The priest

The archetype of the priest can be found in Christianity, Hinduism among the Brahmins, Taoism and has its antecedents in shamanic practise and traditional religion around the world.The two most significant dynamics of this archetype are being set a part and being a mediator of the divine.
Set Apart
The word “sacred” comes from the Latin “sacrare” meaning to set something apart or devote it to God. Hence sacred objects in a church or temple are objects which are devoted to the worship of God. This setting apart for holy purposes feeds into the sense of God being wholly other and transcendent; people can be helped to experience this holy otherness of God when buildings and objects are set apart from ordinary everyday life for worship. This is all intensified by the setting apart of people from the ordinary demands of life for sacred worship and ministry. The more set apart, the more they are able to illuminate the God’s otherness. For the priest this setting apart may involve the wearing of sacred dress or the practice of celibacy which requires the priest to be set apart from the concerns and demands of married life and children. In Celtic society the holy man or woman would often live on the edge of a village, in the liminal space between the ordinary and the otherness of the wild.
Mediating the divine
The primary role of the priest archetype is to mediate God. This is practised primarily through ritual. In the case of Christian clergy the sacraments of baptism and Holy Communion. It also may apply to prayer where the priests intercessions may seem to be particularly effective. Another dimension of mediation is holiness, by the example of the way they live their lives it is often hoped that priests would mediate the holiness of God iconographically as they life it out as a witness to others. The centrality of the priest as an icon of Christ is dominant in Orthodox Christianity and part of the reason they wish to continue with a solely male priesthood.
Within the shamanic cultures the shaman was seen to have the capacity to enter the spirit world (often aided by an animal totem) effect some sort of change there and return to this world. This is still seen, particularly in the sacrifice of the mass within the catholic tradition whereby the priest is seen to undertake acts of power in the spiritual realm for the benefit of the participants at the mass. Sacrifice is the central idea around which the Roman Catholic priesthood radiates. The aligning of priesthood and sacrifice goes back a long way, past the Israelite priests who offered temple sacrifice to mitigate sin to the most ancient forms of practice of religious faith.
The place of the priest within Christianity
Jesus himself did not appear to identify with the archetype of the priest but the identification is firmly made in the New Testament by the author of the letter to the Hebrews. It is for this early Christian writer, Jesus who is both priest and the sacrifice he makes on our behalf is himself. This identification of the priesthood with Christ leads some Christians only vest this priestly power in Jesus himself and has led within Protestantism a resistance to the Catholic vesting of the priestly archetype in the clergy.
Another stream of priesthood is taken up by the the author of the first letter of Peter when he talks about the church being a “royal priesthood” implying that the task of mediating the presence and power of God is taken up by the church as a whole. Again, stressed by the Protestants, the focus of priesthood comes off the clergy and onto the ordinary Christian.
In conclusion we can say that the power of the archetype of priest is still quite active in Christianity. For some Christians it is located in Christ himself and is a call for them to have him as the mediator of God in their lives. For others it is centred around the ongoing role of the clergy who effect the power of Christ almost as lesser priests to the High Priest himself. The tension in the priest archetype is always the mediated experience of God as opposed to direct experience of the archetype of the mystic. It is also an issue of control and authority – for those who wish to carry the archetypal mediation of God can sometimes fall to the temptation of wanting to control the terms of that access.

One thought on “The priest

  1. Thank you for this entry. I ran into it when I was looking for some references for the priest archeype. We also need to contemplate the dark (not necessarily bad, but unknown) side of this archetype, especially given all that is going on in the churches worldwide. Ignorance of this side may be the reason for the major problems we are facing. There also seems to be some major confusion as to what Christ is: he may have taken the form of a man to be more acceptable to his audience but was definitely not a male in the gender sense! The two shall become one (Genesis, Matthew, Mark, Ephesians). And if any archetypal imagery can get close to describing Christ, it is probably the archetype of the Teacher and not the Priest.

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