Saturday, 3 August 2013

St. Symeon the New Theologian on the Priesthood

But let us not deceive ourselves (1 Cor. 3:18)! Let us not follow after the desires of our flesh and "play the harlot in our doings" (Ps. 106:39). Let us not set ourselves up as teachers, that is, by becoming superiors and prelates and priests, while we despise God and our own salvation. For when Jesus said to Nicodemus, "Unless one is born again from on high, he cannot see the kingdom of God," and Nicodemus replied to him, "How can a man be born when he is old?" Jesus rebuked him and said, "Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand this?" (Jn. 3:3, 4, 10). He rebuked him, though as yet he did not believe at all and knew nothing about grace. How much more are we worthy of condemnation! We have become teachers after grace has come, yet we do not know the mysteries of grace. We enjoy the benefits of such great teachings and are daily taught by apostles and prophets and doctors, as well as by the Lord Himself, and hear their testimony beforehand! 

How, tell me, can we be entrusted with guarding and caring for the flock of the Lord if we do not know how we must live in this life? If we do not know that we must grow in good works and yield ourselves as slaves of righteousness (Rom. 6:16ff.), as those who stand before the Lord and not men (cf. 2 Cor. 8:21; Eph. 6:7) and have vowed to serve the living God (1 Thess. 1:9) without blame? If we do not know what are the character and the qualities that are required of us if we are to be leaders of others, how shall we tend that flock according to the will of Christ, the Chief Shepherd (1 Pet. 5:4) and lead it forth to pastures of eternal life (cf. Jn. 10:9, 3)? How great is our hardness of heart and our contempt for God and things divine! We are like "the adder that stops its ears" (Ps. 58:5), we have become as it were deaf and dumb (cf. Mk. 9:25) like those who are dead; our spiritual senses are disabled, we do not understand the words that are spoken. We do not even know that there is such a thing as Christianity, we are ignorant even of the mystery of the Incarnation and have no exact knowledge of the mysteries of Christians. Yet we shamelessly presume to teach the multitude about the light of knowledge, and even to show them the light of knowledge itself! Knowledge is not the light! Rather, it is the light that is knowledge, since "in it and through it and from it are all things" (Rom. 11:36). We refuse the vision of the light, and so make it plain that we have not been born again, and have not attained to the light that comes from above. We are still like the unborn, or, more accurately, we have been born prematurely - we who rush to the sacred places and take possession of apostolic thrones!

What is worse, most of us without fear buy the priesthood for money and seek to govern the King's flock as shepherds, though we have never been sheep. We do this merely to fill our own stomachs as if we were wild beasts, and to do all other things to which we are compelled by our propensity to evil, together with our desire and inclination for things below!

Brethren, were the apostles at the beginning like this? Were the successors of the apostles such? Did our fathers and teachers [act] thus? Woe to the dreadful audacity of such men! Not only do they become traitors and sacrilegious in the matter of material possessions, when they have eyes for nothing else than their money bags. They even dare to lay hands on the riches of God when they are not ashamed to say, "It pertains to us to bind and to loose (Mt. 16:19, 18:18), and we have received this power from on high for the present life." What impudence, if I am not to say, what utter madness! From whom, tell me, and for what purpose have you received this power from above? It is because you have left everything to follow Christ (Mk. 10:28)? It is because you have despised earthly glory? Is it because you have become humble in spirit? It is because you have sold all and given it to the poor (cf. Mt. 19:21; Mk. 10:21)? Is it because you have lost your life or become dead to the world, and have not found it in any "will of the flesh" (Jn. 1:13)? Or is it because you too, like Christ's disciples of old, have heard Him say as He breathed on you, "Receive the Holy Ghost. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained" (Jn. 20:22f.)?

"But the power belongs to the priests," they say. I know it too, for it is true. But not simply to priests as such, but to those who serve in the priestly ministry of the Gospel (Rom. 15:16) in a spirit of humility and who live a blameless life. [Such priests] first present themselves to the Lord (cf. Rom. 6:16) and offer themselves as a "perfect, holy and well-pleasing sacrifice," as their own pure act of worship (Rom. 12:1f.; Jas. 1:27) in the temple of their own bodies (1 Cor. 6:19), inwardly and spiritually. They are accepted and appear on the altar that is on high (Heb. 9:24), offered by Christ the High Priest as a perfect sacrifice, changed and transformed by the power of the Holy Spirit. They have been transformed into Christ the High Priest as a perfect sacrifice, who died for us and rose in the glory of His Godhead. In perfect humility they repent night and day; they mourn and pray with tears not only for themselves, but also for the flock that has been entrusted to them and "for all the holy churches of God" (cf. 1 Cor. 11:16) in the world. In addition, they greatly bewail other men's offenses before God. They consume no more than their necessary food, nor do they seek in any way the convenience or enjoyment of their bodies, but, as it is written, they "walk by the Spirit, and do not gratify the desires of the flesh" (Gal. 5:16). Further, for the sake of justice and of God's commandments they show no partiality to either poor or rich, ruler or subject, not even to him who wears the imperial diadem. No pretext, whether it be of mercy or gifts received, or of fear or anything else, visible or invisible, will cause them to grow soft or move them to ignore or transgress God's commandment, who is above all (cf. Rom. 9:5).

To such it belongs to bind and loose (Mt. 16:19, 18:18), to perform priestly acts and to teach, and not to men who have received their appointment and ordination from men only. As he says, "One does not take the honour upon himself, but he is called by God" (Heb. 5:4). He did not say, "He who has received appointment from men," but "He who was predestined by God and foreordained for this." Those who come from men and through men are thieves and robbers, as the Lord said: "I am the door. All who have come" and who come now, "not through Me, but climb in some other way, are thieves and robbers" (Jn. 10:7, 8, 1).

Discourse XXVIII:190-300 in C. J. deCatanzaro (trans.), Symeon the New Theologian: The Discourses, Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1980, pp.300-303