Ezekiel and the Common Priesthood of All the Faithful

‘While the common priesthood of the faithful is exercised by the unfolding of baptismal grace — a life of faith, hope, and charity, a life according to the Spirit — the ministerial priesthood is at the service of the common priesthood.’ (Catechism 1547)

Book cover of ‘By the Rivers of Babylon’ by Michael O’Brien
Book cover of ‘By the Rivers of Babylon’ by Michael O’Brien (photo: Ignatius Press)

The Old Testament Book of Ezekiel opens in the fifth year of exile of King Jehoiachin when Ezekiel the prophet is in his 30th year of life. It begins with the first of Ezekiel’s prophetic visions which have been recorded throughout the course of this Old Testament book.

The latest novel by Michael O’Brien, By the Rivers of Babylon, opens earlier in the life of Ezekiel, representing him as a shepherd child, but of the family of Levi. Over the course of the novel, the reader follows Ezekiel out of his boyhood to Jerusalem, where he begins his course of study and service in the Temple to become a priest. Ezekiel is an upright student of the law, surrounded by the corruption of many priests and seeing glimpses of the sacrifices his people are making to foreign gods. He meets the prophet Jeremiah and in his heart heeds the warnings of this chosen man, which most of those in the Temple dismiss. He lives to be taken away into exile in Babylon and struggle with his fellow Israelites to establish a community there and lead them back to the Lord.

As it was customary to be ordained into the Levitical priesthood in one’s 30th year (Numbers 4:30), Ezekiel was never able to serve as a priest in the Temple in Jerusalem. A role of the priesthood is the making of sacrifices. But Ezekiel spent his adult life in exile, receiving visions and calling his people to have a change of heart. 

One of the beautiful things Michael O’Brien brings out in his new novel is how he shows Ezekiel growing in an understanding of how the sacrifices of the priesthood can be lived out. The law given to the Israelites is full of directives on various sacrifices — animal, cereal, drink, etc. Some were burnt; some were given for the sustenance of the priests who lived in the Temple. But Ezekiel as a priest in exile could not do this — though the ordained Levitical priesthood was passed on throughout the exile. O’Brien has Ezekiel have a deep insight into a priesthood of spiritual sacrifices:

And though I will never be able to offer holocaust or oblation of first-fruits, even so I may offer fit praise and thanksgiving and teaching in the house of the Lord, for the sake of my people. Mine is a priesthood of the soul.

This idea of the priesthood of the soul is one that all baptized Christians can partake in, for when we are baptized, we become priest, prophet and king. Our priesthood is not the ordained ministerial priesthood through which a man acts in persona Christi Capitis representing the sacrifice of Christ in the Mass, but one that St. Paul refers to in Colossians when he says: “Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the Church” (Colossians 1:24). Through Christ’s one sacrifice, we who are baptized can also offer sacrifice, such as when we attend Mass and offer our days and weeks to the Lord or when we pray an offering uniting the “prayers, works, joys and sufferings” of our day to the Sacrifice of the Mass.

Further, every Temple sacrifice of the Old Covenant pointed to the one sacrifice of Christ on the Cross. The book of Hebrews explains how all the sacrifices of the Old Covenant could never have fully made up for the sin of the priests or that of the people on whose behalf they were making sacrifices. Only the sacrifice of Christ, as the final High Priest, could do that:

Although he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered; and being made perfect he became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him, being designated by God a high priest according to the order of Melchizedek (Hebrews 5:8-10). 

So, in that sense the character of Ezekiel, in O’Brien’s book, was able to make an offering in his soul. His priesthood without the physical sacrifices in the Temple is one that anticipates the coming of Christ. His is an offering that fits with the many times in Scripture when the Lord praises obedience to him as more pleasing than burnt offerings. One example is from the prophet Samuel reprimanding King Saul for disobedience to the Lord:

Has the Lord as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices, as in obeying the voice of the Lord? Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to hearken than the fat of rams. (1 Samuel 15:22).

We are not very different from God’s chosen people, the Israelites. It is easy to look back on their history and say that they deserved to be exiled at the time of Ezekiel because of their disobedience to the Lord. But when we examine our own lives, how often do we fail to make a sacrifice of our own obedience to God? We, who have been made sons and daughters of God through baptism, who have been given a share in the divine life as a result of God becoming human. Whenever we sin, we put ourselves into a spiritual exile.

Ezekiel’s prophecy to his people in exile is also for us:

For I will take you from the nations, and gather you from all the countries, and bring you into your own land. I will sprinkle clean water upon you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will take out of your flesh the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to observe my ordinances (Ezekiel 36:24-27).

The Lord wants us all to actively share in the “priesthood of the soul” — to allow him through our obedience to have his spirit alive within us, to be full of the grace that helps us to obey Him. He wants us to live as a kingdom of priests forever with him, as St. John witnessed in the book of Revelation:

Worthy are you to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slain and by your blood you ransomed men for God from every tribe and tongue and people and nation, and have made them a kingdom and priests to our God (Revelation 5:9-10).

Read By the Rivers of Babylon. It’s a beautiful, heart-wrenching way to be encouraged in living out this call.