REFLECT ON THIS… AND ACT ACCORDINGLY. This is the dynamic we find in the Epistle readings every Sunday during the Great Fast. We are presented with an aspect of “the mystery hidden from the ages” as a spur to recommit ourselves to the discipline of the fasting season. This Sunday is no exception; we are shown several depictions of Christ and His work and encouraged to hold fast as we enter another week of the Great Fast.
On the First Sunday the Old Testament heroes were paraded before us with the reminder that they were not perfected before us – something better is at hand. “You will see angels ascending and descending on the Son of Man” in the events of Pascha, so enter into the Fast with joy.
On the Second Sunday we were reminded that the Lord Jesus is not just another preacher – He is the Son of the Father, the radiance of His glory so, “Don’t neglect so great a salvation.” And today we are presented with two more images of Christ from Hebrews to encourage us.
First we are reminded that Christ, the eternal Son of God, is also totally one with us (see Hebrews 4:15). He is like us in everything, except for sin. He experienced all the trials of a human life, from the trauma of birth to that of death. He knew temptation first hand, “yet without sin”. He is not only higher than the angels, He is also completely human as well.
Reflecting on Christ’s perfect identity with us led the Fathers to insist that Christ was truly and perfectly both God and man by nature. To truly heal mankind of sin and death the Physician had to be truly God. But this healing could not be accomplished from outside. God would not wave a magic wand to annul our ancestral curse. Our illness was so complete and all-pervasive that this healing could only be accomplished from within, not from the outside. For that to happen the divine Physician had to completely take up our diseased nature. By living a truly human life without sin He would conquer the results of sin in Himself and then pass it on to the rest of mankind. Many Fathers expressed their belief this way: “What was not assumed was not healed.”
The Great High Priest
The second image of Christ presented to us in this passage from Hebrews is that He is the Great High Priest of our Salvation. The book of Exodus describes in detail the arrangements for worship determined in the days of Moses. Israelite worship from that time centered on the tabernacle, a kind of portable sanctuary that they took with them on their journey to the Promised Land. The Temple at Jerusalem, constructed by King Solomon in the tenth century BC, duplicated the arrangements of the tabernacle in a permanent structure. This temple and its successor, built in 516 BC and rebuilt in 20 BC by King Herod, remained as the worship center for the Jews until its destruction by the Romans during the Great Jewish Revolt in AD 70.
One of the twelve tribes, the sons of Levi, was constituted as the Israelite priesthood to serve the tabernacle/temple. Moses’ brother Aaron was named by God as the first High Priest, and his successors were chosen from among his descendants. While other priests took turns serving in the temple, the High Priest was its permanent guardian. He alone could offer sacrifices for sin, particularly on the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur) when alone he would pronounce the unutterable name of God (Yahweh). Preceding the centuries of Roman rule the High Priest also presided over the Great Sanhedrin, the Jewish legislature. The last Jewish High Priest died in 70 AD during at the destruction of the Temple by the Romans and the Jewish priests ceased offering sacrifices. Their descendants today, the Cohens, often play a ceremonial role in synagogue prayer services.
The destruction of the Temple and the death of the last High Priest were the greatest tragedy to befall the Jews since their exile in Babylon 600 years earlier. Since there was no Temple and no High Priest there could be no sacrifices and therefore no way to reach God according to the Torah.
But there is a High Priest, this Epistle assures the Jews, and it is the Lord Jesus Christ. Like Aaron, He was chosen by God to be High Priest in order to offer sacrifice for the sins of His people. Several times during this Epistle Psalm 110:4 is quoted: “You are a priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek.” This verse is presented as a prophecy that the Lord’s priesthood was eternal. While the Jewish High Priests would die (or be deposed), Christ would be the ultimate High Priest, always living to make intercession for the people (see Hebrews 7:25).
One Sacrifice, One Altar
The Torah prescribed that the High Priest offer animal sacrifices daily for the sins of the people. Christ, however, offers Himself as the one and perfect sacrifice: “…this He did once for all when He offered up Himself” (Heb 7:27). He is both the eternal High Priest and the perfect oblation. As the priest says while preparing the Lamb at the Divine Liturgy, “The Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world is immolated for the life and salvation of the world.”
On this Third Sunday in the Great Fast the cross, adorned with flowers, is brought out for veneration. The cross is the altar on which the Lamb of God was slain and is for us a constant reminder that we live in light of His perfect oblation. The joyous hirmoi of the Paschal Canon are sung at orthros today and the glorious cross is displayed in the church throughout the week, silently echoing the injunction we hear in this Epistle: “Let us hold fast our confession …and come boldly to the throne of grace” (Heb 4:14, 16). Be steadfast in faith and in standing before the holy place in these days as we near the celebration of the eternal sacrifice of our great High Priest.
SESSIONAL HYMN AT ORTHROS
In Paradise of old, the Enemy stripped me bare. By making me eat from the forbidden tree, he brought in death. But the tree of the Cross was planted on earth. It brought mankind the garment of life and the whole world is filled with unbounded joy. Seeing the Cross exalted, let us all cry aloud to the Lord with one voice: “Your temple is filled with Your glory!”
The Angel’s fiery sword will no longer guard the gate of Paradise, for the Cross of the Lord has put it out wondrously. The power of Death has been broken, the victory of Hades wiped out, and You, my Savior, have stood up and called out to all those bound in Hell: “Come now; enter again into Paradise!”
Pilate set up three crosses on Golgotha, two for the thieves and one for the Lord of life. Seeing this, Hades asked its servants: “Who has driven this spear into my heart? A wooden lance has pierced me, and I am torn apart. What pain has penetrated my womb and my heart! What sorrow stabs my spirit! I am forced to give up Adam and his children, those whom I had received from the forbidden Tree; for a new Tree leads them to enter again into Paradise.