31st Sunday of Ordinary Time
Preached November 4, 2018; St. Peter Catholic Church, The Dalles, Oregon
During the course of the last month our 2nd reading has been taken from the Letter to the Hebrews and that will continue for most of November as well. The Letter to the Hebrews is the great document on the priesthood of Jesus Christ. The reality is revealed in the Gospels, but the Letter to the Hebrews makes it explicit, showing how it fulfills and surpasses the levitical priesthood of the Old Testament.
Last Sunday we heard that every high priest is taken from among men and made their representative before God, to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins. (Heb 5:1)
This by the way is why it is more proper for the priest to stand at the altar facing God, as it were, with the people he is representing behind him, than for the priest to stand at the altar facing the people.
The priesthood is really central to the whole of biblical religion, Old Testament and New Testament. In the Old Testament the Law of Moses, which is foundational for the whole of the Old Testament, is found in the first five books of the Bible. The middle book, which seems so foreign to us today, is the book of Leviticus, which contains detailed prescriptions regarding priesthood, sacrifice, the conduct of the priestly people, who must live according the command, Be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy. (Lev 19:2)
We could say that finally, everything that happens in the life of the people of Israel revolves around what happens in the Temple. When the people live in fidelity to the covenant everything that they do is brought into unity and offered to God through the right order of the Temple worship. When the people are unfaithful to God, the first thing to go is the right order of the Temple worship.
The same is true in the life of the new people of God, the Church, except that in place of the Temple worship in Jerusalem, we have the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, offered throughout the world. When the new people of God lives in fidelity to the covenant of Christ, everything we do as Christians is brought into unity and offered to God through the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. When the people are unfaithful to God, the first thing to go is the right order of the worship of the Mass.
The Temple worship of the Old Testament was a shadow of the good things to come. (cf. Heb 10:1) The shadow has the shape or figure of the reality, but not the reality itself. So the Temple worship was a living figure of the priesthood of Christ and his sacrifice on the Cross. The animals that were slain in sacrifice were all foreshadowings of Christ crucified. The fire on the altar was a figure of the fire of the Holy Spirit burning in the Sacred Heart of Jesus Christ.
In the Holy Sacrifice of Mass we have the very image that contains the reality. (cf. Heb 10:1) The priest ministering at the altar is a sacramental image and representative of Jesus Christ, the High Priest. The appearances of bread and wine contain the very reality of the Body and Blood of Christ, the Lamb of God offered in sacrifice upon the Cross. This sacrifice is represented in the Mass by the separate consecration of the bread and wine.
At the heart of it all is Jesus Christ, the great High Priest, holy, innocent, undefiled, separated from sinners, higher than the heavens. He offered himself once for all and so now he lives forever at the right hand of the Father, always interceding for us. His is the sacrifice that takes away sin and reconciles us to God.
We were first joined to that sacrifice and receive its effect in us through our baptism, which is always baptism into the death of Christ, which joined us to his Body, as his members. (cf. Rm 6:3) Through baptism into the death of Christ, we died to ourselves, we ceased to be mere individuals, and we became members of Christ, his Body. Through baptism all of us were also joined to the priesthood of Christ and become priests. This is how St. Peter puts it: Come to him, a living stone, rejected by men but chosen and precious in the sight of God, and like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. (1 Pe 2:4-5)
How do the Christian people offer ‘spiritual sacrifices’?
When we slay our own ego, we have a sacrifice that we can place on the altar with the Lamb of God.
When we repent of sin, we slay a sacrifice that we can place on the altar with the Lamb of God.
When we resist temptation, we slay a sacrifice that we can place on the altar with the Lamb of God.
When we accept the sufferings, sickness, and insults of life in union with Christ crucified, we have a sacrifice that we can place on the altar with the Lamb of God.
When we perform a work of mercy, we have a sacrifice that we can place on the altar with the Lamb of God.
When we love our neighbor as ourselves, for love of God, we have a sacrifice that we can place on the altar with the Lamb of God.
When we listen to the word of God and when we pray, we have a sacrifice that we can place on the altar with the Lamb of God.
When we bear witness to Jesus Christ by word and deed, we have a sacrifice that we can place on the altar with the Lamb of God.
Whenever we conform our will to the will of God, we have a sacrifice that we can place on the altar with the Lamb of God.
In all of this we can make our intention explicit by using the words the Our Lady of Fatima taught to the three shepherd children: “My Jesus, it is for love of you, for the conversion of sinners, and in reparation for sins committed against the Immaculate Heart of Mary.”
In all these ways we obey the injunction of St. Paul, I urge you brothers, by the mercies of God, 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 you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and pleasing and perfect. (Rm 12:1-2)
When this sacrifice is united to the offering of the Lamb of God and set aflame by the love of God, with our whole heart, our whole soul, our whole mind, and our whole strength, this is worth more than all the burnt offerings and sacrifices of the Old Testament.
And what is the role of the priest at the altar? “Through the ministry of the priests, the spiritual sacrifice of the faithful is made perfect in union with the sacrifice of Christ. He is the only mediator who in the name of the whole Church is offered sacramentally in the Eucharist and in an unbloody manner until the Lord himself comes.” (PO 2) The priest visibly represents Jesus Christ, the High Priest, to his people, places the once for all sacrifice of Jesus upon the altar in the sacrament of his Body and Blood, and through the prayer that he says in the name of the whole Church he unites the spiritual sacrifice of the people to the sacrifice of Christ on the altar.
The priest does not act at the altar in virtue of his own holiness, but in virtue of his ordination, whereby he is constituted as a living instrument in the hands of Jesus Christ. When the priest cooperates with the grace of God and allows his life to be transformed by the Holy Spirit, he becomes indeed a transparent and radiant image of Jesus Christ, the High Priest, present in his Church. When the priest is unfaithful, the sacrifice on the altar is still accomplished but the priest himself becomes opaque to the light of God, a contradiction and a scandal.
Nevertheless, what is important is not the minister at the altar but his action in the person of the High Priest, Jesus Christ. The presence and activity of Jesus Christ, working through his visible ministers, is the reason for the confidence expressed elsewhere in the Letter to the Hebrews.
Therefore, brothers, since through the blood of Jesus Christ (offered on the altar), we have confidence of entrance into the sanctuary by the new and living way he opened for us through the veil, that is his flesh (offered on the altar), and since we have a great high priest over the house of God (represented by the priest at the altar), let us approach with a sincere heart and in absolute trust, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience (by baptism and then confession) and our bodies washed in pure water (by baptism). Let us hold unwaveringly to our confession that gives us hope, for he who made the promise is trustworthy. We must consider how to rouse one another to love and good works (love your neighbor as yourself). We should not stay away from our assembly, as is the custom of some, but encourage one another, and this all the more as you see they day drawing near. (Heb 10:19-25) That is the reality of the Mass.