+ ‘You did not choose me but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit… I am giving you these commands that you may love one another’.
Consultants are said to be rather imperious, commands can be better than discussion where life is at stake. Claire, you asked for these two Bible readings and then told me that the Ephesians one is negotiable. I’m glad the one from John was not, as Jesus’ last discourse is so important for you, you said you are in love with the gospel of John, and it is such a good guide to the inner life of the priest. My question today is, what is a priest. More specifically: what is being done to you today and how can your own spiritual journey help us answer this question?
I started preparing this sermon in August at the Anglican Shrine of our Lady of Walsingham, a place where the ordination of women to the priesthood is not accepted. It is not unreasonable to hold this view, it is the belief of most Christians in history and in the world today. If you hold this view, then nothing is happening today. The Shrine at Walsingham was founded in 1061 when the Virgin Mary appeared to the Lady of the Manor and commanded her to build a copy of her house at Nazareth. She did. It was burnt under Henry VIII and rebuilt about a hundred years ago. I was saying Mass in the Holy House, elevated the host, the bread which becomes, in a way we can’t understand, the body of Jesus Christ and I looked into the eyes of Mary. I then realised that what the priest does – calls down the Holy Spirit that the bread and wine become the body and blood of Christ that his people may be fed – is what Mary did. At the Annunciation, God sent his Holy Spirit on Mary that from her own body, from her own self, she might make the body and blood of Christ, his human nature. Mary is thus a priest and something profound IS happening today.
Jesus’ words in John with which I began may be applied to Mary, ‘You did not choose me but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit’, fruit that is Christ in you and in the world. Mary is thus a priest and a priest is, in a sense, Mary. But the priest is also, in a sense, Christ. The priest says in the person of Jesus, ‘this is my body, this is my blood’, not ‘this is his body’ but ‘this is my body’. This bit of the Liturgy is not a reading, it is a performative word of Christ (that is a word that does what it says) actualised (made to happen) by the Holy Spirit. Jesus told a chosen group of his disciples on a Thursday night to do this, to speak this word, to ‘do this in memory of me’. We hold that it is not the bearded Jewish maleness of most of this group that is significant, but their humanity, even, as the gospel stories tell us, their weak humanity that caused them to run away when the going got tough on the following Friday.
Mary and John didn’t run away. What was their secret? What is the secret of the inner life of this ministry to which Claire is called today? Today is the feast of St Therese of Lisieux. I hope Claire won’t mind me saying how important Therese was in her spiritual journey. She said to me, ‘I think I met Therese at exactly the right time, when I was a teenage girl trying to figure out how to devote my life to God’. Therese was formed in the rather saccharine piety of late-nineteenth century France but rose above it with supreme spiritual strength and wisdom. From childhood she was a strong woman: by pestering bishops and heaven she broke the rules to become a Carmelite nun at 15, she lived through a patch of practical atheism and died of tuberculosis aged 24 in 1897. A strange thing about Therese is that she felt a strong call to be a priest.
She couldn’t, of course, but she struggled with her vocation until she finally concluded, ‘at last I have found my calling: my call is love. Certainly I have found my place in the Church, and you gave me that very place, my God. In the heart of the Church, my mother, I will be love.’ This is at the heart of her ‘Little Way’ and why she is perhaps the most popular saint of modern times. Therese says elsewhere, ‘God does not consider whether our actions are great or difficult to perform. He looks only at the love with which they are done.’
This is true for all of us, but how very appropriate for the priest. We do a lot of small things and not infrequently fail, ministry teaches us that however competent we may appear we can only do good by God’s grace. Our church lost out by being on the losing side in the Jacobite risings, our call is to a spiritual Jacobitism, to serve God the true King whatever the cost. But always in love.
Claire, as a priest you will be caught up into the greatest act of love, the sacrifice of Christ on the cross. You will re-present it to his people in the sacrifice of the Eucharist, ‘no one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends’. In this you will lose yourself in Christ, using his words, abiding in him: ‘As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love’. This means loving Christ’s body, his people, ‘love one another as I have loved you’, and by this love you will be, as we are taught in John, a friend of Jesus among his friends: ‘I call you friends… you did not choose me, but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last.’
In Christ, all the crooked ways of our journey come together. Claire, your friends and family and those you serve will support you in this new but old calling. I think, I hope, your mother would be proud. Christian Priesthood in the spirit of Therese and John is simply this, an active form of the enclosed contemplation of the Carmelite: ‘In the heart of the Church, my mother, I will be love’.
*This sermon was preached at Holy Trinity, Melrose, on Saturday 1st October 2022. Mthr Claire Nicholson is a consultant neurosurgeon and curate at Holy Trinity.