By Seely Beggiani
Chorbishop Seely Beggiani, S.T.D. was Rector of Our Lady of Lebanon Maronite Seminary from 1968 to 2013, and Adjunct Associate Professor of Theology and Religious Studies at The Catholic University of America from 1967 to 2014. He has researched and written on a variety of subjects including systematic theology, Maronite Church history, Maronite liturgy, Syriac theology, and Eastern Christian Spirituality.
His doctoral dissertation at The Catholic University of America in 1963 is entitled: The Relations of the Holy See and the Maronites from the Papacy of Pope Gregory XIII (1572-1585) to the Synod of Mount Lebanon in 1736. His book, Early Syriac Spirituality: with special reference to the Maronite Tradition, was published by Catholic University Press in 2014. Among his published articles during the past 50 years are: “A Case for Logocentric Theology,” Theological Studies 32 (1971): 371-46, “Theology at the Service of Mysticism: Method in Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite,” Theological Studies 57 (1996): 201-23, “The Typological Approach of Syriac Sacramental Theology,” Theological Studies 64 (2003): 543-557, and “The Incarnational Theology and Spirituality of John the Solitary of Apamea,” Hugoye: Journal of Syriac Studies 21.2 (2018):391-421. In retirement, Chorbishop Beggiani is preparing a manuscript for publication entitled: “A Thematic Introduction to Syriac Spirituality.” He continues to offer courses in Maronite and Syriac studies at the Maronite Seminary and to offer lectures to various audiences.
Chorbishop Seely Beggiani granted the thehiddenpearl.org permission to republish this article which first appeared in The Priest, November 1994 issue.
The Maronite church takes its name from St. Maron, a hermit of the fourth century, who lived some distance from Antioch. The monks and laity of Lebanon and Syria who sought to follow his ideal and spirit became known as Maronites. The Maronite Church is presided over by a patriarch who takes the title “Patriarch of Antioch.” Maronite were staunch defenders of the Council of Chalcedon, and the Maronite Church has always been in union with the Church of Rome.
Maronite thought regarding the meaning of the priesthood or any other aspect of theology is not to be found in systematic treatises, but in the prayers of the liturgy. Historically, the liturgy was the vehicle of both theology and catechesis. A prominent feature of the Maronite liturgy of the Word is a “prayer of forgiveness,” which is a reflection, at times quite elaborate, on the meaning of the event in the liturgical year or the feast being celebrated.
The liturgical patrimony of the Maronite church incorporates not only the practice of the ancient Church of Antioch but also most especially the ancient churches of Edessa and Nisibis. These latter churches were the home of St. Ephrem, Aphrahat, and Jacob of Serugh. Their approach to theological exposition was not through analogies and rational analysis, but through image and metaphor. Their primary and at times sole source was sacred Scripture, which they knew by heart. In divine revelation they discovered a boundless treasury of types and antitypes, each disclosing some intimation of the divine plan of salvation.
Therefore, in developing the Maronite understanding of priesthood, we will rely on the Church’s liturgical meditation at the ordination of priests, and when it prays for priests both living an deceased. We will refer to the Maronite Pontifical for priestly ordination, the funeral service for priests, the Sunday for Deceased Priests (the next-to-last Sunday of the Epiphany season), the common for priests in the missal and corresponding section in the Divine Office. We will also cite the work of commentators.
To provide a context for Maronite reflection on the meaning of the priesthood, it is helpful to begin by reviewing certain aspects of the Syriac1 religious worldview. In the mind of St. Ephrem, the future Christ somehow pre-existed at the time of creation. The universe and humanity were created in His image. The incarnation of Christ in history is the climax of God’s creation. It is part of the divine plan that nature and Scripture prefigure and prepare the way for the coming of creation’s fulfillment. The personages, events and practices of the Old Covenant are types foreshadowing the divine realities that will be finally disclosed in Christ.
Christ in His work as savior and redeemer is the expression of divine compassion and benevolence. While being fully human, Christ through His divinity was always at work preserving the universe from annihilation, even when He was dying on the cross.
The New Tree of Life
For St. Ephrem, the cross becomes the new tree of life, restoring the Edenic tree of life lost through the sin of Adam and Eve. Just as Eve was born from the side of Adam, so the Church, the new Eve, is born from the side of Christ. For the Church is constituted by baptism and the Eucharist, which are represented in the blood and water which flowed from the side of Christ. The tree of cross is the new tree of life producing these divine fruits.
The Maronite Pontifical explains that the glory given to God by the spiritual and angelic assemblies is hardly sufficient. God therefore desired that the heavenly choir be augmented by an earthly chorus. Therefore, God has selected earthly priests and entrusted them with His spiritual treasury. He has given them power over His Body and Blood, a power not granted to angels.
Since God decided upon an earthly priesthood that would reach its climax in the priesthood of Christ, in the Syriac way of thinking God’s plan is already foreshadowed in the creation of Adam. Just as the future Christ would take a body descended from Adam, so His earthly priesthood is present seminally in Adam.
According to the Syriac Father Jacob of Serugh, God, in fashioning Adam, was imposing hands on him and in breathing on him rendered him a sanctuary. Christ, in descending to Sheol, restored to Adam the grace he had lost. As the Father had breathed the Spirit on the face of Adam, so now Christ breathed the Spirit on the face of the apostles.2 By the breath of His mouth, He clothed them again with holiness. (This is a reference to the fact that Adam had lost the “robe of glory” in Eden, which is now restored by Christ.) And by imposing of His hands on the apostles, He gave them the priesthood.
Thus was this edifice restored, which the serpent had destroyed. Because the banished priest was returned to its service. by the imposing of hands that Simon received from our Savior, the tribe of priests is restored throughout the world.
The priest of the New Covenant is not sprinkled with the blood of corporeal victims, for the Son of God has plunged him in the blood of the Crucifixion. Christ has erected the holy Church on earth in the manner of paradise and, without the need of victims, has established priests for His service. He who was hidden has revealed himself as the tree of life providing fruit for all who approach Him. The priests receive the fruit and distribute this gift of life.3
Jacob of Serugh continues in his meditation declaring that Christ has endowed earthly priests with the role of the seraphim, one that had been intended for Adam. Had Adam not fallen, his history would have been mingled with that of the heavenly legions. His voice would have been raised in blessing, mixed with that of the cherubim, and like the seraphim hi “sanctus” would have been hurled toward the Divinity. In his soul, he would have been at His service, resplendent, and like the angels in a place filled with holiness.
Because of Adam’s fall, his descendants were required to resort to the offering of holocausts. However, our Savior has dispensed with these sacrifices and established priests according to a spiritual way of life. In the Church, which is the Eden of God, the priests come to give glory and distribute the fruits of the “tree of life” to the whole world. From the waters of this new Eden, they quench those who thirst.4
The Maronite Pontifical reflects on the priesthood of Adam when it says this:
…You placed him [Adam] in an Eden, filled with delights, that he may be a harp, singing your glory and giving thanks to your name in the likeness of the angels. You clothed him in glory, that he may be a high pontiff and a pure priest, serving your divinity and ministering your mysteries.
According to St. Ephrem, God on Mt. Sinai imposed His hands on Moses, and Moses in turn imposed his hand on Aaron. The priestly line of the Old Covenant was ultimately transmitted to John the Baptist. St. Ephrem presents Christ as saying to John: “Justice demands that I be baptized by you lest the Order (of succession) perish.” Our Lord transmits its to His apostles and thus the tradition perpetuates itself in the Church.5
…May your blissful grace, your divine right hand and the invisible power of your divinity—which came down on Mount Sinai and sanctified the prophet Moses—descend and rest…upon the head of your servant..
…In the Old Covenant, you selected seventy priests and filled them with the spirit of prophecy. In the New Covenant of your Christ, you established in the midst of the Church, for the service of your holy altar, first apostles, then prophets, then teachers, stewards, wonder workers, pontiffs and holy priests.
A hymn in the Maronite ordination ceremony for cantors chants:
The Lord has descended on Mt. Sinai, and he imposed his hand on Moses, Moses imposed it on Aaron, and it has been transmitted up to John; John imposed it on Our Lord, and Our Lord granted it to the apostles. The blessed apostles have imposed it on all the degrees of the priesthood.
The Maronite writer Michael Breydy—basing his thesis on a Maronite manuscript, dating perhaps from the fifth or sixth century—stresses the primacy of Christ’s priesthood from the beginning of the human race. It declares that in reality Abel constructed his altar to Christ and offered to Him his first fruits. It was Christ who accepted the offering of Noah, hidden in His mysterious Father. It was by the hands of Christ that holiness was granted to the sons of Levi.
To You and your Father victims and libations are offered, and it is to You that every sacrifice since the beginning of the world had been offered.
Through Christ, holiness has been infused in the victims and their sacrificers, and the priests receive the Spirit for their consecrated things.6 Breydy also cites the Maronite Passion Week Office of Great Friday, which declares, “He who is the source of the priesthood has called to you, O Adam, where are you?”
In the Maronite Offices of Passion Week, Christ is presented as having conferred the priesthood on the sons of Levi in the manner of a vine confided to vine growers. Christ has in no way rejected His vine but has simply taken it back and confided it to other, more faithful, hands.
The Syriac tradition views the apostolic ministry as sharing in Christ’s function as Head of the Body, as Bridegroom of the Bride, as Priest and ‘”Keybearer,” Shepherd, Steward, Farmer and Physician. Christ’s work as Witness, Healer, Guide and Helper continues in the sacramental society of the Church, though only by “under-shepherds” and “under-stewards,” who must always remember that they have an account to render.9 We find that these functions of Christ are highlighted when Syriac writers and the Maronite liturgy reflect on the priesthood.
Betrothing the Altar
The Maronite liturgy for the Sunday of deceased priests declares, “O Christ our Lord and god, you have chosen your priests in your likeness and have sanctified them that they might minister your mysteries.” The ordination ceremony speaks about the priest betrothing the altar. He is called “to offer gifts and sacrifices, for the renewal of your people.” The exhortation to the new priest concludes with the following:
He brought to you the great gift which the angels have longed to see and elevated you to the ministry of the holy mysteries, which were hidden to the past generations and to our forefathers, prophets, heralds, and lawgivers. Their toiling did not enable them to receive the life-giving ember10 of the body and blood of our Lord and Savor Jesus Christ—this ember which you shall break in your hands, carry in procession in the palms of these hands and hold your fingers of flesh.
Jacob of Serugh teaches that priests carry the keys that they have received from the chief of apostles and that they open the door so the whole world might enter. The Syriac writer Abdiso claims that the priesthood was instituted by the words of Christ to Peter at Caesarea Pilippi in granting him the keys. Through the mysteries, the priesthood procures divine grace for humans.11
In the Maronite Office of Friday, the Church prays: “It is he who has chosen priests from among mortals to whom he has confided the administration of the treasure of his kingdom, in placing in their hands the keys of this treasure so that they distribute its riches to those who have need of it.”12 This same thought is echoed in the office for the burial of a priest. The Maronite ordination service declares that the priest “has been entrusted with the keys of the heavenly kingdom, that he may open the doors of repentance to those who are brought back to you…”
Possession the keys makes priest a mediator between God and humans, in a position to obtain forgiveness for himself and for his flock. In the final exhortation to the newly ordained priest, the bishop counsels the followings:
…You are the mediator between God and humanity, and humans are granted through you, the pardon of faults. He who is in this ministry of mediation must be like the fiery angels, holders of the hidden mysteries; and like the prophets, bearers of the revelations.
Allied with the role of bearer of the keys, and perhaps one of the most mentioned titles of the priest in the Maronite liturgy, is that of steward. Early in the ordination liturgy, the bishop prays that the ordinand be a steward of the divine mysteries, and the final exhortation begins by saying that he has been appointed by God as faithful steward.
In the Liturgy of Burial, the Church declares: “You have made them worthy to be your stewards, that they might have access to your sanctuaries.” The deceased priest is represented as praying. “As I depart on the road to eternity, may the priesthood with which I was clothed by the imposition of hands, and the holy Church withing which I was a steward and shepherd, and the altar I served, keep me company.” Another recurrent theme in the ordination liturgy is that the priest has been bested with this order for the “peace and upbuilding of the Church.”
The priest is called to preach the Gospel of the Kingdom and to feed the lambs of Christ by the teaching of rue doctrine. The liturgy prays that God will “open his mouth in knowledge, that he may put to shame, admonish and correct all those who stray away from the truth.” Reflecting the Sermon on the Mount, the priest is to be a “lighted lampstand” appearing before all.
The Maronite tradition summarizes the responsibilities of the priest in the Gospel parable of the talents. The ordination ceremony prays that the candidate be a praiseworthy priest who increases the evangelical talent 30, 60 and 100 fold. The post-Communion prayer petitions, “Grant him to increase the talent he received from you today and to greatly profit from it.” The Morning Office for deceased priests prays that priest receive the reward of the good and faithful servant, and the funeral liturgy petitions:
May he hear the joyful words which say: You have been faithful of a little, I will appoint you over much. Enter into your master’s joy.
In meditating on the death of the priest, the Maronite Liturgy reasons that the Eucharist, which has been the focus of his whole life, will deliver the deceased priest from the dangers of judgment. In the funeral service, the deceased priest is presented as praying:
May your body and blood, which I distributed to your flock, be a bridge for me that I may cross over to the abode of life…If I have sinned and offended you, may my debts the cancelled through the body and blood which I solemnly carried. Do not let the fury of the fire attack me, for daily I meditated on your words of hope. When you appeal in majesty, and your books are opened, may I and the children you entrusted to me be able to confess and glorify you.
The liturgy of the Sunday for deceased priests summarizes the theme poetically. It prays that the “marks of the holy mysteries” shelter and protect the deceased priest on his journey to Christ. It is as if a lifetime of preparing the bread and wine for the Eucharistic sacrifice have left their mark on the priest’s hands, and the sacred residue will serve to protect him from the terrors of death.
The liturgy imagines that priest at death are welcomed into a warm reunion by all their predecessors of the Old and New Covenants as they enter their heavenly sanctuary. There, it prayers, “…may the priests who left your flock minister your mysteries in the heavenly holy of holies.”
1 The term “Syriac” is used in this article to refer to that early Christian culture that developed in a region that includes parts of modern Turkey, Iraqy, Syria, and Lebanon.
2 Micheline Albert, “Mimro de mar Jacques de Saroug, sur the sacerdoce and sur l’autel,” Parole de l’Orient, Vol. 10 (1981-82), p. 57.
3 Ibid. pp. 57-61.
4 Ibid. pp. 61-62.
5 G. Saber, La théologie baptismale de Saint Ephrem (Kaslik: 1974), p. 30.
6 Michael Berydy, “Précision liturgiques syro-maronites sur le sacerdoce,” Oriens Christianus, Vol. 48 (1946), pp. 59-60.
7 Ibid., p. 62.
8 Ibid., p. 65.
9 Robert Murray, Symbols of Church and Kingdom (London: Cambridge University Press, 1975), pp. 158-204.
10 the image of ember is used for the Eucharist to symbolize the fact that the consecrated bread now possesses divine presence in fire through the descent of the Spirit. Since the Eucharistic sacrifice is for the forgiveness of sins, the image of ember also recalls the purifying ember brought by the seraph in Isaiah.
11 W. de Vries, “La Conception de l’Église chez les nestoriens,” L’Orient Syrien, Vol. 3 (1958), p. 162.
12 Berydy, op. cit., p. 61.