22d Sunday of Ordinary Time
Aug. 29, 2004
Heb 12: 18-19, 22-24Provincial House, New Rochelle
I'm moving on Sunday from my old community, the "Washington" Salesians (living in College Park, Md.), to my new-old one at the provincial house in New Rochelle. So--an old homily delivered at that venue.
“You have approached Mt. Zion and the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem” (Heb 12: 22).
|Moses with the 10 Commandments (Jose de Ribera)|
When Moses and the Hebrews came to Mt. Sinai after God had brought them out of Egypt, the signs of the divine presence at the mountain inspired awe, even terror, in the people, and they were forbidden under penalty of death even to approach the mountain, except Moses. The author of the Letter to the Hebrews alludes to all that in the 1st 2 verses of our reading today—and he need only allude to it because his readers were Jewish Christians, thoroughly familiar with the exodus story, as well as with the story of Abel, which he mentions later—as all of us ought to be familiar, too.
The author recalls that scene and the fearful attitude it inspired in the people of God to contrast the Old Covenant of Mt. Sinai with the New Covenant of Jesus Christ. The God of Mt. Sinai had struck Israel’s oppressors hard with plagues, with the angel of death, with the waters of the Red Sea. He had likewise struck down all the unfaithful of Israel: those who rebelled against Moses, those who had worshipped the golden calf. This was the God who spoke in thunder, who flashed lightning bolts, who glowed in fire atop the mountain, who warned the people and even the livestock to keep their distance lest they die.
The people of the New Covenant, on the other hand, have been summoned to come closer to God, and in “Jesus, the mediator” of that “new covenant” (12:24), we’ve already done so. We “have approached Mt. Zion, the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem.” Jesus, flesh of our flesh, has gone to the throne of God, taking our human nature with him. He has left the earthly Jerusalem for the heavenly one; the stone and cedar temple on Mt. Zion that is an image of God’s court for the real heavenly city where God in fact dwells. And he promises to take all believers there to be with him; in him we’re already there by anticipation.
The Triumph of Christianity
In the heavenly Jerusalem we have approached, drawn near, joined “countless angels in festal gathering, and the assembly of the firstborn enrolled in heaven” (12:22-23). The angels of the heavenly court we understand. They are those pure spirits who have served God faithfully from before the material universe was created, his occasional messengers to the world of human beings, sometimes our protectors and patrons. With the “assembly of the firstborn” we may be less acquainted; it’s God’s faithful people. “Assembly” is εκκλησία in the Greek text, ecclesia in Latin, “those called out,” the usual New Testament word for “Church.” Here it may mean the people of the Old Covenant who were faithful to the covenant given thru Moses—the “firstborn” of God’s people in relation to the followers of Jesus; recall that Pope John Paul has called the Jews our “elder brothers.” Or it may mean the followers of Jesus themselves. In Jesus, the “firstborn” of God, “the firstborn from the dead” (Col 1:18), all of us have become God’s favored children; St. Paul calls Christ “the firstborn among many brothers and sisters” (Rom 8:29). In Christ we lay claim to the inheritance rights of firstborn sons. We on earth are on our way to becoming “the just made perfect” by God’s grace, as the elect before the throne of God are already made perfect.
Unlike the Israelites in the desert, we can dare to approach “God the judge of all” (12:23). The Letter to the Hebrews doesn’t call him Father here, but Jesus always calls him Abba, and he taught us to do the same. Judges not only find guilt and declare sentences. They also vindicate and declare awards. Those who by God’s grace are just have been vindicated; their reward is a place before God. They aren’t afraid of the judge, for they’re confident of his love for them.
This New Covenant given to us from Mt. Zion to replace the Old Covenant of Mt. Sinai has been mediated by Jesus. Moses went up into the fire and thunder of Mt. Sinai, Jesus into heaven itself. Moses brought with him no sacrificial offering, but when he came down from the mountain had to offer up bulls and goats and sprinkle the people and the altar with the blood of the sacrifice. Jesus went up to the throne of God with the blood of his own sacrifice. That blood, “sprinkled” upon the earth and upon the human race at Calvary and in the Eucharistic sacrifice, “speaks more eloquently than that of Abel,” says Hebrews (12:24).
You remember the story of Cain and Abel. When God confronted the murderer, he said, “Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the soil!” (Gen 4:10). Abel’s blood demanded redemption, which in the culture of the Middle East usually means vengeance, evening the score. The blood of our Savior Jesus has certainly evened the score for all the sins of humanity. It’s incomparably more eloquent than Abel’s blood, which cried out only for Abel. The blood of Jesus cried out for all of us, and it continues to cry out, to intercede, to mediate for us before God. It cries not for vengeance but for pardon. Therefore we eagerly, even if unworthily, come to drink in his blood, and by the intercessory power of his blood to be made worthy of approaching “Mt. Zion, the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem,” worthy of joining “the spirits of the just made perfect, the assembly of the firstborn enrolled in heaven.”