After Martin Luther posted his celebrated 95 theses on the door of Wittenberg’s church, he spent a year in voluntary seclusion in a tower at nearby Wartburg Castle. With bed, chair, desk, quill, ink, paper and copies of the Greek New Testament, Luther spent much of the year translating the New Testament into German – a linguistic as well as a liturgical feat. Bibles in the common tongue were rare in Luther’s era. Scholars admit that Luther’s translation was masterful as well as heroic. Jan Hus and John Wycliffe had been burned at the stake for their previous attempts at a vernacular Bible.
But while Luther was rightly popularizing the Word of God, he was sadly disparaging the Catholic sacraments and especially the priesthood. He saw no need for the priestly anointing of the sick. Luther dismissed sacramental marriage and grew to question priestly celibacy as well. He deplored the extravagance of priestly garb in the Mass. He denied the Catholic understanding of the real Presence and consequently eschewed the elevation of the Host. As one recent author observed, Luther “began to espouse a direct relationship between the believer and the Almighty without the need for intermediaries and based solely in the conscience of the supplicant.” Through interior faith, every man and every woman became his or her own priest. The notion of mediation, of intercession, of priestly service, has no place in Luther’s theology. From the start, Protestantism was a lay movement.
Martin Luther certainly had legitimate gripes about the Catholic priesthood during his lifetime. Some Church reform was justifiable, even commendable. Sadly, Luther threw the baby out with bathwater. Both in the Old and the New Testaments and in Church history as well, God has formed for himself a priestly people, a holy nation, a people set apart. St. Peter wrote, “But you are “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people of his own, so that you may announce the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.” St. Peter was echoing here the ancient words of Moses at the foot of Sinai, “You will be to me a kingdom of priests, a holy nation.”
God’s fashioning the priestly people of the Old and the New Testaments was his graphic way of introducing to history the eternal priesthood of his Son, Jesus Christ. A priestly people draws attention to Christ as priest, as the primary intermediary, the principal mediator, the paramount intercessor, between God in heaven and mankind here on earth. In the New Testament the universal priesthood of the baptized and the ministerial priesthood of the ordained draw their mission, their task, their charge from the unique priestly mission of Jesus Christ. The priestly people are meant to reveal their priestly head to the world.
The Christian people are priests because through them the whole world is given a specific and powerful vision of God’s Presence in history. Catholic deacons, clergy, and bishops are priests because through them the whole world is given an even more explicit and effective vision of God’s Presence in the world. Both clergy and laity thus have an awesome and somewhat onerous responsibility before the world. Both clergy and laity are commissioned to continue the unique priestly mission of Jesus Christ as sole mediator to the world. And make no mistake, Christ’s mission as priest, as the unique channel to the Divine, is key to the whole New Covenant.
Christianity is not a generic ministry of doing good and avoiding evil. Christianity continues the specific word and work of Jesus Christ. No one comes to the Father except through Jesus Christ. He is the unique voice for the Father among all the prophets, philosophers, and religious practitioners throughout history. Through Christ all blessing come from God and through Christ all good works return to God. He is the great high priest, the sole mediator between God and man, the advocate always heeded by the Father. The priestly people of God, both laity and clergy, stand in his unique light. Thus both the baptized and the ordained refer all things to Christ and Christ refers all things to God: “…for everything belongs to you, and you to Christ, and Christ to God.” Diminishing the priesthood of the laity or the priesthood of the clergy diminishes the priesthood of Jesus Christ. A priestly people will draw all eyes, all minds, all hearts to Christ and his priestly mission.