The roots of this ordination go deep. They reach deep into the rich soil of the Power family; and more recently, a great deal of time, energy and money has been spent on preparing Deacon Conor for this moment.
Ordinations like this don’t just happen. They start in the mind and heart of the God who calls; the vocation is nurtured in a family and a Church; then there are the years of seminary training which lead to this celebration in which the Church recognizes God’s call and the commissioning is sealed by the Holy Spirit. No-one could say that Conor Power was not well and truly prepared.
And yet from the Scripture we hear the words of the prophet Jeremiah: “I do not know how to speak; I am a child”; and these are words which Conor makes his own, for all the thoroughness of the preparation that has led to this morning.
This is a constant element in most of the many call stories found in the Bible. The one called by God protests that he or she is unworthy or unequipped. Moses says he is not a good speaker; Isaiah says he is unclean; Jeremiah that he is a child; Mary that she is a virgin; Peter that he is a sinner; and Paul that he has been a persecutor. But in each case, God sets the protest aside and confirms the call, promising to supply whatever is lacking in the one called.
And so it is today with Conor. For all the preparation through the years, he is a child; he does not know how to speak. God accepts that, and so do we. The Church knows that when we ordain a man to the priesthood we are not saying that he is no longer a child, that he does know how to speak. Neither do we deny that he is a sinner and claim that he is worthy. Conor is a good and gifted man, but he is not worthy of the gift God gives today – gives not just to him but to the Church and to the world, because that’s the kind of gift the priesthood is. But God sets the unworthiness aside, and even promises that he will draw strength from weakness.
This is because the priesthood in which Conor is given a share is not his priesthood: it is the priesthood of Jesus Christ, the only priest. Christ alone is worthy, the sinless one, the one who is no longer a child and who knows how to speak. Only because Conor is drawn into Jesus Christ is he a priest at all. Only if he is continually drawn into Jesus Christ will he truly grow up and know how to speak the word which is not his own.
St Paul says in what we have heard that there is to be “none of the reticence of those who are ashamed, no deceitfulness or watering down the word of God”. This is because the Lord into whom we are drawn – and priests in a particular way – is not just some wise teacher or marvellous miracle-worker or moral exemplar who lived long ago. He is Jesus Christ crucified and risen who is here and now as presence and power.
But his is a power that works through weakness, because it is the power of the Cross. And it is the Cross of which we can be ashamed; and it’s that shame which leads to reticence, deceitfulness and watering down of the word of God, which is the word of the Cross. But this morning we see clearly and say loudly that Conor is drawn into the mystery of the Lord’s Cross, without which the priesthood can be only deceitfulness and a watering down of the word of God. Without the Cross, the priesthood can be only a lie.
To live the mystery of the Lord’s Cross is to be drawn into a process of self-emptying proclaimed in the Philippians hymn: “Though he was in the form of God [Jesus] did not count his equality with God a thing to be grasped; but he emptied himself…” (2:6-7). This experience of self-emptying – kenosis in Greek – is at the heart of the priesthood of Jesus Christ, which is why a priest who is full of himself is a sad contradiction. As St Paul says, “It is not ourselves that we are preaching, but Christ Jesus as Lord”, as the one who is in control.
To empty oneself as Jesus did is to enter into darkness; but it is in that darkness that God’s word is spoken. That word is, “Light” – the word God spoke in the beginning and which he speaks forever in the Risen Lord. “It is the same God who said, ‘Let there be light shining out of darkness’”, says St Paul, “who has shone in our minds to radiate the knowledge of God’s glory, the glory on the face of Christ”. In the priest who is full of himself there is nothing but the darkness. But in the priest who chooses the way of self-empting, light shines forth in the darkness and his ministry shows forth “the glory on the face of Christ”.
Such a priest will make his own the logic of the strange and wonderful words spoken by Jesus in the Gospel we have heard: “Anyone who wants to be great among you must be your servant, and anyone who wants to be first among you must be slave”. This may be the logic of God, but it is not the logic of the world in which “the pagans lord it over others and their great people make their authority felt”. This is the way of power, prestige, position; it’s the way of competition and domination; it’s the way of the world; and it is the way of death.
“The Son of Man”, says Jesus, “came not to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many”. And so too it must be for the priest, because a priest who lords it over others and makes his authority felt, who insists on being served rather than serving, will end up being a minister of death. That’s what we call clericalism.
Ordination to the priesthood may seem like a time-worn and rather conventional thing to do. But it is in fact a revolutionary thing to do, because it overturns the logic of this world which creeps up on us all and lays claim to us in a thousand ways, most of them unconscious. At any moment here today the lords of this world, the masters of darkness and death, could storm into this church and arrest us all for subversion and inciting revolution. That’s what they did to Jesus, and it’s what they will do to Conor.
In that sense, an ordination is like sentencing a man to death – though only so that he can truly be a minister of life, Easter life. Of course we are pleased to see a man ordained; we applaud his decision; and it’s right that we do. Because in the end it is Jesus Christ crucified and risen whom we applaud, and we are pleased because one more blow is struck by God against the old, death-dealing world and its lethal logic.
On this twentieth anniversary of 9/11, we recall the lethal logic of those attacks against the Twin Towers, which struck a mighty blow against many things. In those attacks we saw not the hand of God but the hand of Satan, prince of darkness and lord of death. Today we commission Conor Power to launch different attacks on different towers, to strike first the tower of darkness and then the tower of death – and to do so in the power of the crucified and risen Lord, offering himself as a ransom for many, dying not that others might die, but dying so that they might live. Amen.