In 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.