The Priesthood as the Book of Christ
Fr. Thomas Joseph White, O.P.
[This homily was given at the Thomistic Institute Conference for Priests, “The Priest as a Teacher of the Faith,” which took place in Nashville, TN, July 16-18, 2013.]
Jesus said: “Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart; and you will find rest for yourselves. For my yoke is easy, and my burden light.” (Matt. 11:28-30)
Our Lord says this extraordinary statement in chapter 11 of Matthew’s Gospel. He does not conceal from us that there is a yoke, but he says that this yoke teaches us and that we can learn from it. From his teaching we will find rest. His yoke is easy and the burden light.
This statement comes just after the one we heard yesterday. “No one knows the Son but the Father, and no one knows the Father but the Son, and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.” (Matt. 11:27)
If you put the two statements together, then the yoke that Jesus is talking about is the yoke of faith. Faith is a gift the Son gives us to reveal the Father. Faith is a yoke that joins us to God. Faith humbles the mind and brings with it a sense of mercy and meekness of heart. Faith requires obedience of the heart and submission, but the burden is not heavy. The gift elevates us. The gift irrigates our heart with life. It transcends us, and the faith can be very obscure or dark at times. But it is a grace by which God also invites us to cooperate with him, to learn from Christ the teacher.
St. Thomas Aquinas asks the question why did Jesus not write a book. He asks
In short Christ did not write a book so that he could be alive in the mission of the Church, and bring people to the knowledge of God through the ministers of the Gospel, enlightening their minds and hearts and enlightening the minds and hearts of those to whom they preached. We could say, then, that the priesthood is the book of Christ.
What happens as the Gospel of Matthew unfolds? Who is the hero of the faith? We see it in chapter 16: Simon Peter. “Who do men say that I am? Who do you say that I am?....You are the Christ. The Son of the living God…Flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, Simon bar Jonah, but my Father in heaven. You are Peter and on this Rock I will build my Church.” (Matt. 16:13-18)
Here, then, is the yoke of Christ, binding Simon Peter. Is this yoke light? Peter promises to die with Christ. He has a generous temperament. But in the end, he confronts his own weakness. He denies the Lord, and he is redeemed by the risen Christ. The Rock of Peter is a Rock built on mercy. A covenant in the sacrifice of Christ.
How does Simon Peter die? What does this binding and this yoke look like in the end? It is claimed that he said he was not worthy to die a death by crucifixion as his Lord did. And so his Roman executioners opposed to the Gospel, and perhaps behind them the hidden principalities and powers of this world…they crucified him upside down. An interesting irony of the world mocking the cross. But it is a double irony. Because God works through all that exists. He doesn’t cause sin, but he works through all events, in some way, even when his creatures culpably disobey him. God works through Pilate, God works through Judas, God works through Nero, despite them. And the deeper irony is his: even though Peter is other than Christ, and a weak man, he will become another Christ, an alter Christus, bound by the yoke of faith, and the covenant of mercy, to the sacrifice of the Cross. The Cross is stable. The world turns, the Cross stays the same. Caesar will oppose a power that rivals him, and yet, in all the machinations, Peter the fisherman, in his weakness, as if despite himself and his persecutors, is turning toward conformity to the mystery of Christ. Suspended between heaven and earth he is rotating into the mystery of the Crucified. And here too, he is teaching the mystery of the Lord.
I say all this, because this too is part of the way every priest teaches. He
participates in the priestly ministry of Peter, the Rock of faith: to communicate the truth of the Cross. But he also lives out the irony of being other than God, and other than Christ. A mere fallible and weak creature, but one in whom God has chosen to have a devastating mercy. To move into this poor creature to make him an inverted icon of the mercy of God. To conform him to the cross, both in the priest’s boldness and generosity and in his weakness and need for mercy. To be marked forever by the mystery of the Cross. To be marked forever as a minister of the blood of the covenant. That is what it is to be a priest.
May we give thanks for the presence of Christ among us, and within us. Christ the teacher. May we ask him to illumine our minds and hearts, and may we (both by all that we do and despite all we fail to do), draw others into the light of Christ, where alone they and we can find rest and peace. “Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest…learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart; For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”