March 17, 2024

The Priesthood of Christ

The Priesthood of Christ

Fifth Sunday of Lent 17 March 2024
Readings: Jer. 31. 31-34; Heb. 5. 5-10; Jn. 12. 20-33
Theme: The Priesthood of Christ

Today we begin Passiontide. The time which prepares us to enter Holy Week, the celebration of the Passion and death of Our Lord. It is a most solemn time that we now enter and so the colour of purple reminds us that in order to enter into this season, we should allow ourselves to be enveloped by the gravity of what is about to unfold in the liturgical celebration of the way of our redemption.

Once again the theme of the new covenant, which is announced in our first reading from the prophet Jeremiah, looms large. However, today this is retaken according to one of the central offices of Jesus, namely, his priesthood. The Letter to the Hebrews is the principle text in the New Testament which speaks of the priesthood of Christ. It sets out how Christ inaugurates the new covenant through a new conception of priesthood that is distinct from the older Jewish tradition in which priests descended from the tribe of Levi. Jesus is not from this tribe, but rather from the tribe of Judah (Heb. 7: 14), and so the author of this Letter, written sometime between AD 60 and 90, wants to break new ground in revealing to us the High Priesthood of Christ as the way in which the new covenant is inaugurated. But what does this “High Priesthood of Christ” mean?

The first thing to understand about priesthood is that it is intrinsically connected with the notion of sacrifice. The various priestly practices that are outlined in the Pentateuch all involve in one way or another the sacrifice of animals to atone for the sins of the people and to reconnect, so to speak, the people with their God: to repair the covenant. So, priesthood in the Old Testament understanding, which is the background of the Letter to the Hebrews, which is addressed most probably addressed to former Jewish priests, is intimately associated with the notion of the expiation of the sins of the people (Heb. 2. 17).

However, the priesthood of Christ differs in two essential ways from the former Jewish Levitical priesthood which the author of the Letter to the Hebrews wants to make clear. First, unlike the priests in the Levitical tradition, Jesus only offers the sacrifice once. For the Levitical priests, they would have to continually repeat the sacrifices of animals to expiate the ongoing sinful behaviour of their people and of themselves. However, as well as this “one time only” sacrifice offered by Christ (Heb. 7. 27), there is a crucial second difference from the Levitical priesthood. Unlike these Levitical priests, Jesus does not offer animal sacrifices on behalf of the people. No, his offering is none other than himself (Heb. 9. 25-26). So, in his order of being the High Priest, Jesus is the Priest, the Victim, the one who offers the sacrifice and the very sacrifice which is offered itself. This is a radical departure from the former understanding of Levitical priesthood, because now Jesus himself will become the sacrificial animal and not some poor and helpless goat. In doing this, in offering himself to God, he puts an end of the need of the High Priests to continual offer sacrifices for themselves and for the people (Heb. 10. 18). Also, unlike these former Levitical priests, Jesus is not offering the sacrifice of himself for his own sins as he is the sinless one (Heb. 4. 14; 7. 27), and through this “once and for all” sacrifice Jesus will intercede throughout time for all sinners (Heb. 9. 24).

There is another key detail in the Letter to Hebrews which we need to grasp in order to be able to understand how it links with our passage from the Gospel of St John. The author of the Hebrews knew that Jesus had died “outside of the camp” (Heb. 13. 12), that is to say, he died outside of the sacred place of the Temple, where the Jewish cultic sacrifices took place. He dies at Golgotha, the place of the skull which was profane place. In other words, the cultic sacrifice of Jesus of himself occurs in the profane space of the outside world.

This theme is picked up by our Gospel passage for today, when at the start of the reading we are told, “Now there were some Greeks among those who went up to worship at the festival.” They come to Philip, who tells Andrew who in turn tells Jesus. This is the key turning point in the passage of the Gospel. As soon as Jesus hears that there are Greeks going up to worship, he realizes that this is the sign that, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified”. In other words, the new priesthood of Christ is a priesthood which is no longer confined to the tribes of Israel, but will enter every corner of the profane places, symbolized by “the Greeks”, and Christ will offer God’s sacrifice for the expiation of all the sins of all peoples and tribes and nations.

Yes, the High Priesthood of Christ, rips apart the former ‘insider’ and ‘outsider’ categories of the Jewish sacrificial system and now offers to all people the one and eternal sacrifice of the unique High Priest himself, Jesus. Jews and Greeks, those of the tribes of Israel and the gentiles like you and me are now invited into the Holy of Holies to receive the first fruits of the sacrifice of Jesus for all. And, these first fruits will be to be once and for all united with God as adopted sons and daughters (Eph. 1. 5; Rom. 8. 14-17). Yes, through the sacrifice of the only Son of God by nature, we have become one with God as his adopted sons and daughters in Christ, through his sacrificial suffering and death. This is what our readings for today reveal about the meaning of the new covenant inaugurated through the “High Priesthood of Christ”.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.