Like Jesus Christ, whose image he bears, the priest is a knight who slays the dragon—a warrior against evil. He is one who, like Christ, steps up to do battle with the devil.
Have you noticed how blockbuster movies and TV series always feature a warrior as the main character? Our society is supposed to be all sweet, calm, and pacifist, but the movies thump it home that heroes are warriors. It doesn’t matter if it is a superhero movie, a TV series about the Vikings, Mission Impossible, or Star Wars—there is always a battle and the hero is always a triumphant soldier.
After I left the Anglican ministry, I trained as a scriptwriter, and one of the sources I studied was Joseph Campbell’s book The Hero With a Thousand Faces. Campbell was brought up as a Catholic, but went on to study the sagas and stories of many different cultures. He found there one story to rule them all. In many different forms, it was the story of the hero’s quest. The hero was always a warrior who set out from his ordinary world to battle evil. What really interested me was that the hero always had to come face to face with the need to make a sacrifice.
In pagan stories he would have to sacrifice to the gods, but in other stories he would have to make a personal sacrifice, giving up all for the sake of the quest, or he may even have died in the battle, only to rise again in some magical way.
You might wonder what I’m getting at. It’s this: I think the priest is also a classic hero and a warrior, but to make my point I’d like to say a bit more about the concept of sacrifice.
The last time I wrote I said one of the forms of Jewish sacrifice was the sin offering or the sacrifice of atonement. Twin goats were offered. One was killed and the other had a red ribbon tied around its neck. The red ribbon symbolized the goat’s throat being cut, so symbolically the second goat was also slain. Then the goat was forced out into the desert where it died or was devoured by wild beasts.
So what is going on in this primitive ritualistic action? To understand that we have to go further back into the origins of evil. The French thinker René Girard makes the point that human evil begins with a form of envy you might call “envy of imitation.” We not only want what somebody else has. We want their power. We want to be like them. This essential flaw in our nature is shown right there in the old tale of the Garden of Eden. Eve not only wants the knowledge of good and evil. Satan tempts her by saying, “You will be like God!” In other words, she not only wants the knowledge that God has. She wants to be God.
This was Satan’s downfall, and it is the source and root of all evil. We want to be like God. We want to be the author of our own destiny. We want to be in control. The problem grows however, because we are not God. We therefore experience an inner restlessness and emptiness which causes us to look elsewhere with a constantly aching and searching desire, and when that desire is not satisfied we look around for someone to blame for our unhappiness. Again, we see this in the Garden of Eden. When God asked Adam why he had eaten the fruit, he blamed Eve and when God asked Eve about it she blamed Satan. In fact, it’s even worse than that—Adam actually blamed God for the problem. He said, “The woman you gave me gave me the fruit to eat.”
This is a devastating insight. When we realize we cannot be that person who we want to be like, we turn the tables and blame them for our unhappiness. As we do this we justify ourselves. We believe we are good, and if we are good, then our problems are never our fault, and if the problems are not our fault, someone else must be to blame. The one we blame is the one who has what we want, and when we can’t have what he has we blame him for the problem and kill him. This step is clear from the next story in Genesis in which Cain kills his brother Abel. God has rejected Cain’s disobedient offering, but Cain blames his brother Abel and so the first murder happens. The meaning is clear: Make yourself as God and violence is the result.
We blame others as individuals, but we also blame others corporately. A horrible dynamic emerges in which the group—suffering from some misfortune—blames someone else. That someone is invariably the outsider, the cripple, the foreigner, or the misfit. That person takes all the blame and they are first persecuted, then excluded, then when that doesn’t work and they are still seen as the source of the problem, they are eventually killed. Now we can see what the scapegoat stands for. That animal who was killed and thrust out of into the desert is the ritual symbol of what people do all the time. They project their own evil onto an innocent victim.
After the violence takes place, the group or the individual feels a sense of elation. They feel like the problem has been solved at last and there can be peace. The problem is, before long another problem arises, another crisis crops up. What must they do? They find another victim and a pattern of persecution, exclusion and finally murder takes place. After a while this pattern becomes ritualized and the community finds release through ritual sacrifice. An animal is substituted and the cycle of violence continues.
What can anyone do about this violence? Nothing. The person or group who blames others is invulnerable to criticism of any kind. By the very nature of this insidious pride, the person or group who blames the scapegoat is self-righteous. Their pride prevents them from seeing that they have a problem. They cannot see that they are persecuting an innocent victim. They really believe that they are good and the person they are blaming is the problem. Furthermore, if you criticize a self-righteous person or a group like that you will end up being one of the problems that needs to be eliminated!
Think of the violence shown to the victims of the Nazis, the victims of racism in the American South, the Christians who are martyred or any other group of sacrificial victims. The crowd really believed the victims were the problem and so to get rid of the problem they persecuted, excluded, and finally killed them.
This is the pattern of human evil in the world from the very beginning. The whole of Sacred Scripture is the story of mankind perpetrating this same pattern time and time again. Furthermore, the Hebrew people function in the overarching saga as the innocent victims.
Only one thing can be done with this pattern of violence, and Jesus Christ shows us that one thing. He steps up to the plate and says to Satan (who is the author of the violence), “I’ll take it. You want to blame someone? Blame me. You want to kill someone as the scapegoat? I’ll take it. You need a sacrificial lamb? Behold the Lamb of God.” The high priest unknowingly admits this when he says, “It is better that one man should die than many.” By accepting the blame and going on his own to his death on the cross, and then rising again, Jesus takes the violence and defeats it from the inside out. Because he is God, he has the authority to do that. Because he is man, he takes on the whole of humanity. That’s why he is the Lamb of God and why, in the Book of Revelation, the Lamb on the throne is the “Lamb who was slain.”
Christ’s death reverses the cycle of violence begun right at the beginning with Adam and Eve’s rebellion and Cain’s murder of his brother Abel. As he does this Christ becomes both priest and victim, and this action is represented in the action of the Mass.
In the early church and right up through the Middle Ages, Christ was first and foremost seen, therefore, as the great warrior. He was the one who did battle with Satan on the cross. He was Christus Victor—the Victorious Christ. He was Christ the hero—the conqueror of death and hell.
One of the things that annoys me most about the church today is that Christ is portrayed not as the Victor, but as the Victim. It is true that he made himself the victim, but he did so in order to win the victory, not to remain defeated. It is true that Jesus is meek and humble of heart, but since the Romantic age in the nineteenth century, the images of Jesus have become increasingly feminized. His meekness has overwhelmed his majesty. Jesus has become a wimp, not a warrior. He’s pictured with pretty robes and long blonde hair. Some of the worst images show him with long eyelashes, pink cheeks, and cuddling a sweet little lambkin. Yuck!
Another kind of sentimental Jesus is the hippy pacifist. This image came into fashion in the 1960s. Jesus became a long-haired, effeminate preacher of peace. Jesus was drafted in to give a blessing to every kind of limp project, and as this happened, a strange twist took place. Because Jesus was a voluntary victim, it became fashionable to play the victims in order to gain sympathy. If you wanted to promote a cause, just make yourself out to be a victim, whine enough, and you could bully others to get your way. Unfortunately, too many priests jumped on this bandwagon and made the church into a wishy-washy organization of whining weaklings.
Which brings me to the question, is the priest a wimp or a warrior? I think he is a warrior—but not a warrior who is simply being a gorilla macho man or a dominating tyrant. Neither is he a warrior in an arrogant, aggressive, or violent manner. Instead, like Jesus Christ, whose image he bears, the priest is a knight who slays the dragon—a warrior against evil. He is one who, like Christ, steps up to do battle with the devil.
How does he do this? By being conformed to the image of Christ. Through his own prayer, service, and self-sacrifice, the priest becomes an alter Christus, but most of all he identifies with Christ the Victor through the celebration of the liturgy.
You might wonder what the liturgy has to do with it. I’d say it has everything to do with it, for there the priest in persona Christi takes up the timeless sacrifice and brings into the present moment the victory of Christ. Through the action of the Mass the priest presents Christ’s sacrifice through which he won the victory over death and hell. Through the sacrifice of the Mass Satan’s defeat is made real once more.
Furthermore, it is through this constant representation of the sacrifice of the cross that the priest and the people experience and participate in that victory. It is also through this profound participation that we receive the graces to continue living out that victory in the world. The power of Christ’s flesh and blood shed on the cross and the power of his resurrection is made real, applied, and perfected in the world at every altar and in every soul who is joined by faith and action.
This, then, is the heart of sacrifice—not making an offering in some vain effort to appease God or make him happy because we have given him something. Christ’s death does not pay a price to God in some primitive understanding of human sacrifice, nor is Jesus paying some sort of debt to God.
Instead Christ’s death and resurrection wins our salvation because Christ wrestles there with the very source and heart of darkness. He confronts the cycle of blame and shame and accepts the violence of pride and defeats it with an embrace of love. When we say “Jesus died to save us from our sins,” this is what it means. He saves us from sin with a capital “S.” He delivers us from that first source of sin in which we said, “We would be like God.” From that attitude of pride all the other evil grew like a poisonous and insidious vine, and it is that source of Sin that is defeated at the cross by Christ the Victor.
As we commemorate this sacrifice we commemorate the fact that the need for sacrificing the scapegoat has ended, and as a result we gain the power and determination to stand against all kinds of scapegoating and victimization.
This is why I contend that the priest must be a warrior, not a wimp. He is a man of sacrifice. He is one who hears Jesus Christ say, “Take up your cross and follow me” and “unless you take up your cross and follow me you cannot be my disciple.” The way the priest does this is by offering the sacrifice of the Mass with due reverence and awe—realizing that through the blessed action the saving work of Christ is constantly made real in the world.
Editor’s Note: This essay is a chapter from Dwight Longenecker’s upcoming book Letters on Liturgy, in which thoughts on liturgy are communicated as letters to a young seminarian. It is scheduled to be published by Angelico Press in January 2020.
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The featured image is “St. Francis Borgia Helping a Dying Impenitent” (c. 1788), a painting by Francisco Goya. It is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.