This might be a dangerous game, but I want you to picture what a priest looks like. If you’re of a certain age, Fulton Sheen may have come to mind. One of our favorite shows is the Fr. Brown mysteries, and so I tend to default to him in his cassock and saturno, which is what that black hat is called with the wide brim, because it looks like Saturn with its wide rings. Whoever you pictured, there’s usually some common markers to the look: priests always wear a collar; sometimes they wear a cassock around, sometimes a suit, but either way, there’s usually a lot of black fabric involved. The purpose of these markers is to both stand apart from others and to, perhaps counter-intuitively, have no personal style. When looking at a priest, one shouldn’t be prompted to first think, “Hey, nice suit and shoes combo.” You should be able to just think ‘priest’.
Jesus, our great high priest, did not bear any of these markers. For one thing, our priestly garb comes from Roman patterns of dress, which would not have appealed to a member of a group the Romans were oppressing.
For another, Jesus was not technically a priest, at least not a Jewish priest. Jewish priests came from a certain tribe and lineage, one that Jesus was not a part of. These priests spent their time “up at the Jerusalem Temple, the ones who performed the sacrifices, and from whom a new high priest was appointed each year. The high priest was the only one who could enter the Holy of Holies, once a year, to mediate for the whole people of Israel on the Day of Atonement.
“Picture how the high priest functioned in the ritual for the Day of Atonement. The curtained-off, gilded, cube-shaped room at the western end of the sanctuary, the Holy of Holies, stood for heaven. The rest of the sanctuary was earth. In his annual move into the Holy of Holies with the blood of the Atonement sacrifices, the high priest was understood to be acting as a go-between for the community, mediating between the people and God and between God and the people. Spatially, his movement through the curtain from the one room to the other re-presented mediation between the heavenly and earthly realms.”
If that sounds both very cool and very familiar, that’s because it was and is. Movement, mystery, and the joining together of heaven and earth has always been a part of worship, and perhaps the major point of it. We move from one level of holiness to another still, symbolized by entering the church, moving through a barrier (in our case, an altar rail as opposed to a curtain, but in the Orthodox Church, they still have giant screens that block the view of altar), and up, literally, to the altar, where sacrifice is made.
And making sacrifice is the point of having a priest at all. The primary function of a priest is to make sacrifice, just as the only function of an altar is as a place of sacrifice. The Jewish priest sacrificed animals as an offering for their sins, as God had instructed, standing before God as mediator. Christian priests make the sacrifice of Jesus at our altars, standing before God as an alter Christus, a symbol of Christ, re-presenting the only true mediation between heaven and earth.
See where we are getting to here? Jesus is our great high priest, in fact the great high priest of all creation, because He made sacrifice, the sacrifice of Himself on the altar of the Cross. He bears the marks of priesthood, not in collar and cassock, but in the marks He bears on His hands, feet, and side. And because Jesus experienced everything we must go through and more, He can stand before the altar of heaven with all of our joys and pains on His heart; like Paul told us, “we have not a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.”
So where does that leave us? Well, number one, in the loving arms of a merciful, self-sacrificing God, who loves you more than we can ever comprehend. Second, as always, ready to follow Jesus, to follow Him to the altar and yes, even to the cross. If you may have thought all that sacrificing is just for priests, you’re out of luck: you may not be now or in the future called to wear a collar or cassock or even a saturno, but by virtue of your baptism, you are part of God’s royal priesthood. In fact, the last words of the Baptismal rite are “We receive you into the household of God. Confess the faith of Christ crucified, proclaim his resurrection, and share with us in his eternal priesthood.”
You too are called to make sacrifices: to love the unlovable, to give of your time and talents and treasures, to put the needs of others above your own. Now picture again what a priest looks like.
 Dennis Hamm, SJ: http://liturgy.slu.edu/29OrdB102118/theword_hamm.html