Fr. Smith’s Commentary on the Second Reading
Thirty-Second Sunday in Ordinary Time
Observance of the Memorial of St. Charles Borromeo
November 7, 2021
Today, we complete our study of the Letter to the Hebrews. This section is not the end of the entire letter, but it brings together many of the ideas we have discussed. We have seen that the Author is well versed in Judaism but also more than merely competent in using the Greek language. He knows that his audience was composed mostly of people born Jews and that they judged the world as Jews. They saw themselves as members of a people who had a unique relationship with God indeed, they shared a covenant with Him and each other. They would change their religious practices and commitments only if they believed that this change would bring them into a deeper relationship with the God, they called the Lord.
The Letter to the Hebrews not only speaks to these concerns but also does so in a way that any Jew could follow and indeed a very educated Jew would find compelling. As we saw last week, with his use of the figure of Melchizedek we might not be as impressed. Yet the basic point is as true then as now. Jesus is not only a real priest, although not of the priestly tribe of Levi, but has a deeper linage.
Today, the author will show that because Jesus is fully human, and fully divine, his sacrifice is perfect and because perfect cannot be repeated.
Once more the author will bring considerable and admirable learning to his writing. So much so that we, who are not highly educated in Judaism, can easily be lost. Indeed, this can become so complicated that many parish Bible study groups have decided not to explore it. We will try not to lose the forest for the trees.
We need first to remember that he does not disparage Judaism. His constant teaching is Judaism good, but Christianity is best.
For Christ did not enter into a sanctuary made by hands,
a copy of the true one, but heaven itself,
that he might now appear before God on our behalf.
Copy did not mean a false one, but a reflection of the heavenly sanctuary. The high priest would offer sacrifice for the people and experienced God on Yom Kippur but would only see His reflection at the mercy seat within the Holy of Holies. He did not experience God face to face.
This allows him to present his most conclusive ideas.
Not that he might offer himself repeatedly,
as the high priest enters each year
into the sanctuary with blood that is not his own;
if that were so, he would have had to suffer repeatedly
from the foundation of the world
Jesus is not only the perfect priest who offers the sacrifice without sin or imperfection, he is also the sacrifice itself. He offered this sacrifice on the cross with blood that is his own. This is the perfect sacrifice from the perfect priest and cannot be repeated. Jesus cannot be sacrificed ever again.
The author imagined the earthy temple reflected the worship of the heavenly one. This concept was adapted from the Philosopher Plato. He was not the only Jewish writer to use Plato and he would have been applauded for doing so by very “mainstream” Jews. Yet distinctly Jewish conceptions were the bedrock of his thought.
Just as it is appointed that human beings die once,
and after this the judgment,
so also Christ, offered once to take away the sins of many,
will appear a second time,
not to take away sin but to bring salvation
to those who eagerly await him.
Jesus was the Priest/Messiah. The Messiah was to bring what the Synoptic gospels, Matthew, Mark, and Luke, call the Kingdom. The Messiah would divide the world into the just and unjust and then begin a time of divine rule. The kingdom as he experienced it is “already” and “not yet”. Jesus will return and will fulfill indeed transcend Messianic Rule.
The author of Hebrews has been clear that for Christians Jesus is the only Priest. There are people who we call priests who participate in that one priesthood. We are shown today that the only sacrifice is that on the cross. Every Eucharist participates in that one offering.
This is key to the Catholic understanding not only of the Mass but of our very reason to exist. The Catechism of the Catholic Church expresses this in many articles. The one printed below not only admirably expresses the theology of the Letter to the Hebrews but also some of the fundamentals of Catholic Eucharistic theology.
In the liturgy of the Church, it is principally his own Paschal mystery that Christ signifies and makes present. During his earthly life Jesus announced his Paschal mystery by his teaching and anticipated it by his actions. When his Hour comes, he lives out the unique event of history which does not pass away: Jesus dies, is buried, rises from the dead, and is seated at the right hand of the Father “once for all.” His Paschal mystery is a real event that occurred in our history, but it is unique: all other historical events happen once, and then they pass away, swallowed up in the past. The Paschal mystery of Christ, by contrast, cannot remain only in the past, because by his death he destroyed death, and all that Christ is—all that he did and suffered for all men—participates in the divine eternity, and so transcends all times while being made present in them all. The event of the Cross and Resurrection abides and draws everything toward life.
(Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1085)
The letter to the Hebrews was written to Jews, most likely in Rome, who were considering returning to Judaism. They were being persecuted and the Lord had not returned to complete his kingdom. They were scared and disappointed. As we emerge from COVID and, not only need to rebuild our parish but are called by Pope Francis to walk together to guide the entire church, we should put our concerns, hopes, and dreams where the author told the Hebrews to put theirs: in the “eternal and everlasting sacrifice” offered by Jesus Christ, Priest, King, and Savior.