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Scriptural Basis Of The Sacrament Of Holy Orders

September 30, 2017 Our Catholic Faith No Comments


We saw last week that two of the seven sacraments that Jesus Christ instituted during His visible stay on Earth, Holy Orders and Matrimony, “contribute in a special way to ecclesial communion and the salvation of others” (Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, n. 321). “Their divinely instituted purpose is mainly apostolic, to reach out to other people,” explains Fr. John A. Hardon, SJ.
“Those who are ordained are to nourish the Church with the Word and grace of God. Those who are married are to cooperate as husband and wife in the spiritual propagation of the human race” (The Faith, p. 131).
We also saw last week that at the dawn of Christianity, the Latin word ordo was used within the Roman Empire to refer to civil bodies of people under authority. The Church then adopted the term to speak of the ordo diaconorum (“order of deacons”), ordo presbyterorum, (“order of priests”), and ordo episcoporum (“order of bishops”).
These three levels of ordained ministry differ in responsibility, power, and authority and are conferred successively (in degrees) by the one Sacrament of Holy Orders. Although ordered to the “common priesthood of the faithful” in which all share through Baptism, the ministerial or hierarchical priesthood differs in essence — the consecration of the Sacrament of Holy Orders confers the sacred power “to feed the Church in Christ’s name with the word and the grace of God” (Lumen Gentium, n. 11 § 2).
Throughout the course of salvation history, as has been demonstrated many times during this series, the working of the Lord in the sacraments of the New Testament is prefigured in the Old Covenant. This can most assuredly also be said of the priesthood and the Sacrament of Holy Orders, glimpses of which can be perceived almost immediately, as we will see, in the early chapters of the Book of Genesis.
Before proceeding, however, it would be good to note that the priesthood and sacrifice are inextricably linked to one another. The definition of “sacrifice” as given by the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) shows this: “A sacrifice is a ritual offering made to God by a priest on behalf of the people, as a sign of adoration, gratitude, supplication, and communion” (CCC, Glossary).
In the third edition of an excellent volume entitled The Faith Explained (TFE), Fr. Leo J. Trese provides illuminating insights on the purpose of sacrifice.
“Even though God has no need of our gifts,” states Fr. Trese, “it pleased God, from the very beginning of human history, to have man ‘act out’ his feelings towards God by means of sacrifice. From all that God has given, man would take the very best (whether it was a lamb or a bullock or fruit or grain) and offer it back to God — destroying it upon an altar to symbolize the act of giving. . . . The gifts expressed, better than words could, the deepest sentiments of the human heart towards God” (TFE, pp. 491-492). And it is the priest who offers the sacrifice in the name of the people.
The first biblical reference of a sacrificial offering made by man to God is recorded in the fourth chapter of the Book of Genesis:
“In the course of time Cain brought to the Lord an offering of the fruit of the ground, and Abel brought of the firstlings of his flock and of their fat portions. And the Lord had regard for Abel and his offering, but for Cain and his offering he had no regard” (Gen. 4:3-5).
Thus, it is divinely revealed that the practice of making sacrificial offerings to God was carried out in the first generation of the human race by the offspring of Adam and Eve. It is highly probable that Adam, as father of all mankind, also made offerings to the Lord; however, there is no explicit mention of this in Sacred Scripture.
Perhaps one of the most commonly asked questions about this account is why God “had regard for Abel and his offering, but for Cain and his offering he had no regard.” Since the biblical text offers no explanation, scholars and theologians can only speculate. Some posit that Abel offered the very best of his flock whereas Cain kept the most desirable fruit of the land for himself and offered lower quality grain to the Lord. Another possible reason is that “God who knows the heart” (Acts 15:8) knew that Abel’s offering proceeded from a righteous heart whereas that of his brother Cain did not (as suggested by the subsequent treacherous act of murdering his brother).
Another speculative reason is that Abel’s offering was a blood sacrifice and thus a more perfect prefigurement of the sacrifice of Christ on the cross.
Having no way of knowing with certainty if any or all of these speculations (or others) have merit, is there anything we can learn from the account of Abel and Cain in the Book of Genesis?
In his long-running series on the sacraments in The Catholic Servant (TCS), Fr. John Paul Echert answers by observing, “From the beginning it was the practice of true religion to make offerings to God, both from among the firstlings of the flock and the fruits of the earth. Furthermore, there was a particular value in a blood sacrifice, for it symbolized that the penalty of sin is death and it prefigured the Sacrifice of Jesus Christ. In effect, when Abel spilled the blood of the innocent firstling, he was acknowledging his own sinfulness and perhaps without knowing it, was preparing for the crucifixion of Christ” (volume XXI, n. XI, November 2015).
Let us now fast-forward many centuries and generations to the time of Noah when “the Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually” (Gen. 6:5). With the exception of Noah and his family, who were righteous in the eyes of God, the Lord wiped out all wickedness with the Great Flood (which is a prefigurement of Baptism) and preserved only a righteous remnant.
Note carefully what Noah (whom the Church fathers see as a type and figure of Jesus) did on disembarking from the ark: “Noah built an altar to the Lord, and took of every clean animal and of every clean bird, and offered burnt offerings [holocausts] on the altar” (Gen. 8:20).
As Fr. Echert explains, holocausts are blood offerings sacrificed exclusively to God for the intention of atoning for the sins of man, and “may be offered on the part of individuals or an entire people, so long as they are united in covenant with God. If offered by and on behalf of those who are righteous, then holocausts are pleasing to God” (TCS, volume XXI, n. XII, December 2015).
That Noah’s sacrifice was pleasing to God is confirmed in that “the Lord smelled the pleasing odor” (Gen. 8:21) and promised that He would never again destroy the Earth by flood.
Moving forward in salvation history to the time of Abraham, we see his willingness to sacrifice his only son at the Lord’s command:
“Take your son, your only[-begotten] son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering upon one of the mountains of which I shall tell you. . . . When they came to the place of which God had told him, Abraham built an altar there, and laid the wood in order, and bound Isaac his son, and laid him on the altar, upon the wood” (Gen. 22:2, 9).
We know, of course, that at the last moment the Lord stayed Abraham’s hand and the life of Isaac was preserved: “Do not lay your hand on the lad or do anything to him; for now I know that you fear God, seeing you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me” (Gen. 22:13).
This incident, of course, was an extreme test of faith and obedience for the great saint and patriarch Abraham, which he passed with flying colors. Resultantly, the Lord made an amazing promise through His angel: “I will multiply your descendants as the stars of heaven and as the sand which is on the seashore” (Gen. 22:17).

The Priest-King Melchizedek

But even more astounding are the many parallels to the sacrifice of Christ nearly 2,000 years later. In the Revised Standard Version, Second Catholic Edition translation of the Bible, the only two figures ever described as only-begotten sons are Jesus and Isaac (see John 1:18 and Gen. 22:2); this is a subtle distinction that many translations miss.
Fr. Echert points out other important connections: As Jesus carried the cross on which He was crucified, Isaac carried the wood on which he was to be sacrificed; it was on the third day that the Resurrection of Jesus occurred and that the life of Isaac was preserved; ancient Christian tradition suggests that Golgotha where Jesus was crucified is identical to the location of the sacrifice of the ram in place of Isaac (cf. TCS, volume XXII, n. I, January 2016).
In our next installment, we will examine the Old Testament prefigurement of the priesthood we usually think of first, namely the Levitical priesthood (particularly the priesthood of Aaron and his sons). Likewise, we will take a look at an enigmatic priest-king of the Old Testament, Melchizedek, who is mentioned in three books of the Bible (Genesis, Psalms, and Hebrews).

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(Don Fier serves on the board of directors for The Catholic Servant, a Minneapolis-based monthly publication. He and his wife are the parents of seven children. Fier is a 2009 graduate of Ave Maria University’s Institute for Pastoral Theology. He is a consecrated Marian catechist.)

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