As I write this, Fr. Thomas Hopko lies at death’s door. I have not always agreed with him, but I have had nothing but deep respect for him. I am sorry I never got to meet him in person. May his memory be eternal!
A few years ago I was at a conference, presenting a paper on women’s ordination. In that paper I made a point that the way Fr. Thomas Hopko thought about the priest as an icon of Christ had some Donatist implications. Let me underscore that my issue was not with the priest-icon idea, only what Fr. Hopko thought that relationship meant. I want to make my position at the time clear because of what happened next. After the presentation, a highly respected Orthodox priest and theologian remarked (from memory), “Well, I don’t know about Donatism, but it’s definitely Vatican II.” His point was that seeing the priest as a sign of Christ was a Roman Catholic idea, not Orthodox. Some time after that, I was having another conversation with someone who may be considered an Orthodox heavy hitter, who confirmed what the former had said, adding that the priest is actually a representative of the people.
I am not sure who was right, Hopko or the other two, but I can see several problems with the priest-Christ idea.
The priest is facing the wrong way. The Orthodox Church continues the ancient tradition of the priest facing in the same direction as the congregation. If he were representing Christ, then he probably should turn around.
The priest asks forgiveness during the liturgy. At one point in the service the priest faces the congregation and asks for forgiveness for his sins. This seems incongruous with the priest acting as Christ for/to the laity. Rather in that act he seems to identify as one of them.
The priest is an angel. During the divine liturgy, the priest identifies with the Cherubim and Seraphim when he prays, “With these blessed Powers we also, O Master who lovest mankind, cry aloud and say: Holy art thou and all-holy, thou and thine Only-begotten Son, and thy Holy Spirit: holy art thou and all-holy, and magnificent is thy glory…”
The temple is a nave. The nave is the place in the church where the worship happens. Nafs is a Greek word that basically means “ship” (it’s where we get the word “navy”). If we think of the priest navigating the congregation into the presence of Christ in the kingdom, like a captain of a vessel, then it seems that he is acting on behalf of us. He is leading us, not drawing us to himself. (On second thought, that is kind of a weak argument.)
There are other aspects of the divine liturgy that do lend support to Hopko’s view.
People touch the vestments. When the clergy process around the temple with the elements, congregants will often reach out and touch the hem of his garment, just as the woman with the issue of blood. But this only applies to this one particular liturgical act, and only for the presiding priest.
The priest offers the Eucharist. There is an icon of Jesus Christ at the Last Supper, administering the Eucharist to the apostles (as if it were a formal liturgy). The scene resembles what happens when the faithful approach the priest to receive.
There seems to be something inconsistent about the role of the priest in the liturgy. (Welcome to Orthodoxy!) There is a kind of “slippage” happening between the priest as an icon of Christ and the priest as an icon of the laity. I have more thoughts about this, but I am interested in your opinion.