Speech Acts

079In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.  God spoke and called worlds into being:  “Let there be,” God said, and there was, and it was good — creation by speech act.  A speech act consists of words, and sometimes gestures, which not only express but create that which is expressed.

Speech acts are so common, so “ordinary” in our world that we risk overlooking their beauty and power and mystery.  “I forgive you,” a victim says, not only expressing forgiveness but also creating a state of reconciliation.  “I now pronounce you man and wife,” the officiant says, expressing his will, the will of the totally unprepared couple standing before him,and the will of the usually older and wiser assembly, and the two become one flesh.  “I promise,” not only expresses intent but creates a solemn commitment.  Speech acts abound, and every one, in some sense, derives it power from God’s original speech act:  “Let there be.”

I have many friends from non-liturgical churches; they are familiar with ministers and pastors, but not so much with priests.  “So, what does a priest do?” they ask in one form or another, trying to place me somewhere in their existing understanding of Christian leadership.  And even those who are new to liturgical worship sometimes ask, “What can you do now as a priest that you couldn’t do as a deacon?”  I answer as well and as briefly as I can to satisfy genuine curiosity without lapsing into a theology lesson.  But what I really want to say is that, in addition to preaching, teaching, and pastoral care, a priest performs distinctive, sacramental speech acts:  absolution, consecration, and blessing.  It is all there in the ordinal.

As the gathered presbyters lay hands on the priest ordinand, the bishop prays:

Receive the Holy Spirit for the Office and Work of a Priest in the Church of God, now committed to you by the Imposition of our Hands. If you forgive the sins of anyone, they are forgiven. If you withhold forgiveness from anyone, it is withheld. Be a faithful minister of God’s holy Word and Sacraments; in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

Through a speech act the bishop invokes the Holy Spirit to empower the new priest to speak words of absolution that truly convey God’s forgiveness.  “I absolve you,” spoken by the priest to the one who sincerely repents and with true faith turns to God creates absolution and reconciliation because Christ has decreed it to be so and because the Holy Spirit is present in and acting through the words:  a sacramental speech act.

A bit later in the service of ordination, the bishop anoints the palms of the priest ordinand and prays:

Grant, O Lord, to consecrate and sanctify these hands by this unction, and by our blessing; that whatsoever they bless may be blessed, and whatsoever they consecrate may be consecrated and sanctified; in the Name of our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

And from that moment, when the new priest prays, “And now, Father, we ask you to bless and sanctify these gifts of bread and wine,” or when he pronounces, “The blessing of God Almighty, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, be among you and remain with you always,” it is so, not because the priest is especially holy or worthy, but because, by the speech act of the bishop and the grace of God, the ordinand has received the Holy Spirit for the office and work of a priest.

Because speech acts are filled with mystery and power, Jesus warns us all — not just priests — that “on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak, for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned” (Mt 12:36-37, ESV throughout).  Our Lord’s brother, James, also cautions us, especially teachers, about the darker, destructive side of speech acts.  The tongue, James writes,

is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.  With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God.  From the same mouth come blessing and cursing.  My brothers, these things ought not to be so (James 3:8b-10).

These are sobering words and a serious burden placed on a priest — a burden not one of us can bear without the grace and mercy of God.

So, what do priests do?  Priests create a new reality by speech acts, bringing into being forgiveness, holiness, and blessing — not by virtue of their own power, but as ministers of Christ, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, to the honor and glory of God.

Some are priests by vocation and ordination, and engage in sacramental speech acts as an integral part of pastoral ministry.  But all who are in Christ are priests by baptism; all are called to holy speech acts.  Go into the world:  forgive, bless, make the world holy, all in Jesus’ name; this is the priesthood of all believers.  Let there be, and there is, and it is good.


Photo:  Mary Kathleen Roop.  Used by permission.

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First Blessings

128I am a husband and father, a high school math teacher, a lover of books and music and coffee, a sinner by fallen nature and a saint by the grace of God in Christ Jesus.  And now, as of 17 May 2015 — exactly fifty years and two weeks after my baptism — I am an Anglican priest in the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church of our Lord Jesus Christ.  Everything is the same as before.  Nothing is the same as before.

Many of my educational colleagues were present at my ordination, and that was a gracious gift.  They look at me differently now, though.  As much as I’ve tried to assure them that I am still the same person, we all know it isn’t so.  I do all the same things:  prepare lessons, teach classes, grade papers, attend meetings.  Yes, these are the same things, but it is not the same person doing them.  Though they might not articulate it, in some way, I believe my colleagues and friends do not want me to be the same as before.  People long to know the holy is present among them, even if they wrongly attribute special holiness to priests.  On my best day, I simply represent the Holy in a particular way, and that may be enough for all of us.

Each ordinand tries to be fully present for the rite of ordination, but details often prove distracting:  process in this order (Who am I behind, again?); stand here (Where?); kneel or lie prostrate (Will I look pretentious laid flat-out?); say this prayer (But not that one, right?).  The canon and archbishop try to make everything simple — and the steps of the dance really are — but the ceremony is still overwhelming, as it should be.  Still, there are moments which emerge clearly from the fog of emotions:  music, which on more than one occasion brought me to tears carefully concealed; a Spirit-filled sermon and challenge from a Godly priest and mentor.

“I have come home at last! This is my real country! I belong here. This is the land I have been looking for all my life, though I never knew it till now…Come further up, come further in!”

And then there were the eyes:  the eyes of the archbishop as he examined me and awaited each response — eyes filled with challenge and consolation; the eyes of my rector and my spiritual director clouded now and again with tears; the eyes of my wife of 37 years who saw this moment coming long before I did and who has steadfastly loved me throughout the journey; the eyes of my daughter holding just a glint of pride; the eyes of my brothers and sisters who now look to me to help lead them into the presence of God; and the unseen eyes of the great cloud of witnesses surrounding us, portrayed so wondrously by our artist in residence.

The archbishop signed my forehead with oil, then my hands.  Tracing the cross on each palm, he then firmly folded my hands in a gesture of prayer and pressed the palms together forcefully as if to say, “Pray for these people.  Pray for yourself.  Pray for the world.  Your only hope lies in prayer.”  As indeed it does.  I’ve lived with these hands for fifty-seven years.  How little I know them now; they were transformed before me in an instant, with a little oil, a few words, and the coming of the Spirit.

The archbishop had asked me earlier in the day, “Are you prepared to celebrate the Eucharist at the ordination?”  I replied, “I am ready at your pleasure.”  I should have responded more appropriately, “Who is?”  But, God has called me to it, the archbishop has ordained me for it, and the people have consented.  So, yes, I am ready, God being my helper.  I had memorized the service and practiced it several times in private in the still of our church.  When I stood at the table that evening, I could not even recall my name.  Like Isaiah in the text read earlier, I was undone, for I knew that I was in the presence of God, high and holy and lifted up, with his train filling our sanctuary, and with the strains of Holy!  Holy!  Holy!  filling our ears as angels and archangels and all the company of heaven continued their eternal hymn.  “Are you ready?”  Who is?

And now, Father, we ask you to bless and sanctify, with your Word and Holy Spirit, these gifts of bread and wine, that we may partake of his most blessed body and blood.  And wondrously, the Creator of heaven and earth honored the prayer of this new priest and spread a feast of remembrance and victory for his people.  Once again, the Lord condescended to act in and through the weakest of vessels to flood the world with grace and love.

They filed forward to receive the body of Christ, the bread of heaven, and the blood of Christ, the cup of salvation, my wife and daughter first in line.  “The body of our Lord Jesus Christ keep you in everlasting life,” I said to each of them — and meant it and prayed it to be so from the deepest place in my heart.  The chair of my discernment committee came next.  Thank you, I told him silently, and What have you gotten me into?  And still they came, one after another to receive Christ from my oil-signed hands:  friends and family and colleagues — brothers and sisters all, sharing the common meal which our Lord gave us and commanded us to continue until he comes again.  And on their faces I saw joy and wonderment and worship and gratitude and grace:  on my face too, I think.

Too soon, the line ended and the table was cleared.  The God of peace, who brought again from the dead our Lord Jesus…I started the Paschal blessing, speaking not on my own behalf (though I long to bless and to be a blessing) but on God’s behalf.  That is a reminder, of course, that every good and perfect gift, every blessing, comes from God.

The last “official” act of the day was first blessings.  It is pious tradition in some faith communions, and dogma in others, that the first blessings of a new priest convey an extra measure of grace.  Perhaps it’s all just honorary.  In the glow and quiet of our prayer chapel, my dearest friend, my rector, and my spiritual director — and a bit later a dear monk and his wife — sought and received first blessings.  I could barely pronounce the words.  Whether they received special grace I leave between each of them and God.  But I did and do with every remembrance of that moment.  I can say no more of it.

So, you now know the origin of this blog title:  First Blessing.  It is also traditional that first blessings are too special to be restricted to one day; the new priest gives first blessing for an entire year.  So, I have set my heart and hand to writing these public reflections of the life of a new priest for that same one year period.  Whether I will faithfully keep the discipline, God only knows.  I know that writing, when I do, will be a blessing to me.  May it also be, by the grace of God, to those who read.


Photo:  Mary Kathleen Roop.  Used by permission.

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