Preached at Croydon Minster on the 60th anniversary of priesting of the Revd Canon Arthur Quinn and the 25th of the Revd Canon Dr Andrew Bishop.
Isaiah 6.1-4,8 ‘Here I am: send me’
Psalm 23.1-3a, 5-6
John 17:1-2, 9, 14-26 Father the hour has come: glorify your Son
60 years ago, in Fr Arthur’s case, 25 years ago in mine, and one day ago, in this church, for three people: priests have been ordained, in service of Christ and his Church, from the time of the Apostles.
Priesthood in the Church has a deep provenance going back to the time of Abraham and the mystical priest-king Melchizedek, on to Aaron the priest and on to the Temple in Jerusalem.
The essential task of the priest is to offer sacrifice and intercession in pursuit of reconciling human lives to God.
Priesthood - in the Old Testament and New and into the Apostolic Age and therefore in the life of the Church - is all focused on Jesus Christ, Eternal High Priest.
Jesus Christ both expands and intensifies all notions of what priesthood is.
In Jesus Christ the priestly task of the offering of sacrifice is no longer about the blood of bulls and goats and lambs; but is found in his offering of himself, once for all, upon the cross: he is the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.
Blood and water flowed from the heart of Jesus when the centurion’s lance pierced his side and he gave up his life.
That is the fulfilment of all sacrifice.
Nothing can perfect or improve the self-offering of Christ who is, as the hymn puts it, both priest and victim.
And today, through Christ our great High Priest, we receive the benefits of his sacrifice in the Eucharist, that’s why often it is known as the Sacrifice of the Mass.
The Eucharist is not a blood sacrifice but the re-presentation of the sacrifice of Christ in which we share, in the way he promised at the Last Supper, saying ‘this is my body, this is my blood’.
The sweet incense that masked the stench of slaughtered animals in the Temple, is now the fragrance of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, a fragrance that fills lives that will receive him, and accompanies the offering of ourselves, our souls and bodies to be a holy and lively sacrifice to him.
Incense too represents another dimension of priesthood, that of intercession, of prayer rising before the Lord, ‘let my prayer rise before you as incense’, says the psalm, ‘the lifting up of my hands as the evening sacrifice’ (Psalm 144).
Jesus Christ is the exemplar of prayer, that union with the Father. The intimacy of that relationship flowed through our gospel reading:
‘Righteous Father, the world does not know you, but I know you; and these know that you have sent me. I made your name known to them, and I will make it known, so that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.’ (John 17.25,26)
This intimacy of prayer and communion of Father and Son, woven in the love of the Holy Spirit, is the fountain of reconciliation.
Drinking from that fountain brings us to life in its abundance and a clearer vision of life means we can be clear sighted about our sin.
That is why the sacrament we call Confession is also known as the Sacrament of Reconciliation, in which the penitent repents and the priest declares, at Christ’s word, the forgiveness of sins.
When we know the glory we can attain; we see the sin that impedes it.
Essentially, the Christian priest is to be the mirror of Jesus Christ, the Eternal High Priest.
At its heart that’s what my ministry is meant to be about, and Arthur’s too: as a song of the 1980s put it: ‘here comes the mirror man’!
A mirror, in itself, hasn’t got anything to show.
All that I, or Arthur, or any priest can bring is our own humanity, and the honest endeavour to reflect the sacrifice, reconciliation and love of Christ to the world.
The priest’s vocation starts with the holiness of God, as Isaiah found in the Temple.
Before being commissioned to be sent by the LORD, Isaiah, in the midst of the sacrifice and incense of the Temple cries out:
‘Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!’ (Isaiah 6.5)
The priest is first a human being, a sinner, falling short of God’s glory, yet by God’s grace we can be sent by the Lord. One of the Articles of Religion is entitled ‘of the unworthiness of the ministers, which hinders not the effect of the sacrament’. (Article 26).
Even human unworthiness cannot dim the divine light.
The Church Fathers often speak of the Blessed Virgin Mary – who said ‘how can this be?’ - as the moon reflecting the light of the sun: s-u-n and S-o-n.
That’s one reason why Mary is known as ‘Mother of Priests’.
I have used the phrase ‘mirror men’, but the ancient way of putting it is that, in the Liturgy, the priest is an icon of Christ who acts in persona Christi, in the person of Christ.
So I trust that we have been ‘mirror men’ in the parishes and chaplaincies in which we have served, reflecting the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, interceding and reconciling in his name not our own.
St Augustine of Hippo remarked to the people of his diocese, ‘I am a Christian with you and a Bishop for you’.
A priest is both a Christian with you and a priest for you.
To be a priest in the Church of God is the most overwhelming privilege when we pause to consider it.
No doubt like me, Arthur will be mindful tonight - on this jubilee, this lovely (but ultimately artificial) landmark - of those people who we have baptised, prepared for confirmation, married and buried; those whose vocations we have spotted and nurtured, those whose confessions we have heard and to whom we have pronounced Christ’s forgiveness; those dying in the hope of the resurrection to eternal life and those who lacked that hope; the students, and others who we have endeavoured to guide through the world’s machinations and the valley of the shadow of death; those people to whom we have had to speak firmly, for the sake of truth, and those who have needed a kind or encouraging word; those who have gathered at the altar as we have proclaimed Christ in word and sacrament supremely in the breaking of bread.
No doubt too, Arthur will be mindful, like me, of those priests who in their time were sources of inspiration to us, and thankful to our families, friends and congregations who have made our ministries possible and sustainable.
Ultimately the task of each priest, and each Christian, is to turn to Christ and walk with him the path of life.
With fellow priests, not least in this season of life here, I trust that Arthur and I mirror and show to you the sacrificial love of Christ that reconciles us to the Blessed Trinity.
Please pray for your priests, and all priests, mindful of the words the priest says at the end of a Confession to the person forgiven.
The Lord has put away your sins.
When you pray, please pray for me, a sinner too.