My understanding of the priesthood perhaps dawned on me at the age of 15, shortly after the funeral of my father. A presbyter descended from a 400-year lineage of clergymen in the Ukrainian Church, my father had a knack for the unconventional. He would take semi-controversial stances for people to more deeply consider their faith; he would pose difficult questions, lovingly guiding the faithful to the the sheer basics of our faith – the ecumenical councils, the writings of our earliest Church Fathers, and the Gospels. It made him quite the popular guy – in the humblest variation of popularity, of course.
Growing up in the church rectory, and facing a fair amount of scrutiny, I understood early on that our family was hardly different from others. No more than any other family, we argued, slammed doors, got really frustrated with each other. Yeah, we sinned. No, we weren’t perfect – despite being at the head of our religious community.
As I stood at the head of the receiving line as 4,000 people paid their respects to my father, I could feel my life was changing in ways I wouldn’t expect. Time and time again, I would get a stern look from someone shaking my hand. “You are going to follow in his footsteps, right?” would come the question over and over, assured in the response. “You’re going to be a priest, aren’t you?”
In his first epistle, the Apostle Peter conjured a vision of the priesthood incongruous with how first-century Jews would have understood it. The Apostle Peter called everybody to the priesthood, wrecking the class system Judaism had developed with the temple and its elite priests at the top, impervious to sin and fallacy.
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; who once were not a people but are now the people of God, who had not obtained mercy but now have obtained mercy.
To paraphrase St. Peter in the words of Oprah, “you’re a priest, and you’re a priest, and you’re a priest. Everybody who’s baptized is a priest!”
Peter is directing this epistle, of course, to all baptized or soon-to-be baptized Christians, who are described by St. Paul in his letter to the Galatians as “neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free, neither male nor female; but all one in Christ Jesus.”
Before Christianity became an imperial religion, it spread based on these concepts proposed by Saints Peter and Paul – what some contemporary theologians would call the “radical equality of the baptized.” This means that no Christian is somehow called to a different level of holiness than someone ordained to specific responsibilities or ceremonial duties one day per week.
“In the Orthodox Church clergy is not above laity or opposed to it,” says Fr. Alexander Schmemann, one of the most prolific theologians of the 20th century.
The clergy are ordained to make the Church the gift of God,— the manifestation and communication of His truth, grace and salvation to men…The laity are ordained to make the Church the acceptance of that gift, the ‘Amen’ of mankind to God.
For this reason, our Churches have always maintained a Tradition of the vernacular. We are ordained to understand Scripture, to be able to engage with it, declare and affirm our faith in it.
My father’s funeral. Complete with New Orleans Jazz Band. What did I say about unconventional?
Likewise, my father taught me that being a good Orthodox Christian means taking what you know from Tradition, Canons, and the Gospel to make your own decisions. It is in such a way that our Tradition avoids leading its faithful to clericalism, the concept that some sort of exceptional power is bestowed upon clergy.
If we are to take St. Peter at his word, which I recommend, then thinking independently and critically is what makes a priest – otherwise the praise we offer to God would be baseless, and we would lapse into a state of clericalism. The Gospel from St. John as well as the Acts of the Apostles repeatedly instruct us to bear witness for Christ; and we Christians need to put our beliefs through the metaphorical wringer before that can be done most effectively. Quite empowering, in my opinion!
I was once again ordained to the royal priesthood with that realization. Time will only tell if that’ll lead to the kind of priesthood mourners at my father’s funeral had in mind.
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 – 1 Peter 2:9
And I’m thinking a little more along the edge lines.
Our great war is a spiritual war, our great depression is our lives. We’ve all been raised on television to believe that one day we’d all be millionaires and movie gods and rock stars. But we won’t, and we’re slowly learning that fact.
A stark contrast, I know. But also very parallel.
I pull this quote from Fight Club where at about one hour and seven minutes, Tyler Durden addresses a group of men about their potential. The same potential we have.
To be a chosen generation.
To backtrack, I must admit, I am not new to this idea of blogging. Not in the least, as it were. Between writing for my major and having a personal soap box stuffed into the corners of the internet, I find that I’m all too comfortable with the idea of putting my words out there. However, I’d rather not pander to you all. Nor do I have any desire to remain anything but frank, though I’ll try to keep any repugnant profanity or rambling to a minimum.
I will say that this theme strikes me right to the heart. I find myself to be the least of all likely people to fit the high-profile of which Peter speaks. Think about it. Truly and deeply. “A chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation…” That’s about as deep as it gets. And meanwhile, it’s been nearly 50 years (49 to be exact) since The Who first sang “My Generation” and declared that the youth are different. And in that time, we still see a revolt of the young against the old, to challenge and push borders and change the game until said youth becomes the adults fighting so hard to retain the norms they created. A vicious cycle, to say the least. But the more our dueling age factions bat around ideas of who is right, the more the world seems to darken. We push for freedom, we get depravity as we are left to our own devices. We push for less accountability, we are given messes that no one can clean because no one learned how to do so.
I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by
madness, starving hysterical naked,
dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn
looking for an angry fix,
angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly
connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night,
who poverty and tatters and hollow-eyed and high sat
up smoking in the supernatural darkness of
cold-water flats floating across the tops of cities
who bared their brains to Heaven under the El and
saw Mohammedan angels staggering on tenement roofs illuminated,
who passed through universities with radiant cool eyes…
Albeit, this was written in 1955, but I think just the language makes it more pertinent now. One generation, driven to madness of sorts. And who would contest that the world is mad, insane, absolutely out of its collective mind? And these “angelheaded hipsters” all searching for a God in the machine of the world around them. A deep yearning for spiritual depth. And what are we searching for if not the same thing? We’re all now those “who passed through universities with radiant cool eyes,” every one of us clearly having “bared their brains to Heaven.”
Now, you’ve got to think, we’re this generation. And we’re quite probably failing. But we’re chosen. Fully and completely. Despite our fallbacks. As put beautifully by Morri Creech in his poem Prayer to my Living Father from his collection Paper Cathedrals:
Forgive me, Father,
if I am not among them. All my life
I have tried to accept the grace
I was offered. Father, when you enter
into your kingdom, remember me.
We may not be the holiest, or most devout, but we are chosen. And as I said earlier, this world may be darkening all around us, but the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel wouldn’t be so bright if there weren’t darkness surrounding it. As such “You are a chosen generation…. that you may proclaim the praises of Him who called you out of darkness and into His marvelous light.” This may be darkness we’re seeing, but it is light we’re erupting into. Blinding and wonderful and warm, like the first spring suns after long winters.
We’re a chosen generation.
Act like it.
Be that holy nation and forget what’s holding us back. As put best by Kerouac in his poem Hymn:
but O I saw my father
and my grandfather’s mother
and the long lines of chairs
and tear-sitters and dead,
Ah me, I knew God You
had better plans than that
And Kerouac ends by saying “At your service anyway,”.
We’re a royal priesthood. And we have the same service to do. Service to God our whole life long. Join me in making the service a good one.
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.”