A LETTER TO A FUTURE PRIEST
by Fr. Alexander Schmemann
You inform me that in a few days you will be ordained and you ask me about the details of the ordination service. I will not speak here of the ordination to the Deaconate, for your goal is Priesthood, and except for the time and the prayers, the two services follow the same pattern.
First of all, all ordinations in our Church must, as you certainly know, be performed within the Divine Liturgy and this is very important. The Eucharist is not only the most important service, it is indeed the sacrament of the Church, i.e. the act through which we manifest our unity, our mutual love, our belonging to Christ and to His Kingdom, our true nature as members of His Body. Since a Priest is the one who is to "build up" the Church as the Body of Christ, it is proper that he receive his Divine commission within this sacrament of the Body of Christ. You know also that whereas a Deacon is ordained after the consecration of the Gifts (for he is not the minister of sacraments) the ordination of the Priest takes place immediately after the transfer of the Gifts to the Altar and this means that he is ordained to offer to God the sacrifice of the Church.
The first act of ordination is the presentation of the candidate. Two Subdeacons, will put you among the people and then ask for three orders. The first order is to come from you, for no one can be ordained against his will and agreement, the essence of priesthood being a voluntary self-giving to Christ. The second order comes from the people: no one can be ordained against the will of the people of God, for in the Church everyone has received the Holy Spirit and is responsible, together with all the others, for the purity, growth and fulfillment of the Church, Finally, the third order is asked from the Bishop. To him belongs the right to acknowledge and to fulfill the will of God that has manifested itself in the Church, to bestow the gift of the Spirit upon the one whom God has called.
You will then be lead through the Royal Doors and you make a prostration before the Altar and before the Bishop. This is your surrender to God's will and to the Church in the person of the Bishop. People often talk about the power of the Priest. Yet, the essence of the priesthood is not power, but obedience. Rather, it is this total surrender, this complete obedience to the truth and will of God that makes the power of the priest. The priest can "command" only because he has totally identified himself with, has become transparent to the Divine Will. Priesthood is, first of all, the putting aside and the sacrifice of everything personal after the image of Christ: "for I came down from heaven not to do mine own will, but the will of Him that sent me." (John 6:38).
Now the third rite: that of your wedding with the Church. The senior Priest will lead you three times around the Altar and you will kiss each corner of it, and also, each time make a prostration before the Bishop and kiss his hand, his omophorion and his mitre. The whole Church is gathered on the Paten and the Altar thus stands for the Church. The Church is the bride of Christ-He "loved her and gave Himself for her" (Eph. 6:25). It is Christ's love that makes the Church His Body, it is Christ's love in you that will make you Priest. Without this love no power, no teaching, no government will be of any avail.
You will then kneel at the Altar and the Bishop, having covered your head with the omophorion and having put his hand on it will exhort you to lift your spirit to God and ask for the descent of the Holy Spirit. Nothing is magical in the Church. Grace is given, yet must be accepted and appropriated. You are ordained, but it is up to you to fulfill the ordination.
The Bishop will make the announcement:
"The Grace of God which always healeth that which is infirm and completeth that which is wanting, elevateth through the laying-on of hand, N., the most devout Deacon to be a Priest. Wherefore, let us pray for him, that the grace of the All Holy Spirit may come upon him."
This announcement reveals also, that nothing is secret in the Church. A secret ordination is not considered a valid one. For the sacraments belong to the whole Church which truly and fully concelebrates in each one of them. It is for this reason that throughout the ordination all the doors of Iconostasis must remain open, and the people join the Bishop singing: Lord, have mercy.
While a litany is read by the priest, the Bishop prays:
“O God great in might and inscrutable in wisdom, marvelous in counsel above the sons of men: Do Thou, the same Lord, fill with the gift of Thy Holy Spirit this man whom it has pleased Thee to advance to the degree of Priest, that may be worthy to stand in innocency before Thine Altar: to proclaim the Gospel of Thy Kingdom; to minister the Word of thy truth; to offer unto Thee the spiritual gifts and sacrifices to renew Thy people through the layer of regeneration that when he shall go to meet Thee, at the Second coming of our great God and Saviour Jesus Christ, Thine only-begotten Son, he may receive the reward of a good steward in the degree committed unto him through the plenitude of Thy goodness” …
He will take, one by one, the various insignia of your priestly vestments and having said “Axios” (Worthy) he will put them on you and, first the clergy, and then the people will respond "Axios" revealing and manifesting thus the unity of the Church as she receives the gift of Pentecost: the epitrahilion which is the very symbol of Priesthood, of Christ as he takes upon Himself our nature and sacrifices Himself for our salvation, the belt-symbol of obedience and readiness, the phelonion — symbol of the beauty and glory of the Kingdom which is to come.
He will give you the kiss of peace and put you among the other priests, for from now on you belong to the “honorable Presbytery” of t h e Church; you are a member of that council with which the Bishop "rightly divides" the Words of Divine Truth.
After the consecration, the Bishop will give in your hands a part of the Holy Bread saying to you: “Receive Thou this Token and keep it whole and unharmed, for on it will thou be judged on the awful second coming of our Lord …” For only a few minutes, yet minutes so decisive as if they were filled with eternity, you will know that to be a Priest means precisely this: to stand with the Body of Christ in your hands and to know, in fear and trembling, but also in joy and hope, that what you hold in your hands and offer to God is Man and his whole life, the World and its eternal destiny in God. — A.S.
From Word Magazine
Publication of the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America