Over the course of seven consecutive Sundays, we’re hearing from the Letter to the Hebrews. This New Testament letter is unique to all other writings in the Bible, particularly in how it speaks of Jesus, its particular theology—what we would call Christology. This letter was written to encourage Jewish Christians who were becoming disheartened, to explain that their old Jewish practices were not enough to put them in right relationship with God—they needed the mediation of Jesus, whom the author calls the great high priest (4:14).
Of the many images and titles we have of Jesus, high priest may not be the first one that comes to mind. First of all, although the Letter to the Hebrews refers to him that way, that doesn’t seem to be how he’s described in the Gospels. Furthermore, we tend to think of Jesus as having an adversarial relationship with the Temple priests, the Sanhedrin.
But it’s true, he is our great high priest, and when we connect the dots, we see his priesthood woven into the writings of the Gospels. In it all, in keeping with the basic function of a priest, he stands between God and man—a middle man, if you will—offering a sacrifice to God, for the good of others.
So, what’s the point of the sacrifices? On some level, it all seems cruel and senseless. For the ancient people, the sacrifices were understood to be a vicarious offering for one’s sins, to put that person back into relationship with God. The priest was a mediator in this, reconciling God and man.
But the Letter to the Hebrews makes it clear that while Jesus is a priest, he’s different than every priest before him—he changed the priesthood. First, because he didn’t come from the family line of priests, the tribe of Levi. He was a son of David, the family line of Judah. Also different, we’re told that his priesthood would last forever, and that he would offer one sacrifice for all peoples, for all times. Finally, he is unique in that he is not just the priest offering the sacrifice—he is at the same time, the sacrifice.
In his role as priest, and as the offering itself, he brings us back into right-relationship with God. Every time we celebrate the Mass, we enter into that eternal act that took place at the Last Supper. When he said, “This is my body which will be given up for you”. That’s wasn’t merely a polite gesture, like passing a plate of cookies to your houseguests. It was explicitly sacrificial language, saying that his body will be given up, that his blood will be poured out. That event in the upper room was continued in what would happen the next day on Calvary, where he would be nailed to the cross, where from the cross, he would enact, as high priest, the sacrificial offering of himself.
As we celebrate the Mass on this altar, today or any other day, we enter into that eternal sacrifice. The crucifix on the wall serves as a ‘screenshot’ if you will, of our current activity in the Liturgy of the Eucharist.
As we prepare the altar for the sacrifice, bringing up the gifts of bread and wine, be attentive to those gifts, because they represent all of us: our fears, our joys, our wounds, our causes for gratitude, our worries and all that we are. Those gifts—that is, we ourselves—are laid-out on the altar. As Jesus lifts-up the sacrifice to the Father in this Mass, he also raises us up and all our causes with it. This altar becomes the portal to the Father, and Jesus stands at the doorway.
And how beautiful it is, that we have a high priest who is not only God, but because he also fully human, he understands our weaknesses, our suffering, our temptations, our fears. Because he is both divine and human, he stands in middle ground like no other priest could.
In so doing, with the same compassion he extended to the blind man, Bartimaeus, he likewise asks us here and now: “What do you want me to do for you?” Not only will I absorb your sins, as I offer myself for you. But as your priest, your intercessor, what do you need me to pray for? Ask it. Friends in Christ, if we aren’t bringing this part of ourselves to him at this Mass or any Masses in which we participate, we are missing an opportunity, but even more, it leaves us wanting.
But even more, as so many great people have shown us, regardless of all the prayers we give to him, solutions we seek, ultimately what we need is Jesus himself. The answer, the solution to our fears, our wounds, is hidden within the Eucharist that he gives to us from this altar. If we aren’t seeking and receiving him as the answer to our needs, again, we’re missing it and will be left wanting.