with them sharing their innate gifts, which their teacher helped hone.
So what does being a royal priesthood mean outside of the hokey fantasy world that is English class? Let’s briefly turn back to our Church’s liturgical tradition—particularly the Church’s vesting prayers. When the priest puts on the sticharion, his bright tunic, he recites the following:
My soul shall rejoice in the Lord for he has clothed me with a garment of righteousness and has covered me with the robe of gladness. He has crowned me as the bridegroom and has adorned me as a bride with jewels.”
There’s something spectacular about the image of being adorned by Christ as both His bride and bridegroom. I can only imagine the weight of those words and what a priest must feel whenever he recites them. However, the gravity of that imagery should not be lost on the rest of us. We are the Church—Christ’s bride. We are the royal priesthood. We are to take on our own ministries—our own Dead Poets Societies.
As college students, we’re blessed to have the tools for ministering at our disposal. We can host dinners, we can volunteer at soup kitchens, we can tutor, we can start Bible studies, we can join protests, we can organize charity benefits, we can cultivate strong friendships, and I could really keep going on like this. Through the Holy Spirit the possibilities of what we can do are endless, and if we let Him work through us, whether we wake up each morning and put on a cassock or if we put on a graphic t-shirt, crocs, and sweatpants (something which I advise against, by the way), we fulfill our duty as a royal priesthood, and further the process of filling the world with Christ’s “marvelous light.”