One of the most memorable experiences of my life was being presented to the Church by my Bishop at my ordination(s). This powerful affirmation was a grace that has propelled me into my life as a presbyter among the people of God. Yet, I have come to ask myself, “why is this experience the property of a few? Should this incredible experience not belong to Baptism? I mean, what greater consecration or state is there than baptism?”
Orthodox Bishop Nicholas Afanasiev, in The Church of the Holy Spirit, explains that when ordination became a consecration, it lay the foundation for becoming an “ontological change” in a person, rather than naming the role of the ordained as “functional.” He suggests this cut the Body in two—the consecrated and the non-consecrated. As the church adopted Roman law, the liturgical distinction between laics and clerics “gradually led to the appearance of two heterogeneous strata or states of being”—the consecrated cast was imbued with political and salvific power.
Afanasiev argues that this distinction was at odds with the understanding of orders in the early Church. Irenaeus (202+) would proclaim that “all the righteous possess the order of the priesthood… He has made us all kings and priests to his God and Father.” Later, the Council of Trent (1545-1563) affirmed the impossibility of the “laicization of clerics” cementing the ontological distinction into western theological consciousness.
This division ruptures Paul’s radical claim: “there is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male and female. For you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Gal 3:28) It is Baptism that distinguishes a humanity yielding to its highest calling, to its inheritance, its priesthood, indeed our personhood: Christ’s own forever. “All the participants of the assembly together with their presiders, constituted a single people of God, the royal priesthood,” Afanasiev argues. “A bishop or a presbyter, presiding over the people of God, celebrates the sacraments only together with the people without whom their role as presiders would be mere phantasy.” The Eucharist and all sacraments are events that happen through the whole people of God, with their presider, rather than holy magic performed by a holy cast. In other words, ordination is functional. Presiding over the sacramental encounter is a revelation performed and celebrated by all the people of God. The particular role of the ordained is imbued with the gifts of the Spirit just as every other particular calling of the baptized is, whether custodian, Sunday school teacher, nurse, chorister, mother, father, paver, social worker, bartender or politician. Why don’t we consecrate them?
It seems that we have an impoverished view of the sacrament of baptism. What does it mean anymore? Something to get done when the dress fits, the family is in town, or a way to grow our parishes? Do we really invite a solemn and committed intention when making our renunciations? How about the vows of the baptized, and the vows of the community? Is it any wonder that all of the other Sacraments (which flow out of Baptism) so easily become casual events carefully manicured so as not to offend or appear exclusive? Is it any wonder that there is still the lingering feeling that to be called, or to minister, or to be in the church belongs to the real Christians: the ordained?
If baptism is the experience of passing through and into the paschal mystery; if we believe in one baptism for the forgiveness of sins; if baptism is death and rebirth into life forever in God, as an anointed, a Christ, where we find the beginnings of true personhood; if baptism is where we share in the divine nature, life forever in the communion of the Holy Trinity, the claiming of our image and likeness, and participation in the restoration of all creation, as heirs, indeed as gods, what further consecration could we possibly want?