For there is one God and one Mediator between God and men, the Man Christ Jesus, (1 Tim. 2:5)
There is no way to adequately explain priesthood without reference to mediation. A priest is a mediator between God and Man. From time to time over the years, I have had the verse from 1 Timothy pointed out to me with the argument that there cannot be any mediator other than Christ, and, thus, there cannot be any such thing as a “priest” within the Church. Sometimes the argument becomes even more pointed:
I do not need to go to a priest to have my sins forgiven! I can go directly to God. I don’t want anything or anyone standing between me and Jesus.
If the priesthood (ordained or otherwise) stood between a person and Christ, I would oppose it myself. However, its purpose, like all of the sacraments, is quite the opposite: it is to mediate the presence of Christ, that is to make Him present, not serve in His absence. The greater question, therefore, is whether there need be any sacraments.
That Christ gave us Holy Baptism and the Eucharist is beyond doubt. In particular, with the Eucharist, we are told, “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me and I in them.” Further, we are commanded to eat His flesh and drink His blood. The notion that the Eucharist is merely a ritual action designed to make us think of Jesus is, historically speaking, absurd. There is only evidence in the early Church that the bread and the wine truly become the Body and Blood of Christ. Everything said about it in the Scriptures, including the warning of possible sickness accompanying eating it in the wrong manner, argue against mere memorialism.
It is ironic in the extreme that the very Christians who champion a “literal” reading of Scripture, and excoriate the Orthodox (and others) for engaging in theological analysis, refuse to read the verses concerning the Eucharist in a literal manner and themselves engage in philosophical gymnastics in order to deny the reality of Christ’s Body and Blood. It is a case of an anti-Catholic petard hoisting them into nonsense.
But just as Christ gives us His own Body and Blood, that we might “dwell in Him and He in us,” so, too, does He give us a sacramental world by which and in which He may be known. Marriage is another example. In the God-blessed faithful union of a man and a woman, Christ makes known the mystery of the union between Himself and the Church. A sacramental world is not a case of the world standing between us and God, but the world being made something in which and by which we encounter God.
The great flaw in anti-sacramental thinking is its abstracted notion of “spiritual.” It is presumed that for something to be “spiritual,” it must have nothing to do with the material world. That “talking to Jesus” only consists in words spoken in our heads. In truth, it is a preference for the imaginary over the real. The Word did not become flesh only to get our attention so that we would no longer have anything to do with the material world. It is the Word who became flesh Who gives us His Body and His Blood, the waters of Baptism, the marriage bed, the Apostolic ministry, the oil of healing, the laying on of hands, the lifting of the voice and all such things.
Non-sacramental Christianity has a long history of delusional teaching and practices. If the encounter with God is primarily the stuff going on in my head, then the strange results are fairly predictable. Nothing is more subject to manipulation and delusion than our subjectivity. This is not to say that there is nothing crazy in the history of sacramental Christianity.
However, the sacramental life, as the primary means of grace, grounds the believer in a far more concrete and stable environment. The Eucharist remains the Eucharist, and, in its liturgical presentation, offers something within our encounter with God that remains unchanging. It will be there next Sunday as well. Strangely, this offers far more freedom than the tyranny of our own subjectivity. There is no pressure to maintain a subjective state in order for God to be present. Depression need not shut down the spiritual life.
Perhaps the most salient aspect of the sacramental life is something that has almost been forgotten within contemporary Christianity: noetic experience. The fact that I will now be required to explain the very meaning of noetic experience for my readers makes my point. In the writings of the Church fathers, it is assumed that this is the true character of the saving knowledge of God.
“Noetic” refers to that knowledge that is acquired by the “nous,” an aspect of the soul that is uniquely the place where we encounter God. It is not the place of the passions and emotions, nor is it the place of discursive reasoning. Rather, it is that place in which we “know” by a participatory knowledge that is sometimes described as “perception.” We lack a good vocabulary for speaking about noetic experience precisely because our culture has abandoned this once-essential mode of perception.
The Scriptures tell us, “Be still and know that I am God.” But these words are read by a culture that knows almost nothing about true stillness (hesychia) and ceaselessly engages in activities to prevent its possibility. Stillness of this sort includes the silencing of the passions and emotions as well as discursive reasoning. It then becomes possible to be aware and to know wordlessly with a depth and stability that are the very bedrock of the spiritual life.
When I was first ordained, perhaps the most difficult part of my spiritual life was the need to “think” as I celebrated the liturgy. Remembering what came next, or fiddling with the pages of a book were distractions of the first order. Every priest would agree that the best liturgical experience comes only when the actions and words are no longer the product of reasoning, but are simply known “by heart.” It is then that noetic experience is able to flower.
The same is true among the laity. What is often experienced at first as “boredom” (the sameness of the liturgy or the interminable character of the Psalms or Canon in some services) is nothing more than a description of something that exists for the nurture of the nous rather than the emotions and reasoning. Imagine walking with someone through a Redwood forest, or along a quiet beach and being told, “I’m bored.” In truth, the forest and the beach are quite common examples of noetic experiences that have yet to be eradicated or destroyed by our culture. It is not surprising that many people report an awareness of God in such settings.
It is not incorrect to describe our relationship with the passions as an addiction. The fathers described the passion-driven life as a constant swing between pain and pleasure. We experience boredom as a pain and seek to replace it with pleasure, which will only yield more pain later on. This movement, as it dominates our experience, draws us away from the opportunity to grow in noetic experience. As such, it tears us away from God other than as an entertaining idea or a concept to be considered.
This brings me back to the question of mediation. The sacraments present God to us in a manner in which He can be noetically perceived. We enter into Him as communion. The so-called non-mediated paths are themselves hopelessly trapped in their own subjectivity, mired in the passions and ideology. We may protest that we need no mediation, but this turns out to be a desire to dwell in the imagination. The sacraments (including the priesthood) do not present a barrier to Christ, but make our access to the One Mediator immediate and independent of our own subjectivity.
God knew what He was doing when He gave us the sacraments!