“Where have you gone, Essential Intermediary?” (apologies to Mrs. Robinson)

Mary Magdala Community

Rev. Jim Ryan, M.Div, Ph.D.

Mary Magdala Community, Milwaukee

Corpus Christi is a covenantal feast.  Look over today’s readings and this jumps out at you.  From the sprinkling of blood in Exodus through the triumphant Christ of the Hebrews fulfilling his mission, to the very words of sacramental giving and nourishing spoken by Jesus in the gospel of Mark this liturgical celebration shouts covenant.  This morning I would like to share with you a view of covenant through the role of the priest – principally a liturgical role, one that respects the priestly role of the community.

This weekend marks the 50th anniversary of my ordination.  The time of priesthood for me has been marked by years of active ministry – Church sanctioned or not, of being a husband and, after a fashion, of being a worker-priest.  In 1974, after graduating from Catholic Theological Union in Chicago, I was educated to a vision of priesthood as a call to ministry, of community building.  CTU was founded in the immediate aftermath of Vatican II with a commitment to bring seminarians out of rural, isolated institutions into the city; the thought was this would identify urban realities as integral to this call to ministry. 

All this became a valuable experience preparing candidates for a priestly role that saw liturgy and ritual as a reflection of this embrace of modern life.  However, we were also fully ingrained with the teaching of the Roman Catholic Church that the priest, as leader of ritual, was the essential intermediary, the indispensable one who stands between God and the people as the confector and dispenser of sacraments.  For me, 50 years on and graced with communities of faith who have shown me what a priestly people looks like, I have to say my view of that priestly role has changed considerably, in my view, for the better and unalterably.

It will come as no surprise, I think, to this community and readers of my homilies on our Mary Magdala Community blog that I enjoyed the years I studied philosophy much more than the years I studied theology.  Recently, I came across a viewpoint expressed by the Passionist philosopher, Stanislas Breton, that sheds light on my preference.  In a dialogue with the Irish philosopher, Richard Kearney, Breton ended the conversation which focused on his career as a philosopher.  He said, “The theologian believes truth is a given, the philosopher goes in search of it.”  This search and pursuit has been and continues to be much more to my liking.

So, let’s take a look at the two concepts, essential & intermediary, as they apply to this priestly role.  In ancient Jewish society the priest as intermediary was a critical one in the temple cult of ritual and sacrifice.  Today’s reading from the book of Exodus relates that Moses constructed 12 standing stones around the altar to sanctify and seal the covenant between God and the people.  Later, when the Promised Land was divided up among the tribes of Israel each tribe received land with the exception that the tribe of Levi did not receive land.  The Levites, the male members, that is, were the priests.  Their livelihoods involved being the intermediaries at rituals.  They received the offerings and presented them at the altar.  This food was then distributed among Levite families.  The prophet/priest (because he was a Levite) Jeremiah gave evidence of this practice when, speaking for God, he said, “I will lavish choice portions on the priests.” (31:14)  So, the role of intermediary has a long and integral history for people of faith in the Judeo-Christian tradition.

Remember, though, it was also Jeremiah who pointed out that the people broke the covenant so often that a new insight into the covenantal relationship developed.  The prophet said, again speaking for God, “I will put my law in their hearts; and I will be their God, and they will be my people.” (31:33)

This role of intermediary ultimately became direct and immediate in Jesus’ words that we find in today’s Gospel, “This is my body.  This is my blood.  Take them in remembrance of me.”  As one of our members shared during the homily this is intermediary as a catalyst for grace, change, and witness.”

Here’s my view 50 years after ordination – that the intermediary role in faith is any action that recognizes the direct and immediate relationship in freedom between each person and the divine.  The priest who acknowledges this freedom of each person is a true intermediary, but then so are we all.

This takes us to the second concept: essential.  I see that catechism answers continue to teach that for a Eucharist to be Eucharist a priest is essential.  Well, Eucharist in the narrow sense that the Roman Church teaches it is Eucharist with its essential personnel.  This, I guess, can make sense.  Nevertheless, the ordained priest as essential to sacraments became a questionable option for me almost from the beginning of my priesthood. 

At St. Gemma Parish, Detroit, my first assignment, the Pastoral Care Minister was, Marcella Gardner, a member of the Adrian Dominican Sisters.  Sr. Marcella would get to know the ill and the infirm members of the parish.  When the Anointing of the Sick was called for she would let me know so that I could go and celebrate the sacrament with the sick person.  I told Marcella that it felt very artificial to me that I came in to this intimate act of faith in a merciful and healing God while she had no part other than to participate.  We “cooked up” an alternative ritual that involved her in the anointing.  Clearly, in my mind, she should have had the priestly role in this ministry. 

Over the years the command of Jesus to “Do this in memory of me,” joined with his, “Where two or three are gathered in my name, there I am in their midst” became the filter for me for what is essential in liturgical practice.  It is now my conviction that the essential component of Eucharist, in its broadest sense, is the community present. These days of zoom that means physically and virtually.  A priestly role is beneficial, perhaps necessary, but any member of God’s priestly people (1 Peter 2:9) can take on that liturgical role.

Where have you gone, Essential Intermediary?  You are with us now in the essential community and in the intermediary catalyst for grace and development – a role to which we are all called.  If this liturgical role of priest is one that truly emerges from the priestly people, then how does one actually become priest, through, with, and in Christ?  In Anglican theology, among others, the liturgical moment of acknowledging Christ present in the sacramental gifts is at the Doxology and not the words of consecration.  Maggie Ross, in her book, “Pillars of Flame: Power, Priesthood, and Spiritual Maturity” has this to say.  Three things mark the person whose focus for life is on becoming a priest.  First is the person’s embrace of solitude.  Jesus went to the desert to become assured that the Message he was about to preach was securely positioned within his person, deep set in his heart and spirit.  He came to this by solitude.

Second is the person’s encounter with Jesus’ own self-sacrificing love, his kenosis (giving the theologians their due).  In all honesty, let’s admit that to sustain a covenant relationship, be it with God, or spouse, or partner, or friend it takes sacrifice – a self-giving lifetime commitment of mutual love.

Third the person who would be priest celebrates Eucharist in the broadest possible scope of inclusion and the deepest possible foundation of justice and peace.  Remember, Jesus shared that first Eucharist with the man who betrayed him, and Jesus knew it (John 6:64).

Truly, 50 yrs. on, my view of priesthood has become one of gratefulness for the clear, simple, and direct message of Jesus.  I am so thankful to be able to celebrate Eucharist as a member of a community wherein all are priest, a Eucharist of inclusion to which all are welcome to participate, and a Eucharist of such breadth and expansion that the entire cosmos becomes the subject of praise.

Finally, the title of this homily, “Where have you gone, Essential Intermediary?” recalls lines from Simon & Garfunkel’s song, “Mrs. Robinson,” lines that go, “Where have you gone, Joe Dimaggio?  Our nation nation turns its lonely eyes to you.”  This song, as well as the movie, “The Graduate,” for which the song was its anthem, was released in 1968 – six years before my ordination in 1974.  A lament for lost innocence, the song also stands for the start of making mature decisions about life.  Back then I started the journey of reacting and responding to the cold hard realities of an adult, often pretty cynical life.  For the movie’s protagonist it was the experience of American society and its rituals.  For me it was the questioning of the church of my youth – its society and its rituals.

In 2024, here I am finding faith in community.  What a gift of vocation in which we all share.

A Prayer (JR)

We live by your grace, Loving Savior, and by your Word that feeds, nourishes, and sustains us.  Food for the journey, your way is to bring peace through justice.

            Gather us in as a community that gives witness to the gifts we have received.  For when we eat this blessed food and drink we become one body in your holy Name.   Amen.

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