St. Peter describes us as a “royal priesthood.”
“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)
We live in a world metaphor and simile. That is to say, we might call someone a “king” or “priest,” but really only mean that they remind us of a king or priest – that they are “like” a king or priest. We think that reality falls into one of two categories: what they really are, and what we think about them. There is stuff, and our thoughts about stuff.
Think of these two situations:
In the first, a person says “This bread and this wine truly become the Body and Blood of Christ.” In the second, a person says, “This bread and this wine make me think about the Body and Blood of Christ.”
Which of the two would be generally accepted by all modern people everywhere? Undoubtedly, the second situation wins hands-down. A recent Pew Research article of Catholics in America revealed that only one-third of Catholics believe that the bread and wine truly become the Body and Blood of Christ. We have no statistics on Orthodox belief. Nevertheless, when we embrace the full teaching of the Church, we are swimming against the strong current of our culture’s world-view.
The historic shift away from sacramental Christianity in the wake of the Reformation was more than a religious debate. The shift was a decided effort to de-sacralize the world and to collapse all things into a manageable form. One symptom of this shift was the increasing use of the word “superstition.” Much of this was a Protestant effort to refute Catholic claims. The larger result, however, was the disenchantment of creation itself.
For the modern world, God remains in heaven (at a safe distance where only religious people need concern themselves). Creation is now just stuff. Trees are lumber. Dirt is for mining or paving. All things have value in that they can be bought and sold. The world is not only “disenchanted,” it has been commodified.
Fr. Alexander Schmemann famously taught that, in the sacraments, Christ does not make something to be what it is not. Rather, He reveals things to be what they are.
This is fundamental to Orthodox thought. To describe the world as sacrament is not a statement about how we see things – but a statement about how things truly are.
“…we do not look at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen. For the things which are seen are temporary, but the things which are not seen are eternal.” (2 Cor. 4:18)
Admittedly, this puts us at a disadvantage in the modern world. Modernity will argue and insist on the temporal, material aspects of reality (which allows for their management and commodification), while running rough-shod over the eternal for the same reasons. Ultimately, humanity itself is emptied of its eternal reality. There seem to be no limits in the growing world of medical experiment – everything that can yield a profit is permitted.
In the Fathers (particularly St. Dionysius the Areopagite and St. Maximus the Confessor), seeing the world as it truly is – is discussed under the heading of “natural contemplation” (theoria physike). This is described as a perceiving and understanding of the logoi of created things. All things are created through the Logos (John 1:3). As such, each created thing carries within it its own “logos” (logoi is the plural), its eternal purpose and proper character of its existence. Thus, created “things” are not just stuff to be managed, packaged, and sold. Creation is thoroughly grounded in God and cannot be rightly understood or related to apart from that eternal grounding.
O LORD, how manifold are Your works! In wisdom You have made them all. (Ps. 104:24)
The heavens declare the glory of God; And the firmament shows His handiwork. Day unto day utters speech, And night unto night reveals knowledge. There is no speech nor language Where their voice is not heard. Their line has gone out through all the earth, And their words to the end of the world. (Ps. 19:1-4)
And I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all that is in them, saying, “To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever!” (Rev. 5:13)
All the earth worships you and sings praises to you; they sing praises to your name. (Ps. 66:4)
But ask the beasts, and they will teach you; the birds of the heavens, and they will tell you; or the bushes of the earth, and they will teach you; and the fish of the sea will declare to you. Who among all these does not know that the hand of the Lord has done this? In his hand is the life of every living thing and the breath of all mankind. (Job 12:7-10)
The proper movement in our Christian life is one in which we come to understand the mystery (the hidden, eternal life) of the creation in which we live. We reveal water in the actions of Baptism (and the Great Blessing of the Waters). We reveal bread and wine in the Eucharist. We reveal human beings in the many sacramental actions of the Church.
In the same manner, each of us serves a “priestly” role within creation, revealing and contemplating the logoi of all things. Creation does not “fight” with us. It does not overpower or impose its voice on our consciousness. All things eternal respond to love, in love, and with love. This is an echo of Matt. 5:8, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.” As we nurture the love of Christ within us, and His love for all creation, we slowly come to see and know things for what they are – sacramental wonders that reveal the glory of God.
I return to my original thoughts on kings and priests. I have been an ordained priest (first Anglican, then Orthodox) for over 40 years. In that time, I have become keenly aware of what it means to see a human being as a sacrament. However, like creation, I cannot argue or force anyone to see that aspect of reality. My mind has recently thought of King Charles, whose coronation was clearly intended as a sacramental action (complete with anointing). He had to endure public protesters with signs saying, “Not my King.” Worse still, in a highly secularized nation, his coronation could only be seen as dress-up and farce by many. John Cleese, the comedian, said it looked like something out of Monty Python. Sadly, it also means that the average citizen of that secularized world cannot be seen as a royal priesthood. Instead, they look like something to be managed and commodified.
There is an age-old British myth of the hidden king. The boy Arthur accidentally discovers his true identity as he withdraws a sword from a stone. C.S. Lewis draws on this myth as he posited an obscure, retired linguist as the “Pendragon,” the right-born king of Logres (the eternal, invisible Britain), in his novel, That Hideous Strength.
In Holy Baptism we are made to be kings and priests, or, more accurately, revealed to be what we are. Clothed in the righteousness of Christ, crowned with glory and honor, we await the revealing of all things and the manifestation of the Sons of God.