For most of us the idea of being a priest does not resonate with our daily lives or medical practices. We don’t wear long robes (not even white coats anymore) or speak in a singsong voice using antiquated words. And when we consider the biblical portrayal of priests and rituals, we balk at the seemingly nonsensical book of Leviticus (when last did you hear a sermon on this book?) that reads more like an anatomical dissection manual than Holy Scripture. Yet our Western world, with its emphasis on science and technology, is hungry for healing, comfort and meaning in life – all things offered by Christianity, especially in its priestly sense.
It could be said that all followers of Christ, especially those in ministry, are called to function as priests in the biblical and Christian tradition sense. In order to understand how, we first need to consider the biblical concept of a priest in a broad theological sense, using both Old and New Testament texts. Then we need to reflect on how this can translate into our vocation as health care practitioners.
In the Old Testament (OT), priests functioned to mediate the presence of the Lord. This was achieved through sacred places (tabernacle, temple), sacred actions, (sacrifice, ritual washing, obedience to covenantal laws), sacred personnel (priests), and sacred times (feasts, celebrations). These four were often intertwined. Yahweh gave His people precise instructions on how to build a space suitable for divine dwelling in order that He could relate to them.
He also instigated moral codes (the Ten Commandments and more), purity laws and various rituals, which could make reparation for sin, whether intentional or inadvertent. In general, obedience resulted in blessing. Although God was grieved by Israel’s sin (Is 63:10), He was always quick to forgive and His Holy Spirit could activate goodness (Ez 36:27). Priests were put in charge of overseeing these practices as well as acting as mediators between God and Israel. It is helpful to examine the function of priests with respect to sacred space and sacred actions.
Sacred space (the wilderness tabernacle, the various temples, Jerusalem) is associated with light, life, holiness and purity, and likely had greater symbolic than literal significance. The temple, as the location of divine presence, can be compared with Eden, where God walked with His creatures (Genesis 1 was most likely written by a priest). Adam can be seen as the first priest, who tended the “garden temple.” In fact the temple has cosmic significance as a connecting point between heaven and earth. Sacred space is powerful: it can sanctify others (Ex 29:37, 30:26–29, Lv 6:18, 27) or cause their downfall (Nm 9:13, 20, Lev 23:29, 30, Ex 31:14), especially when there is idolatry and neglect of ritual (Lev 20:2-6, Ez 14:8). Indeed holiness can be considered contagious, an effusion of God’s essence. Sacred space is sharply distinguished from ordinary, holy or profane space (although holiness can be conceived of in gradations emanating from the center of the temple). Only priests have access to the holy of holies (Ex 28:1-29:46), and and temple access is restricted to the obedient and pure (Ez 43:7-9, 44:5-14, 47:1-12). Binaries such as holy/common, clean/unclean, and Israel/alien are commonly used to describe space and purity, and priests are charged with distinguishing between types of space. Separation from pagan nations is critical; sacred space provides a symbolic barrier against ordinary reality, and its holiness sustains the world. By contrast, impurity, sin and their effects could pollute the sanctuary and are also depicted as nebulous, contagious forces. Sacrilege against sacred space is a form of covenantal violation, because the sanctuary represents God himself.
Yahweh also instructs His people how to order their lives and thus live out their part of the covenant relationship. Knowing that they would fail, He also provided them with various purity restrictions (e.g. exile from camp for certain conditions such as bodily discharges or disease) and rituals (e.g., grain offerings, burnt offerings) to ensure forgiveness of sin (in fact obliteration of sin and its effects). Multiple theories have been proposed to explain these laws, including symbolic views (the proscribed rituals were not meant literally), humanitarian theories (sparing certain animals), cultural theories (avoiding things associated with pagan religions) and psychological approaches (Freud compared ritual taboos with psychotic obsession). One popular theory relates to hygiene (e.g., avoidance of animals as disease carriers, prevention of sexually transmitted infections). However, this has mostly been rejected. Anthropologist Mary Douglas, for example, claims that Moses was a great spiritual leader, not an ‘enlightened public health administrator.’
Rituals were important but morality was generally considered superior; sometimes praise and obedience were preferred to burnt offerings. For example, there is a clear association between sacred space (“holy place”), purity (“clean hands”), and morality (“pure heart,” honesty, fidelity) in Psalm 24:3,4. Sin, which results in disorder and impurity, can be confessed and forgiven. Consequently, the Lord restores order and purity. As Douglas suggests, dirt and disorder are basic to life, and underlying ritual behavior is a need for order. “Ideas about separating, purifying, demarcating and punishing transgressions have as their main function to impose system on an inherently untidy experience.” Rituals can be a means of holding back chaos and providing patterns for enacting an ordered existence.
As well as overseeing the rituals (interceding to God on behalf of the people through sacrificial offerings; Lv 11-16), priests bestowed blessings upon others (e.g., Nm 6:24-26). They also exercised wise discernment in judging whether individuals were clean or unclean, whether their transgression was deliberate or not, and what type of consequence they incurred according to the law. In many respects, priests functioned like a pastoral counsellor might today.
JESUS AS PRIEST
The advent of the Son of God radically changes the nature of reality, in particular the manner of access to God. However, there is continuity with the old ways. The themes of sacred space and sacred action are still evident in the New Testament (NT), but they become completely intertwined. Jesus, as God’s Son who is empowered by the Holy Spirit, is now the locus of divine dwelling, and the epitome of holy space. He is holy because He is conceived by the Holy Spirit (Mt 1:18; Lk 1:35), anointed by the Spirit (Lk 4:18-19) and named the “son of the Holy God” (Lk 1:35). He becomes a new metaphorical temple ( John 1 describes Him as “tabernacling” in the world).
God, previously available only to select people through mysterious meetings, is now accessible in human form, suggesting that Jesus supplants the tabernacle and temple. Furthermore, worship no longer occurs in the temple, but through the Spirit ( Jn 4:20-24). Access to divine presence does not require priests and sacrifices but is available directly through Jesus ( Jn 14:1–14). Christ also symbolizes a new creation as the light and life of the world ( Jn 1:1-5; 8:12).
Jesus is the great high priest (Heb 4:14) who replaces all previous priests. Like OT priests, He can forgive sins (Mt 6:9-15), and thus replaces the priest. Unlike the OT priestly system though, ritual is replaced by faith in Jesus as Son of God. Also unlike the OT system, Jesus cleanses both inside and out, focusing particularly on people’s attitudes and conscience (Mt 23:26; Lk 6:37). Forgiveness of sins is often associated with healing (Mt 9:2-8). Jesus not only is holy, but makes things holy. Cleansing and healing are often intertwined – the hemorrhaging woman (Mt 9:20-22) is cured and restored to society (the OT system exiled people with discharges). Jesus absorbs sin, disease and impurity – people are even healed by touching His cloak (Mt 8:17; 14:36). He also acts as a counsellor, offering comfort and compassion to the suffering.
Christ’s ultimate sacrifice on the cross obliterates the need for further sacrificial rituals. Jesus becomes both the great high priest and the sacrificial victim who mediates divine presence. He overcomes the consequences of sin, and He reconciles us to God. With the tearing of the veil at Christ’s death, sacred space is now accessible to all who believe. The barrier between the sacred and the profane is removed. Heaven comes down to earth, and history mediates the eternal.
OUR PRIESTlY CALLING
After Christ’s death and resurrection, His followers are gifted with the Holy Spirit ( Jn 20:22; Acts 2:1–13), and the church and individual believers, within whom the Spirit dwells, become the new sacred space (Rom 8:9; 1 Cor 3:16, 17). Furthermore, those in Christ are a new creation (2 Cor 5:17; Gal 6:15). As temples of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor 6:19), we are called to participate in divine holiness, aligning ourselves with the light, and emanating holiness and life. Space and action are again intertwined. As the church, we are called to act
as priests in mediating divine presence. We are a priesthood of all believers (1 Pt 2:5, 9), agents of a new covenant (2 Cor 3:1-18), and are given the ministry of reconciliation (2 Cor 5:18-20). As priests, we represent God to the people through our words and actions. This is a daunting task, but we can be reassured that Jesus continues to function as Priest by leading us into God’s presence (Heb 9:24), hearing our prayers (1 Tm 2:5) and continually praying for us (Heb 7:25; Rom 8:34). We can also trust in the Holy Spirit, an ongoing gift (Rom 5:5; 2 Cor 1:22) who helps us understand truth ( Jn 14:16,17; Rom 8:1-11; 2 Cor 3:6), strengthens and restores us (1 Pt 5:10), illumines understanding (1 Cor 2:10, 11; Eph 1:17-18), intercedes for us (Rom 26-27), and helps guard our faith (2 Tm 1:14).
As priests, we are also called to offer spiritual sacrifices (Rom 12:2; 1 Pt 2:5) such as worship, obedience ( Jn 14:15), living Godly lives (Rom 6:13; Ti 2:11), practising good works (Eph 2:10; Col 1:10; Heb 13:16), supporting ministries and mission (Phil 4:14- 19), and sharing our faith (Mt 28:19-20; 1 Pt 2:9). In particular, there is no distinction between “work and worship.” All that we do is for the glory of God (1 Cor 10:31; Col 3:23). We can cultivate holy lives through spiritual disciplines such as prayer, Bible study, contemplation, silence, solitude, simplicity and service. In our relationships with others, we can adopt a priestly role of comforting, blessing and leading toward light, life and purity.
I have been using the word “priest” in a very general sense; however, in the Christian tradition, the term has been used with respect to a specific ordained church leader following the NT concept of elders or presbyters (Acts 15:6, 23) who acted as leaders in the church. Their roles included settling disputes (Acts 15:1-2), overseeing the community of believers, setting an example of humility (1 Pt 5:1-5) and praying for the sick ( Jas 5:14). The terms pastor, bishop, elder, minister and priest are all based in this NT concept; they overlap in meaning and are associated with different Christian traditions.
PRACTITIONER AS PRIEST
The above observations regarding our priestly calling are easily applicable to health care practitioners. In a general sense, as Christians, we are the locus of divine dwelling, through the Holy Spirit. As sacred space, we are to emanate holiness. Through our persons and our lives we represent Christ to the world, mediating divine grace through our very being. We should ask ourselves, “Do we practice spiritual disciplines? Do we lead moral lives?” (Having clean hands has extra significance for health care practitioners!) Furthermore, our medical and dental offices can be seen as extensions of this sacred space. As such, are our waiting rooms devoid of ungodly material and representative of disciples of Christ? With respect to sacred actions, our priestly role is to mediate the presence of God (directly or indirectly). This may include listening, talking with, affirming truth, providing comfort, assisting with the healing process, helping with restoration to wholeness (remember the meaning of healing and wholeness intertwine) and acting as an agent of reconciliation. At times we may suggest helpful rituals such as breathing exercises, relaxation techniques, daily prayer or support groups. As priests, we help restore order and wholeness to chaotic and broken lives.
In a more specific sense, we can act as priests in a ministry capacity. In fact, historically, priests performed many functions now performed by physicians. They were involved in continuous care of people from birth to death, and often provided “house calls.” They also listened to confession of sin and offered counselling on a variety of issues. Many faith communities in fact founded hospitals. Now, with the decline of church attendance, health care practitioners (especially those who do counselling or practice palliative care) have taken over many of the priest’s roles. Since we guarantee confidentiality, people are able to “confess” their “sins” such as drug use, anger or adultery. They look to us for comfort in suffering and help in finding meaning in their lives.
Understanding ourselves as priests, in the sense outlined above, affects our view of ourselves, our calling and our patients. As Spirit- filled priest-practitioners, our vocation is to emanate holiness, heal the sick, comfort the suffering, reconcile people to their Creator, and restore order to creation. We are called to be priests in our being and our doing and to mediate the transcendent—a truly awesome and humbling responsibility.
Make your face shine upon your servants (Ps 119:135)… so that we may… shine like stars in the world (Phil 2:15).
E. Janet Warren lives in Stoney Creek, Ontario, and practices Family Medicine (including psychotherapy) part-time, as well as engaging in theological research, writing and teaching. Her recent book, Cleansing the Cosmos (a revision of her PhD thesis), uses the concepts of sacred space and action as a way to understand evil spiritual forces.