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 blessings 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.
I wrote this on 18 May 2015, the morning following my ordination to the priesthood. Today marks the one year anniversary of that grace-filled moment that changed my life – that changed me – in ways that I could not then have imagined. One year later waves of grace and wonder still sweep over me like a tsunami when the truth dawns on me in the unexpected moment: by God’s grace I am a priest in the one, holy, catholic and Apostolic Church of our Lord Jesus Christ, a servant of the servants of God. Why me? I still have no answer, though I feel drawn to the story of Balaam’s ass as a partial metaphor. It is finally a mystery known only to God, to whom be glory now and for ever, world without end.
What have I learned during this first year in the priesthood?
I’ve learned that there is a profound difference between “priestcraft” and priesthood, as there is between learning the steps and dancing. At my first Eucharist, I feared turning over the chalice or losing my place in the liturgy or forgetting whom to serve when or any of a thousand other minor points of priestcraft. I’ve now learned the steps of the holy dance fairly well; I no longer fear tripping. But I always stand in holy fear at the altar as a priest of the God who commanded Moses to take off his sandals as he stood on holy ground, as a priest of the God who brought Isaiah to his woeful knees in the temple. I no longer fear forgetting the words of absolution, but I tremble as I pronounce them, remembering what it cost our Lord for me to say those words. It is possible to do priestcraft perfectly and priesthood terribly, to follow the letter of the law of the rubrics and to miss the heart of the grace of the Gospel. Priestcraft exists to make priesthood possible, just as the steps exist to make the dance beautiful. But the two should never be confused; following the steps is not dancing.
I’ve learned – in a deeper way than before – the truth that we are, all of us, the image bearers of God, fearfully and wonderfully made, and that we are all deeply scarred by the fall. I see it every time I look in someone’s eyes and say, “The Body of our Lord Jesus Christ keep you in everlasting life,” or “The Blood of Christ, the cup of salvation.” I hear it in every baby’s delighted giggle or angry cry in the midst of a sermon. It is there in every birth and death, at every baptism and wedding, in every hospital room and graduation celebration. The world is profoundly beautiful and deeply broken. “It is very good,” and “Have you eaten of the tree?” run point-counterpoint throughout the cosmos and right through the middle of every human heart. And I’ve learned again and again in a thousand large and small ways that the cross of Christ – and only the cross of Christ – puts all things to rights again, makes all things new.
I’ve learned that what you touch also touches you, that the oil with which I anoint another for healing or blessing or forgiveness also heals, blesses, or pardons me, that no sacramental action is unilateral or unidirectional. I have learned that there is more grace in one act of mercy, one word of forgiveness, one drop of our Savior’s blood than there is sin in the whole world. It makes no sense, but there it is – the grand and glorious imbalance of human sin and God’s love.
I’ve learned that God loves you and that he even loves me. I always knew it, I think, but I’ve learned it and continue to learn it in this mystery of priesthood. And I’ve learned – well, I’m learning – that it is good and right to love others in the midst of hurt, in the midst of what feels like rejection, in the midst of profound disagreement – something about loving God and our neighbors, I think.
I’ve learned that people do not expect you to be perfect, just faithful.
I’ve learned that prayer is not an option and that the prayers of the faithful for their priests is a blessing beyond measure.
I’ve learned that no one can be a priest alone, that the Godly counsel of other trusted clergy is essential.
I’ve learned that I need friends who do not think my first name is Father or Reverend – friends who knew me before my ordination and who will not hesitate to correct or challenge me or to puncture any growing bubble of false sanctity or true pomposity.
I’ve learned to cry and to laugh, to fast and to feast, to serve and to be served.
I’ve learned that being in the right place at the right time – God’s place, God’s time – can be awfully inconvenient, somewhat costly, and even potentially dangerous. I’ve learned there is no better place to be.
I’ve learned that the faith of those I serve has the power to shake me to the core with wonder and thankfulness and hope and joy.
I’ve learned that parishes get something very like a BOGO when they accept a married priest, that in countless ways – seen and unseen – the priest’s wife is instrumental to his ministry and thus to the life of the parish. I’ve learned – well, I always knew – that I married above my station and that my wife and daughter are some of God’s best work and clearly among his best gifts to me.
I’ve learned. And, I’m learning still.
As this first year of priesthood draws to a close, so does another important facet of my life – another ministry, actually. In two days I will spend my final ninety minutes with students. Less than a week later, I will turn in my keys to the school, turn out the lights in my room, and bid farewell to friends and colleagues and a twenty-six year career in public education. Has it mattered? I like to think so. Upon learning of my imminent retirement a parent approached me at a recent school assembly and said, “So ends the Roop era. My daughters (both former students) will be sad to hear this.” It mattered to him and to them and to others who have spoken gracious words to me – students and parents alike. And, it has mattered to me. Just as I am now and always will be a priest, I am now and always will be a teacher. Neither is just a task that God has assigned me, but rather an identity into which he has formed me. The things we do, do things to us. It matters.
I wonder if there is any significance to the fact that my final day with students is bracketed by Ember Days. I am laying aside my profession to take up more fully my vocation, laying aside one hidden ministry for a more visible and obvious one. There is a sense of affirmation in the calendar, an intersection of chronos and kairos, perhaps. I’ll accept it as gift and not mere coincidence, if such a thing as coincidence even exists.
So, there you have it – a year of first blessings, most of which were mine. To any I have sinned against, in thought or word or deed, by what I have done or by what I have left undone, I am truly sorry and I humbly repent. I can only pray for God’s forgiveness and for yours. To any I may have blessed, in thought or word or deed, know that the blessing was from God our Father and from our Lord Jesus Christ, and not from me.
And now, a final first blessing:
The God of peace, who brought again from the dead our Lord Jesus, that great Shepherd of the sheep, through the blood of the eternal covenant, make you perfect in every good work to do his will, working in you that which is well-pleasing in his sight; and the blessing of God Almighty,+ the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, be among you and remain with you always.
Photo: Mary Kathleen Roop, used by permission.