Wednesday, June 01, 2005

Spiritual voice (9): from "Be My Priest" by Lev Gillet

[Lev Gillet (1893-1980) wrote many books and reflections under the pseudonym "monk of the Eastern Church." Born in France, he entered the Catholic priesthood then subsequently entered into fuller communion with the Orthodox Church in 1928, sensing that the light burns brighter in the Eastern Church. Gillet was deeply imbued with Eastern monastic spirituality. His works basically made accessible to the faithful in the West the spirituality, liturgy, and theology of Orthodoxy. In 1948, he was appointed chaplain to the Fellowship of St. Albans and St. Sergius in England, dedicated to the work of Christian unity. In this excerpt from his reflection "Be My Priest," he writes on what it means for priests to celebrate Mass, the deep spiritual significance of it. Here he uses as reference the liturgical rubrics as practiced in the Eastern Churches. This reflection has an invaluable message however also for the laity participating in the Divine Liturgy.]

The priest is called to reproduce, during the course of each Divine Liturgy, the sacerdotal act accomplished by our Savior during the Last Supper, in the evening before His death. In this act, this "bloodless sacrifice," the priest exercises his priestly ministry to the fullest extent possible. If the mission of the priest were simply to proclaim the Gospel and to guide souls towards God, it would already be a mission of angelic sublimeness. Historically, however, the essence of every priesthood has always been the act of sacrifice. The Christian priest is first of all one who performs a sacrifice; but he is such only by virtue of his participation in the sacerdotal act of our unique and sovereign High Priest, Jesus Christ.

The Sacrifice of Christ is the center and the summit of all Christian worship. The priest will of course make every effort to serve with precision, dignity and simplicity all of the liturgical services prescribed by the Church. He will see to it that the church building is truly a house of prayer, and that every liturgical text is read in a way understandable to all and pleasing to God. He will make the faithful understand, however, that every service of the Church is oriented toward that supreme act which is the very sign of our redemption: The Lord's Supper or Holy Communion.

The priest should never tire of repeating to his flock: "You come to church not only to praise God, to pray to Him, and to hear His Word. You come first of all to unite yourselves intimately to the Passion of our Lord Jesus Christ."

He will explain to the faithful that the Holy Eucharist does not consist merely in receiving the Body and Blood of our Savior. It is above all a spiritual sacrifice. To be sure, the sacrifice of the Cross, which takes away the sin of the world, was offered once and for all. Our earthly eucharist do not constitute a new sacrifice; rather, they offer to people of today the unique and eternal grace of Christ's own sacrifice.

Together, the priest and the people offer our sacrificed Lord. Yet Christ and His Church require as well that the priest and the people offer themselves, with Christ and in Christ. Every particle of bread the priest has arranged around the "Lamb" or cube of bread placed in the center of the diskos (the paten) and consecrated--every one of these particles, representing the faithful, both living and dead, as well as particular believers for whom special prayers have been requested--is poured into the chalice at the end of the service. This act signifies that we are all spiritually plunged into the Blood of Christ. We become through the Liturgy participants in His Passion, His Death, and His Resurrection.

Does the priest repeat this truth often enough to his flock? Every eucharist, in some sense, represents both for the priest and for those who take part in it, an act of "suicide." The old, sinful Adam is immolated, sacrificed. The New Man in Jesus Christ replaces him. The sword of Christ's Passion has put to death our sins and evil desires. The egotistical person we were before ceases to exist. Thus it should be, in any event, if we truly participate in the Divine Liturgy.

When we leave the church after the service, we should be other than we were when we entered. Tragically, most Christian people have no inkling of what the Liturgy demands of them. The priest should be more aware than they. He, at least, should know, if he accomplishes the offering in Spirit and in truth, that each time he approaches the altar to offer the sacrifice of Christ, he himself will die in order to be born anew. How could the priest prepare himself for this sacrifice without experiencing a deep and personal sense of anguish, without a poignant sense of his own weakness and sin, and without at the same time uttering a cry of repentance and trust? What helps the priest through this terrible trial by fire is, on the one hand, the assurance that at the altar he himself in some sense disappears and is absorbed into the Person of the invisible Priest, Jesus Christ. On the other hand, he is aided by the awareness that his own needs pale before the enormity of the human suffering he offers up before God. Like the water he mixes with the wine, he casts upon Jesus the life and the tears of those in misery. Praying for them all: the sinner, the criminal, the prostitute, he identifies himself with each of them, and he adds, "sinners, of whom I am the first…" Nevertheless, this absorption into the eternal Priest and into the concerns of others must never become an attempt to flee from his own responsibilities.

More than to any other person, the priest should apply to himself these words of St. Paul: "You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons. You cannot partake of the table of the Lord and the table of demons--Whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of profaning the Body and Blood of the Lord--Let each one, therefore, examine himself (I Corinthians 10:21; 11:27-28).

The Lamb of God, as the text of the Liturgy declares, is "broken and divided." The divine Victim is not only offered; He is also given in the form of communion.

[Questions to think about:

*Gillet writes that most people have no inkling of what the Liturgy demands of them. What does the sacrifice of the Mass mean for you? What does Gillet say it should mean for us?

*Celebrating Mass is an act of self-immolation, an act of suicide, Gillet says. What do you think of this image as it relates to how we should be disposed while celebrating Mass?

*In what ways in your life have you "united yourself intimately to the Passion of our Lord Jesus Christ"?]

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