"So, what do you do?" I sometimes find myself cringing a bit when asked this question by people whom I've just met. Here in the San Francisco Bay Area, a large number of folks don't have any religious, much less Christian, background, and so they look somewhat confused or even shocked when I respond, "I'm an Episcopal priest." I might as well have said, "Oh, I'm a cat."
Even worse are those folks whose point of reference is a very negative one. "Oh, you're one of those." I might as well have said "I'm a . . . well, a pedaphile." The associations attached to priesthood are not always positive and, sadly, often for good reasons. Alas, thus has it ever been. Being a priest in late 18th. Century France or, say, early 20th. Century Russia, wasn't easy either. Literature is full of images of priests as ignorent, greedy, subversive, reactionary, predatory, or pompous.
Still, it does give me pause to ponder, "What are priests for?" Especially in a world where the Church itself is often deemed irrelevant, why have priests? Especially in a Church in which the ministry of all the baptized, the priesthood of all believers, is finally coming into its own again, what are priests for? Its a good question.
When I think about my own exercise of priesthood, the image that comes to mind is that of a mirror. My purpose is to reveal to others the Christ within them, to hold up before them the image of God that is their own reflection; and to do so in such a way that they may catch a glimpse of the Christ reflected in the image of their neighbor and even of their enemy. I'm not sure which is harder to see: the image of Christ in ourselves, our neighbors (literally, those who are near to us), or our enemies.
There is a tradition in the Church that sees the priest as a stand-in for Jesus. The purpose of the priest in this line of thinking is to reveal Christ in his or her own person, to represent Christ to the people (and vice-versa). The image here is of the priest as a window, rather than a mirror. The people see Christ through the priest (and Christ sees the people through the priest?). I find this to be a very problematic image. Here the Protestants were right: we don't need a priest to be the window for us. That window is open in each and every heart.
What at least some Protestant traditions failed to appreciate, however, is the need for a mirror in Christian community. The sacramental ministry of the priest is a matter of smoke and mirrors; not in the sense of magic or illusion, but of boldly setting forth the primary symbols of faith that allow us to see the glory of God reflected in the ordinary and everyday stuff of life, our own lives. Things like water, bread and wine; oil, light, and . . . the tacky people sitting around us in the pews!
The priest is not the apex of a pyramid of holiness. She is rather the mirror in the center of a wheel, allowing each point on the wheel to see itself in relationship to the others and to the whole of which it is a part. Now, this does not mean that people should not be able to see Christ reflected in the life of the priest as well. I don't mean to absolve priests of the call to holiness, as if their job was to reflect the image of God in the lives of everyone except themselves! Rather, I wish to point to the mutuality involved in this mirroring. If Christ can not be seen in the lives of priests, the Church is in trouble. But if Christ can only be seen in the lives of priests, then the Church qua Church has ceased to exist.
What are priests for? To serve as the mirror in the center of the Christian community. How that mirroring works, is another matter.