22d Sunday of Ordinary Time
Aug. 28, 2016
Heb 12: 18-19, 22-24
Holy Cross, Champaign, Ill.
“You have approached Mt. Zion and the city of the living God” (Heb 12: 22).
We’ve been reading from the Letter to the Hebrews for several weeks, a letter that, broadly speaking, shows how Jesus of Nazareth brought to fulfillment what God did and promised in the sacred writings of the Jewish people—what Christians now call the Old Testament.
There are 2 explicit allusions to the OT in today’s passage, and an implicit one. Explicitly, it invokes the experience of Moses and the Hebrews at Mt. Sinai—call to mind some of the scenes you’ve seen from The Ten Commandments—and the murder of Abel in Gen 4 (vv. 1-16). Implicitly, it looks at Jerusalem, God’s holy city with its Temple, as the exemplar or model for heaven itself.
The Hebrews to whom this NT letter is addressed of course aren’t the Hebrews who came out of Egypt with Moses. Rather, as far as scholars can tell, they were 1st-century Christians of Jewish blood and heritage.
When we read in the Book of Exodus the story of the Hebrews at Mt. Sinai, we’re given a story of God’s awful holiness—that’s awful in its original meaning of “inspiring awe,” meaning that much more strongly than we mean when we say, e.g., that Niagara Falls or Yosemite Valley is “awesome.” The story also conveys God’s unapproachability, his terror-inspiring might, his holiness that consumes anyone and anything impure—like what happened to the Nazi villains when they opened the Ark of the Covenant in the 1st Indiana Jones movie. Sinai is covered in cloud and smoke and fire (Ex 19:16-19), which our reading referenced (Heb 12:18)—all signs of God’s presence—and no one, not even a goat, may approach the mountain, under penalty of death (Ex 19:12-13; Heb 12:20), except Moses and his aide Joshua.
Jesus, the author of Hebrews tells us, has changed that. Thru him we can approach God, come close to him—everyone, not just a chosen leader or a select few. We approach the sacred mountain, Zion—not the earthly Zion, i.e., Jerusalem, but the heavenly one. In the holy city we become part of God’s court, among “countless angels in festal gathering, and the assembly of the firstborn enrolled in heaven” (12:22-23). The firstborn is Jesus, the “firstborn of the dead”—St. Paul’s term (Col 1:18) and also the Book of Revelation’s (1:5). That is, Jesus is the 1st to rise from the grave into the life of eternity, and he’s “the firstborn of many brothers and sisters”—that’s St. Paul again (Rom 8:29)—who shall follow him into eternal life. That life is shared by the great assembly of his holy ones, all those enrolled in the book of life—this sounds like some of the scenes described in the Book of Revelation. We dare to approach “God the judge of all” (12:23), around whom stand “the spirits of the just made holy, and Jesus the mediator of a new covenant” (12:23-24). The just have been made holy by Jesus—no one but Jesus is just in his own right; no one is in a right and healthy relationship with God the All-Holy except those whom Jesus has justified by grace. Those so justified can stand in God’s presence, as only Moses could do among all the Hebrews at Mt. Sinai. (In the 2d Eucharistic Prayer, right after the consecration we give God thanks “that you have held us worthy to be in your presence and minister to you.”)
The Letter to the Hebrews also refers to “a voice speaking words such that those who heard begged that no message be further addressed to them” (12:19). The signs of God’s presence at Mt. Sinai are so frightening that the Hebrews beg Moses to speak with God on their behalf while they keep their distance (Ex 20:18-19). On the other hand, Jesus has come to us speaking gently of God’s mercy. Crowds hastened to his presence and listened eagerly to his preaching; they looked to him for healing, consolation, and hope. Jesus is the new voice of God, not terrible to hear, not too awe-ful, but comforting and welcoming to us sinners.
For Jesus is “the mediator of a new covenant,” a covenant that succeeds the one mediated by Moses at Mt. Sinai. This new covenant offers redemption to all people—the “many” of whom the words of consecration at Mass speak (quoting Jesus at the Last Supper [Mark 14:24])—and not only to the few, the Hebrews, not only to the Jews as a single chosen people. Now all nations have been chosen by God to be his own people, to be saved, to be given a special land of their own, namely “the heavenly Jerusalem.”
In the OT, covenants weren’t sealed with sealing wax and a solemn stamp, or with fancy calligraphy (“John Hancock”), but with blood, usually that of a sacrificial animal. So it was at Mt. Sinai, when Moses took the blood of young bulls that had been sacrificed and sprinkled it upon the altar, representing the Lord God, and on the people; they were bound together in a blood relationship (Ex 24:3-8). The Letter to the Hebrews reminds us that we’ve been splashed—bathed!—by the blood of Jesus that dripped from his nailed hands and feet and spurted from his pierced side—the very blood that we consume in the Eucharist as a sign of this new covenant he’s made with us, binding us to himself as his sacred people, his people made holy.
The Crucifixion of Jesus Christ
(from "The Garden of Delights")
This “sprinkled blood” of Jesus, the writer encourages us, “speaks more eloquently than that of Abel” (12:24). When Cain slew Abel, Gen 4:10 tells us, Abel’s blood cried out to the Lord from the soil. In OT terms, in terms of Middle Eastern culture right up till today, Abel’s blood cried out for vengeance. Jesus’ blood, however, marks us for redemption, for forgiveness; it protects us from the wrath that God visits upon sinners. In both the OT and the New, when sinners reject God’s word, they will know his wrath—as we heard, e.g., in last Sunday’s gospel, which urged us to enter God’s kingdom by the narrow gate or be refused entrance as evildoers whom he doesn’t recognize (Luke 13:22-30). Rather, let us do as Hebrews urged us at Mass 2 weeks ago, in words from the beginning of the same chapter we’re reading today: “Let us rid ourselves of every burden and sin that clings to us and persevere in running the race that lies before us while keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus, the leader and perfecter of faith” (12:1-2). For Jesus, God’s mercy among us, does indeed remove from us any burden of sinfulness and guilt when we turn to him in repentance; he does wash us clean in his blood poured out for us; he does covenant with us to make us his very own and to lead us into the promised land, the heavenly city for which his Father created us.