This will not be my usual Sunday Scripture Meditation, for today is the 17th Anniversary of my ordination as Priest in the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church. I have been ordained longer than I have done anything else in my life, and it has been the most blessed as well as the most challenging.
Ordination day is a bit of a blur for me. I remember it being a hot day at Sts Constantine and Helen Romanian Orthodox Cathedral in Chicago. The previous days had been spent in the annual gathering of clergy and laity of the Romanian Archdiocese, and I was ordained deacon the day before. The Holy Place was filled with the priests of the Archdiocese gathered around our Bishop and the altar.
At the appointed time in the Liturgy, 2 of the senior priests led me out of the Holy Place and presented me to the Bishop. After I was led, for the first time through the royal doors, those in the center led around the altar three times, pausing each time in front of the altar for a prostration. While the deacon, soon to be Priest, is led around the altar, the chanter, and choir sing psalms, the same psalms sung and chanted at the wedding ceremony as the couple is led around the table.
I knelt at the consecrated altar, placed my hands on it as the Bishop read the prayer of ordination. I recall sweat running down my back, and not sure if it was because it was so hot or because of the immensity of that moment. You kneel alone, but you are surrounded by all of the others who have gone before you and those present with you. Then the Bishop prays:
“The divine grace, which always heals that which is infirm and completes that which is lacking, ordains the most devout Deacon Peter-Michael to the office of Priest. Let us, therefore, pray for him, that the grace of the All-Holy Spirit may come upon him.”
“O God without beginning or end, Who are before every created thing, and Who honors with the title of Presbyter those whom You deem worthy to serve the word of Your truth in the divine ministry of this order: You, the same sovereign Master, preserve in purity of life and in unswerving faith this man whom You have been pleased to ordain through me by the laying on of hands, graciously imparting to him the great grace of Your Holy Spirit, making him wholly Your servant, well-pleasing to You in all things, and worthily exercising this great honor of the Priesthood which You conferred upon him by the power of Your wisdom.
For Yours is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, of the Father, the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, now and always, and to the ages of ages.”
Following a litany, the Bishop prays the following:
“O God, great in might and inscrutable in wisdom, marvelous in counsel above the sons of men: You the same Lord, fill with the gift of Your Holy Spirit this man whom it has pleased You to advance to the degree of Priest; that he may become worthy to stand in innocence before Your altar, to proclaim the Gospel of Your kingdom, to minister the word of Your truth, to offer to You spiritual gifts and sacrifices; to renew Your people through the font of regeneration, that when he shall go to meet You, at the second coming of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ, Your only-begotten Son, he may receive the reward of good stewardship in the order given to him, through the plenitude of Your goodness.
For blessed and glorified is Your all-holy and majestic name, of the Father and the Son and of the Holy Spirit, now, and ever and to the ages of ages.”
When the Bishop and priests are gathered, they stand around the altar in order of seniority, the oldest serving priest to the Bishop’s right, and so on around the altar. The youngest in ordination stands at the back of the altar. However, after one is ordained Priest, he is considered senior for that time and stands to the Bishop’s right for the consecration. A liturgy book is placed in your hands and the first words spoken are from the newly ordained.
I remember after my deacon ordination, I was serving Vespers that evening. The deacon has a relatively significant role during Vespers as they do during the Liturgy. As I was about to exit the Holy Place for the first of the Litanies, the Archbishop leaned over to me and asked, “you know what to do right?” I answered that I did, and he responded with a grin, “we shall see.”
It is hard to describe the feeling one gets standing at the altar during the consecration of the gifts of God that will be shared with the people of God. Knowing that God can and does work through me, a sinner, is an incredible feeling and experience. My theology teaches me that although the bread and wine do not change in their form and matter, the Holy Spirit comes upon them and blesses and sanctifies them, and Jesus is present in them, and through the reception of these gifts, grace is poured out upon his people. Standing at the altar, I am standing in the actual presence of Jesus Christ. This is a lot to take in.
After the consecration and before communion, the newly ordained Priest is led to the back of the altar. Once there, the consecrated bread is placed in his hands; this is the first time that the Body of Christ is placed in his hands. The Bishop says the following as he puts the Body of Christ in my hands:
“Receive this Divine Trust, and guard it until the Second Coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, at which time He will demand It from you.”
Being a priest is a “Divine Trust.” The souls of those that the Priest will shepherd are placed in your trust, and Orthodox Theology is that the Priest will be held responsible for those souls at the judgment. Standing there with the Body of Christ in my hands, the reality of all that has taken place indeed hits home. This is not just a job or a profession; this is a vocation, a calling from God.
Although I am no longer a priest in the Orthodox Tradition, I still believe that the care of souls is a divine trust. I still believe that I will be held responsible for each soul that has been or will be placed in my care. I still believe that the elements of bread and wine or juice become sanctified, holy, and are the real presence of Jesus Christ. The celebration of the Lord’s Supper is not just some reenactment of an event that took place more than 2,000 years ago.
“Holy Communion is remembrance, commemoration, and memorial, but this remembrance is more than simply intellectual recalling. Holy Communion is a type of sacrifice. It is a re-presentation, not a repetition, of the sacrifice of Christ. Holy Communion is a vehicle of God’s grace through the action of the Holy Spirit. The Church asks God to make them be for is the body and blood of Christ, that we may be for the world the body of Christ, redeemed by his blood.” (This Holy Mystery)
There is a transformation of the bread and wine, and if you allow it, there will be a transformation in you.
A lot has happened since the day of my ordination. I have been blessed to have served God’s people in four congregations as well as countless hospice patients and others I have come across in my chaplain work. It has not always been easy, but it has been a blessing.
As I embark on my 18th year, I recall the words of Psalm 110:4 “The LORD has sworn and will not change his mind: ‘You are a priest forever, in the order of Melchizedek.'”