in Ordinary Time
Nov. 11, 2012
Heb 9: 24-28
Christian Brothers, Iona College, N.R.
“Christ did not enter a sanctuary made by hands, a copy of the true one, but heaven itself, that he might now appear before God on our behalf” (Heb 9: 24).
The Letter to the Hebrews, from which our NT readings are taken for 7 Sunday running—this is the 6th—is an extended reflection on the priesthood of Jesus.
Today’s passage takes up the Jewish observance of the Day of Atonement—Yom Kippur. It was the one day in the year when the high priest—and only he –could go into the Holy of Holies, the innermost sanctuary of the Temple, to offer a solemn sacrifice to atone for all the people’s sins during the preceding year—the people’s sins and his own as well.
The 1st verse of the reading alludes to the Temple as “a copy of the true one,” the only real sanctuary, viz., heaven, before the living presence of God. According to the Torah, the tent that Moses was directed to erect for the Ark of the Covenant was modeled on the sanctuary at the throne of the God. Altho a temple isn’t a tent, obviously, Solomon’s Temple also was considered to have been some kind of a copy of the heavenly court.
The anonymous author of Hebrews tells us that Christ, the high priest of God’s new covenant, goes into a sanctuary to offer sacrifice; but no earthly sanctuary, as the Jewish high priest does. No, Jesus enters heaven itself.
And he enters God’s presence—the Father’s presence—“on our behalf.” That’s a point made repeatedly by the letter, and such intercession goes to the heart of what it means to be a priest.
Our text this evening then makes 2 more contrasts between the Jewish high priest’s ritual on Yom Kippur and what Jesus does. 1st, the high priest carries out his ritual “repeatedly…each year,” and 2d, he offers “blood that is not his own” (9:25).
As we all know, and as Hebrews says elsewhere—in last week’s passage, for instance (7: 23-28 at 27)—Jesus has offered his own blood, not the blood of some sheep or goat 1st slain and then burnt as a holocaust for our sins.
Jesus needs to do this but once, not “each year.” He does it “once for all” (9:26), or “once and for all, “as we’re more accustomed to say. His one sacrifice, pouring out his own blood on the cross, “takes away sin” (9:26) for all of humanity, past, present, and future—an eternal sacrifice, as Hebrews says elsewhere, last week’s passage again being one example. This single sacrifice effectively “takes away sin” (9:26) and thus doesn’t need to be—and can’t be—repeated.
The sacred writer continues by comparing Christ with all of mankind. “Human beings die but once” (9:27), and Christ thus could die but once, not “suffer repeatedly from the foundation of the world” (9:26), like the victims offered yearly on Yom Kippur—with some exaggeration, obviously, since the Mosaic Law isn’t nearly as old as “the foundation of the world” except in the mystical sense that the Law of Moses could itself be called the foundation of the world, not geologically but theologically.
So Christ could die for our sins but once, “at the end of the ages” (9:26). That phrase echoes the 1st 2 verses of Hebrews: “In times past, God spoke in partial and various ways to our ancestors thru the prophets; and in these last days, he spoke to us thru a son.” In other words, Christ’s coming is the last, definitive Word of God. His coming, his voice, his deeds (which, in biblical language, also qualify as “words”) inaugurate the final age of the world, the final age of human history. Revelation is complete, the reconciliation of humanity with God is complete, and humanity and divinity are joined forever in Christ’s Person, our eternal destiny bound up with his. All of human history, indeed all of creation, is recapitulated in Christ, as St. Paul writes to the Ephesians: “a plan for the fullness of times, to sum up all things in Christ, in heaven and on earth” (1:10). Those of you familiar with the theology of Teilhard de Chardin will recognize that theme.
Thanks to our recent change in the Mass texts, the next line has a certain notoriety: “Christ offered once to take away the sins of many” (9:28). “For many” is the language not just here but also in Christ’s words at the Last Supper as he instituted the Eucharist. More particularly, this verse here echoes Is 53:12: “He shall take away the sins of many, and win pardon for their offenses.”
“Many” in Semitic usage contrasts with “some” or “a few.” Thus the benefits of Christ’s sacrifice aren’t restricted to only the Jews, or to “pure” Jews like the scribes and Pharisees with whom Jesus contended. It’s a far broader term; in Christian terms, a term embracing those whom the scribes and Pharisees branded as sinners, and the Gentiles.
At the same time, “many” isn’t effectively “all,” at least not necessarily so. (We may hope it is. We ought to hope and pray that it is.) “Christ…will appear a second time, not to take away sin but to bring salvation to those who eagerly await him” (9:28). “Those who eagerly await him” are the “many” for whom his salvation is effective, whose sins are in truth taken away.
At each Eucharist we come to this Jesus, this intercessor before the throne of God, to take part in his one sacrifice, to “recapitulate” our lives and our destiny in his, and to pray that he, the Lamb of God offered for sin, will take away our sins by uttering a forgiving word, will heal our souls and bind us to himself for eternity.