What every Catholic needs to know about...the work and reward of being prophet, priest and king

Christians are accustomed to thinking of Jesus as the Anointed One. And, to be sure, he is.  

The name “Christ” is the English version of Christos, and that is simply the Greek for “Messiah,” or “Anointed One.” It refers, of course, to Jesus in its ultimate sense, but it also is rooted in the stories of lots of people who get anointed, in various ways and senses, in the Hebrew Scriptures. Those Old Testament images of anointing are our guide for understanding what anointing meant to the authors of the Christian Scriptures.

 The three main classes of people who were anointed in the Old Testament were priests, kings and prophets. Moses, for instance, is commanded by God to make priestly garments. “With these you shall clothe your brother Aaron and his sons. Anoint and ordain them, consecrating them as my priests” (Ex 28:41). 

Similarly, the prophet Samuel is twice given the command to anoint a king over Israel. First, he anoints Saul, and then David (after Saul’s disobedience and subsequent rejection by God). What is striking is that the relationship between anointing with oil and anointing with the Spirit is already obvious and well-established in the mind of Israel, a thousand years before the coming of Jesus, who is both Christ and Son of David. So, the First Book of Samuel tells us: 

“Then Samuel, with the horn of oil in hand, anointed him in the midst of his brothers; and from that day on, the spirit of the LORD rushed upon David” (16:13). 

So it is not too surprising that the archetypal prophet in the Jewish tradition, Elijah, is likewise commanded by God: “Then you shall anoint Jehu, son of Nimshi, as king of Israel, and Elisha, son of Shaphat of Abel-meholah, as prophet to succeed you” (1 Kgs 19:16). 

Initially, Israel’s history appears to be a story of worldly success: defeat of Egypt and her gods and spectacular liberation from slavery, establishment of kingdom, a promise that one of David’s sons will always be on the throne of Israel, prosperity under Solomon. It appears, at first, as though God is establishing Israel in order to make the nation revel in earthly success. But as the history of Israel rolls on and the nation meets with disaster after disaster in this world, God trains the survivors of the disasters that their hope is not in an earthly kingdom, nor in an earthly temple. Through the prophets, Israel is taught to wait for a mysterious coming Servant of the Lord, the son of David, the One upon Whom the Spirit will Rest, who will deliver the nation from death. Anointing with oil as a sign of the presence of the Spirit and the mark of a particular office is therefore a natural way in which God would speak of the Messiah who was to come. So, for instance, it is this passage from Isaiah 61 which Jesus declares to be “fulfilled” (see also Lk 4:18-19) with his coming: 

“The spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me; He has sent me to bring glad tidings to the lowly, to heal the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives and release to the prisoners. To announce a year of favor from the LORD and a day of vindication by our God, to comfort all who mourn” 1-2). 

Sharing in the Spirit

In other words, Jesus claims to be not merely an anointed one, but The Anointed One — the one toward whom all the anointed prophets, priests and kings of the Old Testament point. And the whole of his career through his passion, death and resurrection bears out that claim. He is, as Peter saw, the Christ, the Son of the Living God and the Son of David; sitting forever on the throne in heaven as David was promised. 

Which brings us back to us, the Christianos , as we were nicknamed by teasing neighbors at Antioch because of our zealotry and excitement about Christos (see Acts 11:26). For (as is often the case with such nicknames) the term signified more than our teasing neighbors realized. It means that we, as much as Jesus, share in the Spirit with which he has been anointed. That’s the whole point of Pentecost, and it is the whole point of baptism. We, like he, are the fulfillment of prophecy. 

Most of us don’t think of ourselves as the fulfillment of prophecy. We are, after all, not hot stuff. And we are perfectly right to be modest since we have much to be modest about as the members of the only species in the universe who welcomed God Incarnate by beating him till the blood spattered the walls and then driving spikes through his hands and feet. Not much to boast about there. But such is God’s generosity that he brought life out of that gravest of all murders and joined us to Christ in baptism so that we become, with him, agents of God’s grace, mercy and provision to a dying world. 

That’s why St. Paul speaks of suffering Christians as the fulfillment of Psalm 44:23 (see Rom 8:36). He sees what the Church sees: that every baptized Christian participates in Christ’s threefold office of prophet, priest and king (Catechism of the Catholic Church, No. 1241). 

Mark Shea is senior content editor at Catholic Exchange.com and writes the Catholic and Enjoying It! blog at markshea.blogspot.com. He writes from Washington state.


A mouth for God 

Way back in Moses’ day, God promised, “I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their kinsmen, and will put my words into his mouth; he shall tell them all that I command him” (Dt 18:18) . Christ, of course, fulfills this promise perfectly, not only by his own prophetic words, but also by fulfilling the words of the p rophets. In our baptism, we share in Christ’s own prophetic office in the world, being called to speak forth the W ord of God and sharing in the rewards (and brickbats) that a prophet receives. 

The hard part here is that “You are graced to be a prophet” is easier said than done. Speaking God’s word to a particular situation is not something that just happens. The baptismal office of prophet doesn’t mean you go into trances and automatically burp out prophetic utterances. It means self-discipline, a determination to learn and a willingness to be docile to God’s word. That’s why Isaiah thanks God for giving him “a well-trained tongue, that I might know how to speak to the weary a word that will rouse them. Morning after morning he opens my ear that I may hear; and I have not rebelled, have not turned back” (Is 50:4-5). 

In short, speaking God’s word involves both inspiration and perspiration. It means learning God’s word from Scripture and from the teaching of the Church so that you can think with the mind of Christ and apply the wisdom of the Tradition appropriately where you live. In short, a prophet is not primarily somebody who predicts the future (though that does h appen on occasion ), much less a murmuring mystic in a trance state.  

A prophet is a mouth. False prophets are mouths for the Spirit of the Age, or Caesar, or Mammon, or themselves. A true prophet is a mouth for God. He speaks the word of God to the world. 

What are the rewards of a prophet?  

Among other things, on earth you get the happy sense of not having to feel ashamed when you look in the mirror, because you know that you did your best to tell the truth, both afflicting the comfortable and comforting the afflicted.  

In heaven, the reward is “Well done, thou good and faithful servant ” from the lips of our Lord himself, and then a seat at the w edding f east where the prophets enjoy the fellowship, not only of God but of all those who heard the word of God and were saved by it. 

Think “Greatest Family Reunion Ever. ”

Prophetic Office (sidebar)

“The holy people of God shares also in Christ’s prophetic office; it spreads abroad a living witness to h im, especially by means of a life of faith and charity and by offering to God a sacrifice of praise, the tribute of lips which give praise to h is name. The entire body of the faithful, anointed as they are by the Holy One, cannot err in matters of belief. They manifest this special property by means of the whole peoples’ supernatural discernment in matters of faith when ‘f rom the b ishops down to the last of the lay faithful’ they show universal agreement in matters of faith and morals. That discernment in matters of faith is aroused and sustained by the Spirit of truth. It is exercised under the guidance of the sacred teaching authority, in faithful and respectful obedience to which the people of God accepts that which is not just the word of men but truly the word of God. Through it, the people of God adheres unwaveringly to the faith given once and for all to the saints, penetrates it more deeply with right thinking, and applies it more fully in its life. 

“It is not only through the sacraments and the ministries of the Church that the Holy Spirit sanctifies and leads the people of God and enriches it with virtues, but, ‘a llotting his gifts to everyone according as h e wills, h e distributes special graces among the faithful of every rank.’ By these gifts h e makes them fit and ready to undertake the various tasks and offices which contribute toward the renewal and building up of the Church, according to the words of the a postle: ‘The manifestation of the Spirit is given to everyone for profit.’ These charisms ... are to be received with thanksgiving and consolation for they are perfectly suited to and useful for the needs of the Church. Extraordinary gifts are not to be sought after, nor are the fruits of apostolic labor to be presumptuously expected from their use; but judgment as to their genuinity and proper use belongs to those who are appointed leaders in the Church, to whose special competence it belongs, not indeed to extinguish the Spirit, but to test all things and hold fast to that which is good.” 

Lumen Gentium, No. 12

Archbishop José H. Gomez, coadjutor archbishop of Los Angeles, wrote about the “priestly soul” of the laity in a pastoral letter earlier this year when he was still archbishop of San Antonio. Here is an excerpt : 

“Everyone in the Church shares in Christ’s priesthood, his offering of himself in love for the life of the world. Each of us who has been baptized has a ‘priestly soul.’ As laypeople, you are called to offer your daily work and prayer as a spiritual sacrifice of praise to God. You are called to live and work for God in a spirit of love, with a desire to serve him in all things and to do everything you can to help the souls around you. 

“In the words of the Second Vatican Council, you are to be ‘witnesses to Christ in all circumstances and at the very heart of the community of mankind.’ This is what makes the lay vocation so crucial to the mission of the Church. By definition, the laity are on the front lines of the culture, living in the very heart of the world. 

“The people you meet in your community or in your daily work may not hear the Gospel if they do not hear it from you. They may not see an example of Christian living unless they see it from you.” 

— “You Will Be My Witnesses,” No. 10. See www.archsa.org/documents/anv_en.pdf to read the entire letter.


Ruling by service 

Christ’s sacrifice is the moment at which he enters into his kingship. It is a kingship crowned only by thorns in this world, though in the next, it comes adorned in glory which even the exalted language of the Book of Revelation can only begin to describe. 

It is a notable curiosity that Jesus, the Anointed One, was only physically anointed with oil once in Scripture. It was done to him by Mary of Bethany, who evidently had a bad reputation with the locals, but whose gesture was, according to Christ himself, going to be what people remembered her for until the end of time (see Mk 14:3-9).  

That gesture tells us what we need to know about the kingly office — namely, that kingship in Christ means ruling by self-denying love. It is an anointing, not for domination, but for burial. Only by that route does Jesus come to exaltation to the throne at the right hand of the Father — and we with him. 

Our sharing in Christ’s reign in heaven is why the Rosary points us to the image of Mary assumed into heaven and crowned queen. As is always the case, the thing about Mary is that it i s not about Mary. She is a sign to the Church of what every believer is to expect, giving us a living example of the destiny that awaits all the faithful in Christ Jesus. In receiving her heavenly crown, Mary shows forth the gift that Jesus has given every single one of us in baptism. For all the baptized are, like Our Lady, graced with a royal crown. As St. Paul says: 

“You are already satisfied; you have already grown rich; you have become kings without us! Indeed, I wish that you had become kings, so that we also might become kings with you” (1 Cor 4:8). 

Kings and queens exist to rule. Rulership in the kingdom of God is exercised not by domination, but by service. Many scholars argue that, in John’s account of the trial of Jesus, it is Jesus, not Pilate, who is portrayed as seated during his trial (see Jn 19:13) . That is no accident since, in antiquity, being seated is the posture of the king and the ju dge, not of the accused. If this way of reading the text is correct, Pilate surely meant it in mockery, but John sees in it the same ironic sign of glory and kingship as the crown of thorns. By this sign, we are told who is really in command during the seeming kangaroo court that condemns Jesus to death. 

In the same way we, by our lives of service to God in Christ, are ultimately part of the army of kings and queens who shall conquer sin, hell and death itself. That, in a nutshell, is the description of both the work and reward of our baptismal kingship: On earth you are lifted up on the cross, so that on That Day, you will be lifted up to eternal life and reign with h im forever.

C.S. Lewis on the duties of the king (sidebar)

“My children,” said Aslan, fixing his eyes on both of them, “you are to be the first king and queen of Narnia.” 

The cabby opened his mouth in astonishment, and his wife turned very red. 

“You shall rule and name all these creatures, and do justice among them, and protect them from their enemies when enemies arise. And enemies will arise, for there is an evil witch in this world.” 

The cabby swallowed hard two or three times and cleared his throat. 

“Begging your pardon, sir,” he said, “and thanking you very much I’m sure (which my missus does the same) but I ain’t no sort of a chap for a job like that. I never ’a d much eddycation, you see.” 

“Well,” said Aslan, “Can you use a spade and a plough and raise food out of the earth?” 

“Yes, sir, I could do a bit of that sort of work: being brought up to it, like.” 

“Can you rule these creatures kindly and fairly, remembering that they are not slaves like the dumb beasts of the world you were born in, but talking beasts and free subjects?” 

“I see that, sir,” replied the cabby. “I’d try to do the square thing by them all.” 

“And would you bring up your children and grandchildren to do the same?” 

“It’d be up to me to try, sir. I’d do my best: wouldn’t we, Nellie?” 

“And you wouldn’t have favor ites either among your own children or among the other creatures or let any hold another under or use it hardly?" 

“I never could abide such goings on, sir, and that’s the truth. I’d give ’e m what for if I caught ’em at it,” said the cabby. (All through this convers ation his voice was growing slower and richer, more like the country voice he must have had as a boy and less like the sharp, quick voice of a cockney.) 

“And if enemies came against the land (for enemies will arise) and there was war, would you be the first in the charge and the last in the retreat?” 

“Well, sir,” said the cabby very slowly, “a chap don’t exactly know till he’s been tried. I dare say I might turn out ever such a soft ’u n. Never did no fighting except with my fists. I’d try — that is, I ’o pe I’d try — to do my bit.” 

“Then,” said Aslan, “you will have done all that a king should do.” 

— excerpted from Chapter 11 of “The Magician’s Nephew,” by C.S. Lewis


Dominican Sister Janet Schaeffler, a former director of adult faith formation for the Archdiocese of Detroit, is project consultant for OSV Newsweekly’s “What every Catholic needs to know...” series.