98 Our call to be Priest, Prophet and King (Lord of the Rings)

priest prophet king lord of the rings


Did you know that baptism transforms you into a Priest, Prophet and King? Baptism is a share in these very ‘offices’ of Christ. Through the transformations of Frodo, Gandalf and Aragorn, learn how these roles look, and be inspired to activate them! 

Transcript of episode

Dear friends, Christians who are familiar with Lord of the Rings will quickly feel that there is something profoundly Christian about the story, even though it’s profundity is veiled in goblins and wizards and pipe-weed and little hairy footed people. Previous Myth Pilgrim episodes have already explored the more common Christian themes like hope and humility. Today, I want to hone in on a theme that is absolutely pivotal to Catholicism: death and resurrection, and how it alone opens the way to spiritual maturity. While death and resurrection is usually associated in myths to one central figure, like a Batman or a Wonderwoman, the LOTR effectively captures Christ’s death and resurrection journey through all three of its main characters – Frodo, Gandalf and Aragorn. This episode will unpack how.

But further, Frodo, Aragorn and Gandalf also embody the threefold offices of Jesus that we all receive at baptism – namely, the office of priest, prophet and king. Frodo is the priest, Gandalf, the prophet, and Aragorn, the king. But! What on earth does priest, prophet and king mean, and how is every baptised Christian called to exercise these priestly, kingly and prophetic offices of Christ?

The death and resurrections of Frodo, Aragorn & Gandalf

It is a profound truth that the taller the skyscraper, the deeper its foundation – the stronger the tree, the deeper the roots. In likewise manner, flourishing in the Christian life doesn’t begin with ascent, but descent. It doesn’t begin by gaining, but by letting go. Let’s pause here to really let this sink in. So much of contemporary culture markets the idea that happiness is found simply by getting more, building more, knowing more, experiencing more. No one really talks about happiness in the terms of letting go, renouncing and even dying. Yet, only the latter is the logic of the cross, and the pattern of Christianity. Death must precede resurrection, old life must give way to new life. With that in mind, let’s consider how all three of the main characters go through a death and resurrection, and how their resurrected selves changes everything.

Gandalf’s death and resurrection: We’ll begin with Gandalf because he’s probably the most obvious visual example. How does Gandalf the Grey become Gandalf the White? By fighting the devilishly fiery Balrog, and falling into the abyss of Moria. To enable the fellowship safe passage across the bridge of Kazad a Dum, he literally places his body on the line, crying out: “You cannot pass, “I am a servant of the Secret Fire, wielder of the flame of Anor. You cannot pass. The dark fire will not avail you, flame of Udûn. Go back to the Shadow! You cannot pass.” As it turns Tolkien, ever the Catholic, says that the term ‘Secret Fire’ is a direct reference to the Holy Spirit – the source of all life. Within Lord of the Rings lore, Secret Fire refers the spark of life that Iluvitar bestowed on all his creation. As servant of the Secret Fire, Gandalf is standing with the authority of his creator, to lay down his life on his behalf. And Gandalf the grey does in fact die, wrestling with the Balrog all the way into the depths of hell… the book then goes on to explore how the wrestle continues into the eternal realm, where time ceased to be and the very foundations of the world were it’s stage. This is totally a Jesus reference, whose own destruction of sin, and death was not just a historical event, but one that spanned eternity. After the Balrog’s demise, Gandalf says how it was Iluvitar, the god equivalent in middle earth, who sends him back to continue to aid free men against the shadow of Sauron. And so, like Christ, he is sent back, reborn as Gandalf the White. Like the resurrected Christ he is both the same, yet different. He has noticeably new power, authority and wisdom – demonstrated most profoundly in his exorcising of king Theoden from Sauron’s clutches, and then, his expulsion of Saruman as the head of the order.

At this point, it is worth noting the incredible parallels this Gandalf death scene has with our baptism – which is the sacrament of death and resurrection. Not only does the resurrected Gandalf become clothed in white, as our baptismal catechumen do, he also tells Frodo that “I have passed through fire and deep water,” which is a reference to Matthew 3, with John the Baptist prophesying baptism as taking place with both water and fire when Jesus comes hmm.

Aragorn’s death and resurrection: Let’s turn our attention to Aragorn. His equivalent journey of death and resurrection takes place through his voluntarily going into the Paths of the Dead – where he calls the ghosts of Dunharrow to arms. Recall that when we first meet Aragorn, he is merely Strider, an outcast in self imposed exile, who was deeply ashamed of his bloodline. Like Gandalf the Grey, he was still a good man, a decent fighter and a master of healing. However, he was certainly not the king he was born to be… and it was only once he emerged from the Paths of the Dead that his kingship is claimed. It was Elrond who first gives Aragorn his rousing, fatherly encouragement, telling him to take the sword of Elendil and travel into death’s domain. Elrond says to him: “Arise now, son of Elendil! It shall be your task to put down evil from lands under the shadow of Sauron where his servants hold sway. You shall undertake this task with a free heart for I deem that you are appointed to it, born to it, and may therefore trust you.” In the movie version, when Elrond says “The man who can wield the power of this sword can summon to him an army more deadly than any that walks this earth. Put aside the ranger. Become who you were born to be.” As you may remember, Aragon does end up going into the Paths of the Dead. He successfully summons the allegiance of the ghost soldiers, which would in turn be instrumental to winning the war. The fruits of his sacrifice was suspiciously akin to Jesus’ harrowing of hell, where on Good Friday, Jesus traditionally enters Sheol—the realm of the dead—to set free the righteous souls bound by sin. In LOTR, the Dunharrow army were only stranded as the living dead because they had been cursed by king Isildur, cursed for abandoning him on the eve of battle. By now offering them another chance to fight, Aragorn is effectively reborn as king, their king, with the same authority of Isildur, now entering death in order to redeem their souls.

Frodo’s death and resurrection: The final character today is Frodo Baggins himself. Having the survival skills akin to a suicidal lemming, you could say that Frodo had many death and resurrection moments throughout his ques; the time he was stabbed on Weathertop, the time he was skewered by the Cave Troll, the time he fell into the Dead Marshes. But the most transformative death that Frodo went through was his steady march towards Hell on earth – Mordor, the birthplace of the ring. Unlike the two previous characters, his was a slow death, where his every being was eventually consumed by the weight of the Ring upon him, until on the steps of Mt Doom he barely could recall anything that was true, good and beautiful in the world, even the Shire. In this way, he most exemplified the passion of Christ, who took on the burden of our sin upon himself, and in the words of Paul, became sin on our behalf. And like Christ, he made of himself a living victim, led to the slaughter, where he went into the very source of sin itself and brought about new life for the good people of Middle Earth. The Frodo after his quest was indeed very different – even once he returned to the Shire. In his own words: “how do you pick up the threads of an old life? How do you go on, when in your heart, you begin to understand, there is no going back? There are some things that time cannot mend. Some hurts that go too deep…that have taken hold.” And then later “we set out to save the Shire, Sam, and it has been saved — but not for me.” These are very moving words if you sit on them, for Frodo recognises the cost of his sacrifice, as something we would have to carry for the rest of his life.

No one wrestles with death can ever be the same again – even Jesus resurrected with wounds, though wounds that blessed rather than cursed. In like way, Tolkien doesn’t leave Frodo stranded in despair – indeed this is the reason why the Frodo that emerged from Mordor was granted passage to travel to Valinor, the undying lands. This is the equivalent of paradise in J.R.R. Tolkien’s legendarium, a place in the west primarily inhabited by the angelic Valar and the Eldar (the High Elves). To allow a mere Hobbit passage to Valinor was a high honour, and indicative of the unique sacrifice that Frodo bore on behalf of others. Because of him, the entirety of Middle Earth was saved, and his dear friends, Sam, Merry and Pippin, Aragon, Legolas and Gimli, continue to live out this legacy in ushering in a new era of peace.  

Frodo, Gandalf and Aragorn as Priest, Prophet and King

I want to now move onto how Frodo, Gandalf and Aragorn exemplify the priest, prophet and kingly offices of Jesus, and how we receive all three of these roles at our baptism. If we truly understood this, it may just revolutionise our spiritual lives. For context, realise that in the OT, the Holy Spirit was given only to particular priests, prophets and kings, in order for them to carry out God’s work. This would usually happen through a ritual of anointing with oil. When Jesus came however, he effectively became the perfect priest, prophet and king, and no one else was needed to do God’s work. Jesus was God’s perfect work, and the fullness of his holy spirit. And when we are baptised into Jesus, we receive in full part, all of that three-fold anointing. We receive the commissioning to be priests, prophets and kings to the world. If you pause to think about that for a moment, you might just fall out of your chair.

Frodo as Priest

Let’s start with priest. What is a priest? Not just Father on Sunday. Rather, the priest is someone who offers sacrifice on behalf of others. In the Old Testament, someone who was anointed as priest were consecrated, set apart to offer sacrifices in the temple on behalf of sinners. The ultimate sacrifice the priest could offer though, was himself – and this of course was exactly what Christ does. This is why Frodo’s journey most confirms to the priestly office of Jesus. For it wasn’t gifts, talents and riches that Frodo offers the fellowship – but rather his very life. He was a living victim, a willing holocaust, so that the others on the quest could continue to live on and fight on. This dimension of Frodo’s sacrifice often gets missed in the LOTR, because it was far more interior, than exterior – yet, what a Passion it was. But here’s the question, dear priests of Christ (that’s you): how much are you willing to make your life a living sacrifice for others. To lay down your life in prayer and in action, so that others may live? Notice that in the Mass, the priest says “pray friends, that my sacrifice and yours may be acceptable to God, the almighty father”. See it isn’t just Fr Cam’s sacrifice that’s being offered on the altar, but the sacrifices of all the faithful gathered. When you next attend Mass, ask yourself, what sacrifices have I made this week, as an offering to God? How has my life been poured out as a living sacrifice for others?

Gandalf as Prophet

The next office is that of prophet. This one’s probably a bit easier to understand in terms of everyday parlance. The prophet is the one that speaks God’s truth, in season and out of season. He is not primarily the one that sort of foretells the future, but rather, one who boldly tells people what is happening, and what will happen if they don’t change their ways! We often have this distorted perception that the OT prophets were only sort of foretellers of doom and gloom, but in actual fact, they spend more time reminding the afflicted people of God about God’s promises, his goodness and his victory, especially in times of strife. In this way, Gandalf most profoundly conforms to this prophetic office of Christ. He is the one that speaks words of life to the fellowship, words of hope to the hobbits and words of warning to bozos like Lord Denethor, worm tongue and his fallen comrade Saruman. He is the wise counselor, the font of knowledge and the beacon of hope, saying words like “End? No, the journey doesn’t end here. Death is just another path, one that we all must take. The grey rain-curtain of this world rolls back, and all turns to silver glass, and then you see it… White shores, and beyond, a far green country under a swift sunrise.” And so… what about you and I today, dear prophets of Christ? Do we speak words of hope and truth into our circumstances. Do we dare speak with the authority of Jesus, when the Spirit prompts us to. And just as Gandalf silences those possessed by the spirit of Sauron like Denathor and Wormtongue, do we believe that we have Christ’s power over evil spirits, to claim a situation, a place and even a person back for Christ? See, I told you we’d all out of our chairs if you only we realised the power we have in Christ’s three fold office.

Aragorn as King

The final office is that of King. While we tend to think we know what we mean by king – namely someone that rules others or is in leadership, the kingly office of Christ is so much more than that. It is primarily about responsibility and accountability, two words many of us in the modern world shirk at. It’s a common trope that a kingdom rises and falls with the integrity of it’s king; this was certainly true of the Old Testament kings, and it is also true of Christ the king. This is where Aragorn comes in as the exemplar model of Christ kingship. When the world of men had a bad king – namely Isildur – the honour of men came crashing down, which in turn led to the cowardice betrayal of the Dunharrow army. But when a good king arose, Aragorn, he once more restored the dignity to men, and united Gondor and Rahan and all the men of the west once again. Everything rises, and falls with the king. So it goes with you and I today, dear kings of Christ. Where are you called to be responsible for the realm entrusted to you? Your realm could be your workplace, your circle of friends, your online contacts, your local council, your country and of course your family … your marriage. Whatever it is, know that you are responsible for that realm, and that one, day you will be held to account for the way you’ve governed that realm under Christ’s authority. Have you protected it, sanctified it and sought the flourishing of everyone in your kingdom? Or have you allowed it to be divided, conquered, letting your secret sins defile it and corrupt it? The choice is yours, but the power is Christ. Fight the good fight till the very end, dear friends, and be responsible for all that is entrusted to you. Become Aragorn and say “I do not know what strength is in my blood, but I swear to you I will not let the White City fall, nor our people fail.” This is the office of king.

Okay, we’ve covered a lot of terrain today dear friends. I pray this episode may be as inspiring as it is challenging, and I really hope that it gives you a deeper appreciation of the rich Catholicism permeating The Lord of the Rings. As a practical pilgrim exercise, maybe choose one of the priestly offices of Christ to ‘activate’ this week. Whether it’s priest, prophet or king, allow God to inspire some practical way in which to live that out. And don’t do it by your own strength – remember that you are baptised in Christ which means that all power and glory belongs to him and him alone. Wea re but donkeys, earthenware vessels, but ones aware of the authority given to us by Christ Amen. Until next time, journey forth, take care and God bless.

Soundtrack credits for this episode: The Lord of the Rings OST (Howard Shore), Jirandai, Diablo IV OST (Ted Reedy)