When I Was Naked, You Clothed Me
In the Old Testament, God manifested His presence in a special way through the Ark of the Covenant. On the Ark was a gold plate which was called the "mercy seat" on which God remained in the midst of His people. It stood at the heart of the "Holy of Holies" in the Temple. In a certain way, the Ark, with its mercy seat, presents a foreshadow of the merciful presence of Christ in the midst of His people in the new covenant in the Most Blessed Sacrament reserved in the tabernacles around the world.
Considering the holiness of the Ark of the Covenant, one of the most surprising events in the history of the people of Israel is recorded in the first book of Samuel. The people of Israel were engaged in a battle with the Philistines, their perennial enemy. The Israelites suffered a series of losses, and so they turned to the Lord for help. They brought the Ark of the Covenant into the camp. When the Ark of the Covenant entered the camp all the people of Israel gave a mighty shout so that the earth resounded. When the Philistines heard the noise of shouting and learned that the Ark had entered the camp of Israel, they were terrified. They said, "Woe to us! For nothing like this has happened to us before. Woe to us! Who can deliver us from the power of these mighty gods? These are the gods who smote the Egyptians with every sort of plague in the wilderness." Nevertheless, despite the presence of the Ark, the confidence of the army of Israel, and the fear of the Philistines, when they engaged in battle the Philistines were victorious. There was a very great number of casualties on the side of Israel: 30,000 foot soldiers fell in battle. But what is more startling is that the Philistines captured the Ark of the Covenant. The most sacred token of God's presence in the midst of His chosen people was seized by the enemy! How could this have happened? Why did God allow the Ark of His presence to be handed over to the idolatrous pagans?
Prior to this happening, God Himself foretold to the prophet Samuel that this would happen, and He gave the reason why it would occur. He said to Samuel, "Behold, I am about to do a thing in Israel, at which the two ears of every one that hears it will tingle." The reason that He chose to allow this disaster to befall Israel was due to the blasphemies committed by Hophni and Phinehas, the sons of the high priest Eli, in their service as priests for the people of God. As it was said, "The sin of the young men was great in the sight of the Lord; for the men treated the offering of the Lord with contempt." [1 Sam 2:17] The consequence of the sins of the priests was not only that they themselves were slain in battle, but also that there was a major defeat for all the people of Israel, and the presence of God was effectively removed from their midst.
This episode provides a stark indication of the consequences of the sins of priests not only for themselves, but also for the whole People of God. Due to his key position as "the messenger of the Lord of hosts" [Mal 2:8] the sins of the priest "cause many to stumble." [Mal 2:8] The prophet Ezekiel noted that due to the corruption of the shepherds, the flock becomes food for all the wild beasts, and is scattered all over the face of the earth. [Ez 34:5-6] And the prophet Jeremiah remarked: "Because the pastors have done foolishly, and have not sought the Lord; therefore have they not prospered, and all their flock is scattered." [Jer 10:21]
Knowing very clearly the vital position the priests have in the Church, her enemies, both human and demonic, do not cease to attack the priests from all sectors. The seducer seeks to strike the shepherd so that the sheep may be scattered. For this reason it is necessary to continually set up a bulwark of protection around the priests of the Church. We invoke Mary to cover them with her mantle; we ask the angels to surround them with a strong shield; we petition St. Joseph, the universal protector of the Church, and terror of demons, to provide a special defense for its ministers.
At the same time, if we witness the failings of the priests, and even suffer from them, we must be on guard, lest by attacking the priests we make things worse. Even if particular priests may not be holy persons, they are always sacred persons by reason of their ordination. They are God's anointed ones. Just as David in the Old Testament never dared to lift a hand against King Saul, who unjustly persecuted him, ever mindful that Saul was still God's anointed one; [1 Sam 24:6] so too we should never presume to attack God's anointed ministers.
St. Catherine of Siena records the words of God the Father in her Dialogues:
"I wish seculars to hold [all priests] in due reverence, not for their own sakes, as I have said, but for Mine, by reason of the authority which I have given them. Wherefore this reverence should never diminish in the case of priests whose virtue grows weak, any more than in the case of those virtuous ones of whose goodness I have spoken to you; for all alike have been appointed ministers of the Sun -- that is of the Body and Blood of My Son, and of the other Sacraments.
"This dignity belongs to good and bad alike -- all have the Sun to administer, as has been said, and perfect priests are themselves in a condition of light, that is to say, they illuminate and warm their neighbors through their love. And with this heat they cause virtues to spring up and bear fruit in the souls of their subjects. I have appointed them to be in very truth your guardian angels to protect you; to inspire your hearts with good thoughts by their holy prayers, and to teach you My doctrine reflected in the mirror of their life, and to serve you by administering to you the holy Sacraments, thus serving you, watching over you, and inspiring you with good and holy thoughts as does an angel.
"See, then, that besides the dignity to which I have appointed them, how worthy they are of being loved; when they also possess the adornment of virtue, as did those of whom I spoke to you, which are all bound and obliged to possess, and in what great reverence you should hold them, for they are My beloved children and shine each as a sun in the mystical body of the holy Church by their virtues, for every virtuous man is worthy of love, and these all the more by reason of the ministry which I have placed in their hands. You should love them therefore by reason of the virtue and dignity of the Sacrament, and by reason of that very virtue and dignity you should hate the defects of those who live miserably in sin, but not on that account appoint yourselves their judges, which I forbid, because they are My Christs (anointed ones), and you ought to love and reverence the authority which I have given them. You know well that if a filthy and badly dressed person brought you a great treasure from which you obtained life, you would not hate the bearer, however ragged and filthy he might be, through love of the treasure and of the lord who sent it to you. His state would indeed displease you, and you would be anxious through love of his master that he should be cleansed from his foulness and properly clothed. This, then, is your duty according to the demands of charity, and thus I wish you to act with regard to such badly ordered priests, who themselves filthy and clothed in garments ragged with vice through their separation from My love, bring you great Treasures -- that is to say, the Sacraments of the holy Church -- from which you obtain the life of grace, receiving Them worthily (in spite of the great defects there may be in them) through love of Me, the Eternal God, who send them to you, and through love of that life of grace which you receive from the great treasure, by which they administer to you the whole of God and the whole of Man, that is to say, the Body and Blood of My Son united to My Divine nature. Their sins indeed should displease you, and you should hate them, and strive with love and holy prayer to re-clothe them, washing away their foulness with your tears -- that is to say, that you should offer them before Me with tears and great desire, that I may re-clothe them in My goodness, with the garment of charity. Know well that I wish to do them grace, if only they will dispose themselves to receive it, and you to pray for it; for it is not according to My will that they should administer to you the Sun being themselves in darkness, not that they should be stripped of the garment of virtue, foully living in dishonor; on the contrary I have given them to you, and appointed them to be earthly angels and suns, as I have said. It not being My will that they should be in this state, you should pray for them, and not judge them, leaving their judgment to Me. And I, moved by your prayers, will do them mercy if they will only receive it, but if they do not correct their life, their dignity will be the cause of their ruin. For if they do not accept the breadth of My mercy, I, the Supreme Judge, shall terribly condemn them at their last extremity, and they will be sent to the eternal fire."
These words of this great Doctor of the Church indicate not only the dignity of the priest, and the responsibility he has to live up to that dignity, but also the duty of the laity who recognize the failings of the priest to "wash away their foulness with their tears," and re-clothe them by praying that they be disposed to receive the graces of God's mercy.
The prophet Zechariah had the following vision: "Then he showed me Joshua the high priest standing before the angel of the Lord, and Satan standing at his right hand to accuse him. And the Lord said to Satan, "The Lord rebuke you O Satan! The Lord who has chosen Jerusalem rebuke you! Is not this a brand plucked from the fire?' Now Joshua was standing before the angel, clothed with filthy garments. And the angel said to those who were standing before him, 'Remove the filthy garments from him.'And to him he said, 'Behold, I have taken your iniquity away from you, and I will clothe you with rich apparel.' And I said, 'Let them put a clean turban on his head.' So they put a clean turban on his head and clothed him with garments; and the angel of the Lord was standing by." [Zech 3:1-5]
This prophetic vision contrasts the work of Satan with that of the holy angel. Satan accuses, while the holy angel asks those around to remove the filthy garments from the high priest. The angel rebukes Satan, and has mercy on Joshua. The angel speaks of Joshua as a "brand plucked from the fire". The image being used here seems to be very fitting for our present time. The elements of a neo-pagan, anti-Christian, materialistic, consumeristic, lust-laden culture which are being promoted through the mass-media could be likened to a destructive fire which is spreading even into the members of the Church. Even those whom God has called to the religious life and the priesthood can hardly be expected to have been spared the harmful influence. God, no doubt, wishes them to be "snatched" from the flames; but we cannot be surprised if they are already charred and thereby weakened and perhaps even blind to the dangers to which they continue to expose themselves. The solution is not to accuse, but to intercede, and even after we have interceded a hundred times, we still should not accuse. God does not show us who is the "least of His brothers". But we know that whatever we do to the least of His brothers we do to Him.
Since priests are, as St. Catherine writes, the anointed ones of God, or in other words, "Christs", we can be all the more assured of God's reward for all those who dedicate themselves to "re-clothing" the priests through prayers and sacrifices offered on their behalf. "Come, O blessed of my Father, inherit the Kingdom prepared for you since the foundation of the world "for when I was naked, you clothed me." [Mat 25:34-36]
Fr. Basil Nortz, ORC
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