In my estimation, one of the best things about Advent is the presence of John the Baptist, that hair-shirt-wearing, locust-eating, wild-man prophet, the “voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’ as the prophet Isaiah said” (John 1:23). Advent follows the logic of St. Mark in his Gospel account; the beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ starts with meeting John in the desert. As the Lord foretold through Isaiah and Malachi centuries before, “I will send my messenger, and he shall prepare the way before me: and the Lord, whom ye seek, shall suddenly come to his temple” (Mal. 3:1; see also Isa. 40).
The third week of Advent also includes one instance of the quarterly Ember Days, which are seasons of prayer for those discerning and being prepared for a life as a deacon or priest in the Church. It’s no mistake the Church yokes one of these seasons with John. Though he doesn’t make for polite company, there is no better role model for our clergy to follow than he as they “prepare the way of the Lord” in the midst of the barren deserts of modern society and the human hearts that dwell therein. ˙
That sounds nice, but ask anyone responsible for trying to find a qualified and faithful priest to call to a new ministry, and you’ll hear of the dearth of qualified, compelling candidates available in the church today (though to be fair, one might also talk of the reluctance of most parishes to hire a genuine John). But either way, there’s no denying we need more and better clergy in our church today; and there’s no denying the legitimacy of the complaints of countless parishioners and deployment officers on the current state of the clergy.
As it turns out, people have long felt this way. Hear the remarks of the great Tractarian preacher Isaac Williams over 150 years ago:
We complain of the want of Bishops and Clergy; we complain of their great feebleness, and, of what is worse we complain of the crippled condition of the Church; of thousands and of tens of thousands daily perishing for lack of knowledge and from the deficiencies of Pastoral energy and care.
This remark resonates deeply with several essays on Covenant recently; our people are woefully inadequate in their knowledge of Scripture and their understanding of the Christian faith. As my bishop wrote Dec. 7 on this very blog, “Surely, being faithful has as a precondition knowing the faith.” The obvious nature of this remark makes it cut that much more deeply. And who bears the blame for this woeful state? No doubt, much of the blame lies with the clergy.
And yet, returning to Williams, perhaps not all the blame lies with those of us who wear black. Our preacher bids his congregants to think long and hard about the part they’ve played in the decline of the Church. He believes a good bit of the fault “remains at their own door”:
[B]ut they who thus complain do not consider how much of all this remains at their own door; for no doubt the real cause which lies at the bottom of all this is that the people do not pray; do not pray as they are required to do for their own Pastor, and for their own Bishop, and for the Church generally, that the Ministers and Stewards of Christ’s mysteries may prepare the way before Him.
Hierarchical churches always seem to carry with them the danger of clericalism, that is, undue deference for and reliance upon the clergy. We love to complain about the “want of bishops and clergy,” all the while failing to engage our faith with appropriate hope and love. We Catholic Christians can be a bit pathetic, waiting around passively for some ordained person to save our congregation or diocese. It is true, “faith comes by hearing, and what is heard comes by the preaching of Christ” (Rom. 10:16), and the feet of those who bring Good News are indeed beautiful; but it’s also true that the One who truly saves us is readily available to any Christian soul that would receive him: “the word is near you, on your lips and in your heart” (10:8), and we are all “a holy priesthood,” meant “to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ” (1 Pet. 2:5), offering and presenting unto him “our selves, our souls, and bodies, to be a reasonable, holy, and living sacrifice.” Christians who are alert realize that in the Church the prophecy of Moses is coming to fruition, for the Lord wills that we all become “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Ex. 19:6, 1 Pet. 2:9, Rev 1:6).
Williams makes this same Mosaic/Petrine move to the spiritual responsibility of individual Christians when he bids them to take ownership of their church, to be the sort of people they wish their deacons, priests, and bishops might be.
For how did our Lord Himself meet this great want when He was moved with compassion at the sight? His words were, “Pray ye the Lord of the Harvest.” He knew of no other way but this, neither shall we find it.
Are we in a time of need in our parishes, in our dioceses, in our church? The answer is for all people in the church to “pray ye the Lord of the Harvest,” drawing “near to the throne of grace with confidence” (Heb. 4:16); the answer is for all the faithful to embrace their diaconal vocation, embodying the servanthood of Christ; for all the faithful to grow into their participation in Christ’s priesthood, reconciling “all things, whether on earth or in heaven,” in Christ our great High Priest, who through the blood of his Cross is making peace throughout all creation (Col. 1.20). Advent’s Ember Days are for all of us, ordained or not. The Spirit will help us make our pathways straight, so we each will be ready to receive the Bridegroom when he comes.
In a fit of ill temper I once challenged a priest who ordered steak in Lent, stating that if he’s going to eat that he’d better never complain about a lack of Christian devotion in his flock. Though I admit I may have been a bit too much like John the Baptist in that moment, I stand by my analysis. But the reverse is also true: neither should a people who fail to fast and pray dare to complain about the state of their clergy. Where do we think tomorrow’s clergy come from, anyway?
In the midst of the ugly scandal that came out of Duke Divinity School this summer, I found a bit of redemption in the words of Paul Griffiths concerning the life of the Christian academic: “Each of us should be tense with the effort of it [i.e., reading, writing, teaching], thrumming like a tautly triple-woven steel thread with the work of it, consumed by the fire of it, ever eager for more of it.” I found his words well-suited to the Christian life. As Augustine said, “my weight is my love” (Confessions 13.9.10). By which he means, our affections act like gravity, drawing us to the object of our love. This weight also creates a certain tension within the Christian will (Trinity 11.10), drawing us taut as we press ever onward in love for the divine, ever straining toward Christ’s eternal beauty, yet all the while like St. Paul our love attaches us in affection to our brothers and sisters in Christ who remain here on earth (Phil. 1:23-26). Griffiths’s metaphor of a “tautly triple-woven steel thread” makes me think of a guitar string, giving the image a musical resonance Augustine would readily recognize and appreciate. Such is the beauty of the harmonious, well-tuned Christian life.
For those who are questioning my Catholic credentials at this moment, let me say that this point was most firmly impressed in my soul during my two years at St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary, where I repeatedly heard that the ultimate authority of the Church lies not with bishops but with the faithful; the real life and vigor and discernment of the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Orthodox Church ultimately occurs within ordinary Christians. And I must say, one of the things I love about working for Bishop George Sumner is his emphasis on just what I’ve laid out here: the diaconal and priestly vocation of all Christians.
I suppose what I’m aiming for here is a certain holy striving between the people and their clergy, in humility considering others as better than themselves (Phil. 2:3), striving to embody for themselves the faith, hope, and love they long to see the Church possess en masse. And during these Ember Days, let us all diligently pray for our future clergy, for in doing so we all enter more deeply into our Christian vocation. The more we approach the throne of grace with confidence, the more mercy and grace we find in our time of need; the more our hearts are sprinkled clean from an evil conscience; the more we consider how to “stir up” one another “to love and good works … encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near” (Heb. 10:22-25).