in Ordinary Time
Oct. 28, 2012
Heb 5: 1-6
Ursulines, Willow Drive, New Rochelle
“Every high priest is taken from among men and made their representative before God to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins” (Heb 5: 1).
Just for the record, the Greek word translated as “men” here is άνθρωπος, “human being,” in the genitive plural, used twice in the Greek text. The stress, then, is on the humanity of the high priest.
The Letter to the Hebrews takes as a major theme the priesthood of Jesus Christ, and the 2d part of our reading today gets to that.
Except for a century of independence in the 2d and 1st centuries B.C., the period of the Maccabees, in the Jewish world after the return from the Babylonian Exile, ca. 540 B.C. (our responsorial psalm today reflects the joy of the Jews when they came home), until the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple by the Romans in 70 A.D., the most important figure was the high priest. He was both a religious and a political power, and that’s reflected in our Gospels as well as in more secular histories like those of Josephus.
Hebrews is concerned with the religious figure of the priest. The 1st 4 verses of our reading today make 4 points:
1. The priest is a human being chosen to represent his fellow human beings before God. He’s a mediator.
2. He offers gifts and sacrifices for sins. He offers atonement.
3. Being human, he is himself weak and thus he deals patiently with sinners. His sin offering or atonement has to be offered for himself as well as for everyone.
4. Only God can choose someone for priesthood.
In our passage, the writer—who is anonymous—takes up that last point 1st, asserting that Christ didn’t “glorify himself” by “becoming high priest”; rather, God (the Father) appointed him to the office. The writer cites 2 verses from the messianic Ps 110 in support of his assertion. Elsewhere in the letter he deals with the other 3 points.
We, however, will deal with them now.
In our Christian faith, there is only 1 priest, namely, Jesus Christ. There is only 1 sacrifice offered for the sins of human beings, namely, Jesus’ sacrifice. The man who stands before you now, like all other presbyters as well as all bishops, exercises the priesthood of Jesus, offers the sacrifice of Jesus, deals sacramentally with sinners in the name and in the person of Jesus; that’s why he’s called alter Christus, “another Christ.” “Only Christ is the true priest, the others being only his ministers,” St. Thomas teaches, as quoted in the Catechism of the Catholic Church.
Hebrews doesn’t stress the humanity of Jesus the way the First Letter of John does, for instance, because of 1st-century controversies. Gnostic heresies denied that Jesus was truly human. Hebrews, tho, stresses Jesus’ identification with us, one who can represent us at God’s throne because he’s one of us, like an ambassador dealing with a foreign government; and one who can sympathize with us and be compassionate with us because he’s one of us. He knows our weaknesses. Hebrews says 2 verses before this passage—it was in our reading last week—that he’s been tested in every way that we’re tested, the only difference being that he didn’t fail any tests, didn’t yield to any temptations (4:15), which the Synoptic Gospels also teach us. And the Gospels show very clearly how patiently and compassionately Christ deals with sinners, with ordinary human beings who have a little bit of good will, who are humbly open to God’s grace.
Christ’s sacrifice for sin, the gift of his own will and his own body, was offered only once, which Hebrews emphasizes in ch. 10. Today’s passage, citing Ps 110, attributes to him an eternal priesthood: “You are a priest forever,” immortal after his resurrection and his consecration by God (5:5-6). Christ’s sacrifice of his body and blood, of his will, of his entire life, culminated on Calvary, and it continues thru his personal, living presence before the Father. Our Eucharist makes that sacrifice present here—the one, same sacrifice of Calvary; the one, same sacrifice Christ offers continuously to his Father as our representative, in atonement for our sins.
“No one takes this honor upon himself but only when called by God” (5:4). Every Christian is called by God to a share in Christ’s priesthood (as well as in his kingship and prophetic office). Every Catholic Christian takes part in the Eucharistic sacrifice, offering Christ’s body and blood thru the hands of the ministerial priest, and by right, as a Christian priest, partakes of the sacrifice, i.e., eats what has been offered to God as sacred food.
Every Christian is called to offer her body and blood, her will and entire person, to the Father, day in and day out. St. Paul urges the Church of Rome “to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God, your spiritual worship. Do not conform yourselves to this age but be transformed by the renewal of your mind [that would mean “conversion”], that you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and pleasing and perfect” (12:1-2). This self-offering may be a free will offering of praise and humility to God; it may be an atonement offering for our sins.
Shortly after Paul wrote, the Christians of Rome were called upon to offer their bodies as living sacrifices indeed—victims of Nero’s persecution: living torches lighting up the imperial gardens at nite, food for wild beasts at public entertainments. Sadly, some Christians are still compelled to offer themselves thus—victims of Communist or Islamist persecutions or defenders of human rights against other oppressive regimes. Our self-offering might involve nothing more challenging than dragging our bodies out of bed in the morning to rise for God’s service. It might involve serving another person who needs assistance, no matter how long and tiring our day has been. It might involve stifling some cutting remark we’re on the verge of making to or about someone. It might involve saying no when we’ve really had enuf to eat or drink.
So we all have lots of possibilities, beside celebrations of the sacred liturgy, to exercise our share in the priesthood of Jesus, offering gifts and sacrifices for sins, because we have been honored by a divine call.