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Pilgrim, priest and ponderer. European living in North East England. Retired parish priest, theological educator, cathedral precentor and dean.

Sunday, 30 June 2019

A Priest at the Altar - for the first time

When you do something for the first time, you can never repeat that moment. That first time is also a last time, because only once in your life do you experience it as the first time. It can be, often is, a defining moment.  You will have your own memories.  Here are some of my landmark first-times. Singing the music of Bach. Glimpsing what calculus was about. First communion. Someone saying to me “I love you” and saying it back. Setting eyes on Durham Cathedral. Being at the birth of my first child. Visiting the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.
And yes, the first time I presided at the eucharist, as Ian is doing this morning. In one way, an important way, this is just another eucharist on an ordinary Sunday in ordinary time. Today the church is doing what the church always does on the first day of the week. Like Peter in our gospel, we acknowledge that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God, so we are here to worship him. What else would we do on a Sunday morning?
Yet today is not ordinary for Ian, and therefore not for us. For a new priest, his first celebration of the eucharist is an occasion to remember for a lifetime. Somehow the very ordinariness of the event highlights what is special about it. How many more times will Ian in the name of the church do this in remembrance of Jesus? Be it many or few, it will never again be like today with that blend of anticipation, excitement, nervousness, gratitude and the sense of privilege that belong to the first time.
Yesterday I gave an address to the priest candidates at the end of their retreat. I had the privilege of conducting their deacons’ retreat last year, so we were old friends. I quoted some passages that the twentieth century Cistercian monk Thomas Merton wrote about his ordination as a priest, and the first mass he celebrated the next day. He says of those days of ordination and first eucharist “they crown this portion of my history… for this I came into the world”. I hope Ian feels today that he was meant to do this, stand at the altar and preside at the eucharist as God’s priest.
But Merton goes on to say something else. Some people had warned him that he would be nervous the first time he stood there, anxious to make sure he got everything right. Yet he confided to his diary: “I did not find that to be true at all. I felt as if I had been saying mass all my life”. So today is ordinary and not-ordinary just as the eucharist itself is ordinary and not-ordinary. That is its paradox. In and through the stuff of matter, ordinary things like bread and wine, we glimpse God. He comes to us in the grace and glory of self-giving love. Ordinary yet God takes the stuff of everyday life and transforms it so that he may transform us. That’s what a sacrament means.
Why is God so humble as to choose this way of being among us in and through ordinary things?  Today we are honouring Saint Peter whose festival was yesterday. In the gospel we heard, he recognises Jesus as God’s Messiah, God’s Christ. And Jesus says of that moment, “flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven”. How could an ordinary, rough-hewn fisherman rise to that great confession of faith? Jesus says that it’s not his own doing. Rather, it’s God gift to him, this revelation of the Son of the Living God. And because of it, another gift is given, his role in God’s church which Jesus will build upon this rock. Everything is gift. Faith is gift, and hope, and love. And church, priesthood, and eucharist. And the love of friends, our companions in faith with whom we break bread. All of life is gift.
The ordinariness and not-ordinariness of today says something important about how Ian will be among you as a priest. Yesterday he was set apart to do God’s work in the church and in the world. You might think that would make him someone special. Ah, how seductive it is to put our priests and bishops on pedestals and defer to them. But that is not the way of the gospel. We do the priesthood a disservice when we elevate it above our humanity. Ordination doesn’t take someone away from us. The best priests are those in whom people recognise something of themselves, taken, blessed, broken and given, just like the ordinary bread of the eucharist.
It’s the action of God that makes the difference. Pusey said that holiness was not doing extraordinary things, but doing ordinary things in an extraordinary way: extraordinary because it is God’s work. Priests are walking sacraments of God’s presence in our midst. That is what makes priesthood holy and not-ordinary, a sign of contradiction in a world that thinks it has no need of spirituality and sacraments and sacred spaces. The world needs priests who by what they symbolise point people to God.  And perhaps a priest is never more a priest than when he or she is at the altar, just as the church is never more the church than when we do what we are doing now, making eucharist, giving thanks, offering our life to God, receiving it back transformed.
The church’s priesthood and sacraments belong not to us but to God. Yet his work is also ours. For Ian and for us, today marks the seal of his journey towards ordination. A new priest stands among us. The altar stands ready, with bread and wine. It is time to do what Jesus commands, to celebrate the feast, and once more and once less, show forth the Lord’s death until he comes.

St Bartholomew’s, Whittingham, 30 June 2019
At the first celebration of the eucharist of The Reverend Ian Chadwick
Matthew 16.13-19

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