In 1972 Michael Ramsey, the then Archbishop of Canterbury, published a short book entitled The Christian Priest Today. It was based upon talks he had given over successive years to candidates about to be ordained Anglican priests.
In one chapter, he discussed what the Letter to the Hebrews means when it says that “Jesus lives to intercede” (7:25) for us in heaven. Ramsey pointed out that the Greek verb used in the text, which we translate as intercede, does not mean make petition for, as we might think, but rather to be with someone on behalf of someone else. In other words, Hebrews is telling us that Jesus lives in heaven to represent us and bring us before his Father.
Ramsey then developed this idea, drawing upon the story of Aaron in the Book of Exodus. There, Aaron robed himself in special vestments before entering into the Holy of Holies, in other words, before entering into the presence of God. In particular, he donned a breastplate set 12 glittering jewels, each one to represent all the people of the twelve tribes of ancient Israel.
The point Ramsey wanted to drive home to his future priests was that their prayer would no longer be purely personal. He wanted them to be conscious, from the moment of their ordination, of coming before God in prayer with their people on their hearts.
I read Ramsey’s book just before I was ordained, 26 years ago, and have always been struck by that image of the breastplate. It has kept me praying in dry and desert times.
However, it’s an image which applies not only to ordained priests but to all the baptised. We are a priestly people and we often bring all sorts of people with us in our hearts and minds when we enter into prayer. We intercede in the sense of praying for others. We can intercede also by being with God on behalf of others.
As we gradually move out of lockdown and as more of our churches begin to open for public Masses, there will inevitably be those who don’t yet feel ready to return.
Perhaps those of who do come to Mass can make a conscious effort to don a metaphorical breastplate: to carry with us into God’s house our friends, family members, and fellow parishioners who are not able to be physically with us; to bring to the sanctuary these glittering jewels and present them to God the Most High, just as Jesus presents us to the Father in the sanctuary of heaven.
Pictured above are Fr Sean Connolly (top) and a detail of an icon by Fadi Mikhail of the High Priest Aaron from UK Coptic Icons www.ukcopticicons.com