Today’s first reading
is a magnificent reflection on our “great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God
” (Hebrews 4:14
All of us who are baptized into Christ have a share in that priesthood.
“Ye also, as lively stones, are built up a spiritual house,
an holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices,
acceptable to God by Jesus Christ.”
1 Peter 2:5
Furthermore, in keeping with the diversity of functions within the Body of Christ (see Romans 12 & 1 Corinthians 12
), there are some among us who are called to exercise the priesthood of Christ in a special way, as a ministry.
Thus today’s first reading can be seen not only as being about Christ, but also about the “priesthood of the baptized” as well as about the “ministerial priesthood” - both of which (each in their own way) merely share in the one priesthood of Christ.
Every high priest
is taken from among men
their representative before God…
Intercession is an essential part of every Christian’s life, for we each must pray for one another. Moreover, whenever any one of us prays for another, in a very real sense we are standing at that moment as a representative of that person before God
(through the one mediator Jesus Christ).
The diversity of functions within the Body of Christ, avoiding simplistic homogeneity without diminishing fundamental equality, helps highlight functions such as intercession in which we all share (even if differently). Thus particular members are taken from among
the many members of the Body of Christ and ordained for these highlighted functions and for service within the Body of Christ.
And so, although we can and must pray directly to God, we build ourselves up within the Body of Christ by asking our sisters and brothers in Christ to join us in prayer. We do this in a extra special way when we also ask priests and other ordained ministers who lead the community in prayer.
…to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins.
The one sacrifice of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ is sufficient in itself to take away the sins of the world, and yet he calls us to participate somehow in that sacrifice in different ways (see Colossians 1:24; 1 Peter 2:5, 4:13
It is a glorious thing for to be able to participate in so great a mystery, no matter how infinitesimally small and unworthy our gifts and sacrifices
may be, whether through the sacrifice of physical suffering, the sacrifice of personal resources, or the sacrifice of the Eucharistic Prayer – all of which unite within and draw power from the one, perfect sacrifice of Christ.
He is able to deal patiently
with the ignorant and erring,
for he himself is beset by weakness…
This is very important for all of us to remember. Those among us who strive to be doctrinally faithful, unimpeachably moral, and liturgically correct too often sin against charity and patience when we try to deal with the ignorant and the erring
We must do what we can to educate the ignorant and to help the erring to the right path, but we must always strive with charity and patience, mindful of our own human weaknesses (may God be merciful to me, a sinner
) and our absolute dependence upon the grace of Christ.
The greatest self-inflicted wounds suffered by Christian laity in the so-called "culture wars" are sins against charity. Likewise the lightest faults are magnified in the unkindest clergy.
We must speak what is true and fight for what is right, but we must also always serve the truth in kindness, especially those among us ordained to the ministerial priesthood: remembering “to deal patiently with the ignorant and erring for he himself is beset by weakness.”
…and so, for this reason,
must make sin offerings
as well as for the people.
Again, Christ by his mysterious grace can enable our puny efforts to participate in his one perfect offering for sin
- and this indeed is a glorious grace for us poor sinners.
Yet we must always remember that we are
sinners, that we are empowered by grace, and that we are given the power of this grace not just for our own sakes
, but for the people
Those among us who are lay Christians and most especially those among us who are ordained must therefore be incessantly penitent and altruistic.
No one takes this honor upon himself
but only when called by God,
just as Aaron was.
Many of us know too many clergy who obviously relish the honors
and perks of clericalism, embracing pride and comfort rather than the cross.
Yet even lay Christians can make the mistake of embracing pride and comfort rather than the cross in their daily “Christian” lives.
Being a Christian is a gift from God, as is the call to ministry. In either case, if it becomes a personal boast, the gift is being abused.
This verse also reminds us of how mysterious the call to ministry can be. Aaron was personally called by God
, but he was also called by means of Moses.
We must fulfill our God-given obligations, but we must also be listening always for the voice of the Lord, calling us to act or speak at a particular place and time or calling us to a radical, life-long commitment of love and service.
We must also do what we can to help others hear the voice of the Lord in their
lives, especially encouraging young people not to be swayed by the siren call of selfishness nor to fall into lockstep with what is “normal” in a post-Christian culture, but to seek the Lord’s will for their lives, to pray about their possibly becoming priests and/or professed religious.
In the same way,
it was not Christ
who glorified himself
in becoming high priest,
the one who said to him:
’You are my Son…’
When we pray, we need to be honest with God, honest about what we need and what we want, and yet the great and constant danger is that our prayers are almost exclusively self-centered: help me
, give me
, show me
That is when things are not going well (which is when many of us are more inclined to pray).
When things are not going well, our prayer should be that of Christ in the garden of Gethsemane: when he poured out his heart to God but always finished by saying with absolute sincerity, “Yet not my will but yours be done.”
When things ARE going well, our prayer should be Psalm 115:1
Non nobis, Domine, non nobis,
sed nomini tuo da gloriam
super misericordia tua et veritate tua.
Not to us, O LORD, not to us,
but to thy name give the glory,
for the sake of thy mercy and thy truth.
This is especially true for those in ministry, who can so glorify themselves
(sometimes with the assistance of kindly parishioners) that they become dependent on it and (if only subconsciously) tailor their ministry to cultivate that glory for themselves rather than to do the work of God.
‘You are my Son:
this day I have begotten you;’
The strong sense of a personal, loving relationship with God is critical for any Christian, but most particularly for Christians confronted with physical and spiritual dangers - and few Christians are more often confronted with physical and spiritual dangers than those who are ordained to the service of God and who energetically and zealously live out their vocation day after day. Catholic priests in particular have suffered tremendously in the past few years because of the sins of a relative handful of their brothers (who have inflicted unspeakable suffering upon children).
Priests, ministers, and laity - all of us
- need to open our hearts and our ears each and every day and hear the voice of our Heavenly Father saying with love,
"You are my child
…just as he says in another place,
’You are a priest forever…’
Earlier this month, concern was publicly expressed about a notorious pedophile somehow retaining priestly status even after being laicized. Laicization suppresses all the functions, rights and obligations that go with being a priest, but it does not take away the fact that this person was once taken from among men and ordained a priest ("you are a priest forever
"). That historical and ontological reality remains forever even when attempted exercise of that ministerial priesthood after laicization would be a grave sin (except for absolution in pericolo mortis
with no legal alternatives).
What comes to my mind are the stones of which the altar of the Lord was built in the Old Testament. At one point in history (1 Maccabees 4:36-47
), the altar was so desecrated that it was dismantled, never again to be used for sacrifices to the Lord, and yet the defiled stones were still set aside with a certain respect for they had once been made sacred as the altar of the Lord.
The point is not the intrinsic worth of the rocks or of a man (who may be in some ways lower than dirt) but the irremovable imprint that God can make.
Crimes should be punished and children must be protected, even as we all strive to cleanse ourselves of our own sins and to build each other up in true holiness by the grace of Christ.
’You are a priest forever
according to the order of Melchizedek.’
There is a sense in which it is good to be “living in the here and now” – not to be daydreaming about the past or about the future. Too many of us, however, live only
in the “here and now.” (As Ecclesiastes says, “There is no remembrance of former things.")
Melchizedek is a mysterious figure of the ancient past who in Genesis 14 offers bread and wine, blesses Abraham, and then is never seen again. Centuries later, his name appears in Psalm 110:4, the verse quoted here in the letter to the Hebrews.
The letter to the Hebrews will theologize further about Melchizedek and there are many things that I could add here, but the fundamental point that should be made is the wonderful continuity of the salvation history in which we are living. A line from J.R.R. Tolkien expresses the feeling thusly:
“Why, to think of it, we’re in the same tale still! It’s going on."
Thus those today serving in the ministerial priesthood of Christ today are tied to God’s saving action throughout history, even to Melchizedek, "priest of the Most High God."
In the days when he was in the Flesh...
With all due respect to Melchizedeck, however, the definitive act of God’s saving power in human history, the most perfect revelation of God, was Jesus Christ come in the flesh, who was born, walked and talked in our midst, suffered, died, and rose again.
There have been many great people and great ideas throughout human history and there are many great new ideas being developed even today. It is important for us to draw upon the best that humanity has to offer, but it is critical for us to always hold onto Jesus of Nazareth as our touchstone, our teacher, our Savior and our Lord. This is especially critical for priests, who are called to act in persona Christi.
The question “What would Jesus do?” was a fad a few years ago and it can be a useful question for Christian moral enquiry, but there are other questions to be asked before that one and the most important are “What did Jesus do?” and “What did Jesus say?”
True religion is not something devised by human caprice: it flows directly from the action and revelation of God, which took place most definitively and perfectly two thousand years ago in a small land just east of the Mediterranean Sea.
...he offered prayers and supplications
with loud cries and tears...
We return again to quintessential priestly actions: the offering of prayers and supplications. Once more we remember that these priestly actions are something all of us can do and should do. There is great value in having particular people set apart or ordained for these actions, but that excuses none of us from faithfully performing these actions - offering prayers and supplications - in the ways that we can do best.
The offering of prayers and supplications, however, is not just a job, an obligation, or something to do. We must really pray from the heart. That is what is meant to offer prayers with loud cries and tears. Histrionics do not impress God, but prayers of the heart do.
This is a particular challenge for priests and others who pray regularly and in public. It is very, very easy for prayer to degenerate into a repetition of words detached from both heart and mind - even extemporaneous prayers.
It takes a special effort of mind, heart, and spirit (as well as grace) to reach deep down into our hearts and souls each and every time we pray, but these are the prayers we are called to make, with loud cries and tears in the heart.
...to the one
who was able to save him from death...
Deep in our hearts, most of us fear death more than anything else. Some believers may fear the fires of hell, while others (believers or not) may fear the existential terror of absolute nothingness.
Part of being a Christian is to stand up for the fact that there is more than the existence of this world, that there is something beyond, and that it is worth working and hoping for.
That is part of the great witness of priestly celibacy: a bizarre practice in the eyes of the world, but a sign of faith and hope in the kingdom of God that extends beyond this world.
Sadly, this witness is sometimes tarnished, not only by priests who commit indiscretions (or even crimes) or who forsake their promises and vows, but even by priests whose life of celibacy has degenerated into simply a life of very comfortable bachelorhood.
Of course, it is easy for any of us to throw stones at each other and point out each other’s faults (Lord Jesus, be merciful to me, a sinner). It is better for us to do what we can to uphold each other in our respective vocations: to encourage each other to make and live up to our commitments and to help bring people back when they fall.
In all of this, we have the promise of the help of God, whose almighty power is greater even than the power of death. We should always be eager to call upon the name of the Lord, no matter what our need, for he can always save us. And even if the blessings of his will are not what we might want, even if all our earthly desires are frustrated, even if we die, we have the unshakeable confidence that God will save his faithful ones from death in the joys of eternal life in heaven.
...and he was heard
because of his reverence.
“Why didn’t God hear my prayer? Is it because I did something wrong?”
Emotionally and otherwise, this is a hard question to answer. Ultimately, we may find an answer in understanding that while God does indeed hear our prayers, prayer is first and foremost a conversation with him, in which we express our will to God - tell him what we want.
Sometimes we find our will to be in accord with his and what we pray for comes to pass. Sometimes we even find that our prayer proved to be an instrument of his holy will in some mysterious way.
Many times, however, God’s will for a particular situation at a particular time is somehow different from what we want. Sometimes God’s will even allows things to happen that we might rightfully see as evil.
Our faith, however, assures us that God will bring about a greater good, often far beyond our imagining, and that as we express our will to him in prayer, God brings our will and heart closer to his own.
This verse reminds us that an attitude of reverence is a critical component of prayer. In other words, the more perfectly our hearts, minds and lives are aligned with and subordinated to our loving Father, the more fruitful our prayers, our conversations with him will be.
Again, this is especially important for priests and others who may lead others in prayer. In certain circumstances, God works ex opere operato. In some circumstances, God works through people and things that are truly strange (remember God’s speaking through that donkey in the Old Testament).
Even so, a manifest attitude of reverence in itself (by priests presiding prayerfully and by congregants kneeling devoutly and singing zestfully) helps build up the community, reaffirming the nature of this conversation with God and of our relationship with him.
Son though he was,
he learned obedience
from what he suffered;
This may sound bizarre: to learn obedience from suffering. I am reminded of a scene from Robert Bolt's play "A Man for All Seasons" in which Richard Rich argues with Thomas More that any man can be "bought."
Rich: Well, with suffering, certainly.
More (intrigued): Buy a man with suffering?
Rich: Impose suffering, then offer him - escape.
More: Oh. For a moment I thought you were being profound.
Regarding this verse from Hebrews, Richard Rich would probably argue that to learn obedience from suffering is like a dog learning obedience from the suffering imposed by the master's whip, but that is not the intent of the verse.
Of course, many people in today's culture have trouble dealing with the concept of suffering and many have trouble with the idea of obedience.
As a rule, nobody wants to suffer and yet, suffering happens. Thus the one who suffers may not only endure the physiological phenomenon of pain, but also the psychological experience of vulnerability, of not being in control.
This loss of control is an occasion for the believer to remember that while we ourselves may not masters of our own universes, God is.
In the midst of suffering, the believer is comforted by the assurance of God's love and that, in his infinite wisdom and power, he can bring a greater good even out of the greatest suffering and this is a way in which the believer responds to unavoidable suffering by learning and being reaffirmed in obedience to the mysterious, benevolent will of God.
The details of how Christ "learned obedience from what he suffered" would be difficult to fully explain here, being so closely involved in the mystery of the hypostatic union. What can be said is that Christ in his human nature in some way gained a real experience and understanding of suffering and its connection to obedience .
The trusting, obedient aspect of the Christian's relationship with God is highlighted by the solemnized obedience embraced by priests and professed religious. Promises and vows of obedience are much more than just mechanisms for organizational discipline, they dramatically symbolize how obedience is a fundamental aspect of every Christian's relationship with God. The 68th Chapter of St. Benedict's Rule shows just how dramatic this can be:
"If, perchance, any difficult or impossible tasks be enjoined on a brother, let him nevertheless receive the order of him who commandeth with all meekness and obedience. If, however, he see that the gravity of the task is altogether beyond his strength, let him quietly and seasonably submit the reasons for his inability to his Superior, without pride, protest, or dissent. If, however, after his explanation the Superior still insisteth on his command, let the younger be convinced that so it is good for him; and let him obey from love, relying on the help of God."
...and when he was made perfect,
the source of eternal salvation
for all who obey him.
Obedience in our relationship with God, however, is more than just a recognition of our personal vulnerability and God's absolute sovereignty with regard to an immeasurable universe. We see in our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ the great example and reality of obedience as the way of salvation, as St. Paul says in Philippians 2:8, "obediently accepting even death: death on a cross!"
Christ did this for us out of love and so our obedience to Christ flows from the love he inspires in us.
Obedience to God through Christ is therefore not just an acknowledgement of who's boss in the universe, nor is obedience to God simply adherence to a system of morality, obedience to God through Christ is a key mechanism for our receiving eternal salvation. Obedience to God through Christ draws us closer to him and opens us more fully to receive his grace, while disobedience pulls us away and closes us off from God.
Obedience can be sacrificial, especially as we sacrifice our own will as well as our earthly desires and hopes. Obedience is also sacrificial when it is obedience to Christ, for it ties us to the salvific obedience of his sacrifice on the cross.
Obedience for Christians may thus be understood as a kind of participation in the priestly dynamism of Christ.
This reality of Christian life - participating in the loving, obedient, salvific sacrifice of Christ our great High Priest - is shared in different ways by all Christians and is highlighted in and through the ministerial priesthood, most fully when the one sacrifice of Christ is made present again in the Eucharist in obedience to his command, "Do this in memory of me."