Few things elicit an eye-roll and an internal groan from me more readily than hearing a clergyperson use the word “prophetic.” It is a particularly obnoxious term when used in relation to one’s own ministry. It is usually meant to imply that someone or something is forward thinking or visionary, but part of the problem with this is that the only sure-fire tool to separate the visionary from the delusional is the perspective of time. I was just at a conference with New Testament scholar Luke Timothy Johnson who quipped in his presentation: “You are a prophet after you are dead, while you are still alive you are just an asshole.” It’s a fine line in any event I’m sure.
My biggest problem with the word “prophetic” though is that by constantly using it to describe someone who can foresee the future, we set ourselves up to misread the central mission of the biblical prophets and thereby misunderstand our own prophetic mission.
Amos, Hosea, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel…the list goes on. We think of them as eccentric visionaries; as people that make dire predictions and cry for change, but at the heart of the message of each one of the prophets is a call to faithfulness. Living in times of great distraction and distress, when people seemed hell-bent on chasing after every new “god,” the prophets called out for people to abandon their idols and their false gods and to return to the Lord, the God of their ancestors and the God of their salvation with renewed devotion. The visions of the future were a means to an end; they were a tool used by the prophets to plead with a stubborn and headstrong people, but calling people to faithfulness was their true mission. Perhaps abiding faithfulness is more at the heart of what it means to be a prophet than eccentric visions. Maybe that is the core of our prophetic mission as well.
In the Latin mass there is a traditional prayer said by the priest or deacon immediately before the proclamation of the gospel. It is known as the Munda cor meum:
Cleanse my heart and my lips, O thou almighty God, who didst purge the lips of the prophet Isaiah with a live coal, and of thy sweet mercy vouchsafe so to purify me, that I may worthily announce Thy holy Gospel. Through Christ our Lord. Amen.
This prayer has always been a very special moment in the liturgy for me. On a practical level it is the last moment to gather my thoughts before proceeding to proclaim the Gospel lesson and deliver the sermon. On a spiritual level this prayer is a reminder that the proclamation of the Gospel is a prophetic act, not in the sense that it should be filled with visions and eccentricities, but in that its core purpose is to call people to greater devotion. We are reminded as clergy, that when we set out from the altar to bring God’s word to the people, we do so in the footsteps of not just apostles and saints but of the prophets as well.
While I have appreciated the inclusion of the prophetic imagery for some time, I have not always appreciated how much the circumstances of the prophets actually mirror my own until more recently. The church at large as not yet reconciled itself to the fact that traditional Christianity (by that I mean the faith that is basically summarized by the Nicene Creed) is no longer a part of the dominant culture. When the church is still active in the public sphere it is relegated to roles that are largely ceremonious or it is used as a tool either to support nationalist sentiment (for the right wing) or socialist sentiment (for the left wing). The church is used for a means to an end, rarely as an end in itself. The dominant religion among those that are unchurched (and among many of those that are) is Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, not traditional Christianity. The faithful that the church is left ministering to are likely to find themselves living in a type of exile: holding values and priorities that are often in conflict with the society at large.
What I find most meaningful about reflecting on the role of the prophets as I go to proclaim the Gospel, is that I am reminded that I do not need to be winning over the popular culture in order to be doing the work of God. At the end of the day, I don’t have to worry about trying to change the world, doubling my Average Sunday Attendance, being in good favor with the local political establishment, or trying to come up with “new and creative ways of being.” I have no interest in clever mission statements and movements, and no desire to try to reinvent the church every few years. It’s just not me. I have the Great Commission, 2000 years of faithful Christian witness and the biblical prophets that came before. That is enough. Walking in the footsteps of the prophets is a reminder that we aren’t called to be winners, we are called to be disciples, and there is a big difference. Isaiah knew that most of his words would fall upon deaf ears; he knew that only a faithful remnant would remain, but that was enough for him. It was enough for Jeremiah, who never felt worthy of God’s calling, and it was enough for Ezekiel, who ended up preaching to dry bones in the desert. The prophetic ministry of the priest or minister is not that we are called to be creative visionaries; it is that we are called to a life of faithfulness and to witness to the power of faithfulness to others.
I just returned from spending three days at a conference with the Society of Catholic Priests. Now, whenever I mention this society to people that are unfamiliar with it, I usually have to explain that, no, this has nothing to do with the Roman Catholic Church. We are catholic priests in the Anglican Communion. We are male and female; we are gay and straight; we are married and single. We come together as priests that treasure the faith that has been handed to us by our ancestors and who wish to share that same faith with the world. We are people who highly value tradition, but who also recognize that tradition can develop and change over time. We believe in sin and redemption, and death and resurrection, not just as vague concepts, but as realities in our own lives and central truths in the life of Jesus Christ. We come together regularly to encourage one another and strengthen our witness to the faith. In short we are priests that feel called to witness to a way of faithfulness that has been handed down to us across the generations: lives filled with scripture, prayer, sacrament and mutual support. It isn’t always an easy path to walk. The right wing of the church struggles with our acceptance of women’s ordination and gay marriage; the left wing of the church struggles with our adherence to traditional ideas of sin, redemption and resurrection. If we were looking for the road to easy approval, either within the church or outside it, we have probably chosen the wrong one. With declining attendance numbers, constant corporate-like rebranding and retooling, diocesan liturgies that seem to be chasing after the spirit of the age more than the spirit of God and with the church’s often sick preoccupation with looking “cool” to the dominant culture, those of us that feel called to faithfulness and tradition can very much feel like we are in a valley of dry bones at times.
I give thanks for the times that I get to spend with my brothers and sisters in the Society of Catholic Priests. I give thanks because whenever we come together I am reminded that it is ok just to be faithful. It is ok to just worship the God of our ancestors without feeling the need to be creative or unique. It is ok to not worry about being in the majority either in the church or in society at large. We don’t have to win every battle in order to do the work of God…we just have to be faithful. We don’t need to try and think of ways to sell the next generation on our faith, we just need to live it as best we can. In the end only God knows the future. When Ezekiel was asked if the dry bones could live again he replied: “O Lord God, you know.” God knows indeed. It isn’t necessarily the prophets task to know what God is restoring life to; it is the prophets task to faithfully preach the word. The Resurrection is God’s job, not ours.
The Munda cor meum prayer is immediately followed by another prayer of the celebrant:
The Lord be in my heart and on my lips, that worthily and rightly I may proclaim his Gospel.
It is such a simple and quick moment in the liturgy, and the congregation may have no idea that it is even happening, but for me at least it is a regular reminder that as a priest I am called, like the prophets, to faithfully carry God’s word into a world filled with dry bones. My job is to faithfully proclaim; God is the one who ultimately gives life.
Mortal, can these bones live?
O Lord God, you know.