The Great High Priest

THE NEW TESTAMENT DEPICTS the mystery of Christ in terms of the rituals of sacrifice in the Jerusalem temple. It describes Christ’s sacrifice based on the manner in which animals were sacrificed there. First, the animal was killed, usually by the donor, in the outer court of the temple. Similarly, Jesus was crucified outside the holy city of Jerusalem.

The same pattern is found in our Divine Liturgy, illustrating the connection between the temple, the Cross, and our worship. Thus, the Eucharistic bread, which we call the Lamb, is prepared at the Prothesis, originally in another chapel, but at least at a distance from the Holy Table.

In the temple, the slain animal was taken by the Levites to the priests, who placed it on the altar and offered it to God. In contrast, Christ – being both victim and priest – offered Himself to the Father eternally in the heavenly sanctuary. In our Liturgy, the Lamb and the cup are brought to the holy table and offered “in all and for the sake of all.”

Finally, the sacrificial meat was divided: part was portioned out for God (by immolation), and part for the priests. The greater part was returned to the donor to be shared with the poor or in a festive meal. In our Liturgy the sanctified Lamb and the cup are shared first by the priests and then by the people in the mystical supper of the Eucharist.

On Yom Kippur, there was another step. The blood of the animal was taken into the Holy of Holies by the High Priest and sprinkled there. Finally, the High Priest would emerge from the Holy of Holies and bless the people. Christ was placed in the tomb by Joseph and Nicodemus, but emerged from the tomb at His resurrection, sharing with those in the tombs the blessing of eternal life.


The Presence behind the Veil

Describing Christ’s sacrifice in terms of the temple ritual, the Epistle to the Hebrews speaks of Christ entering “the Presence behind the veil” (Hebrews 6:19). This depicts heaven in terms of the Jerusalem temple, where the Holy of Holies – which no one could enter except the High Priest on Yom Kippur – was separated from the rest of the temple by a curtain or veil. We see an allusion to this image at the Great Entrance of our Liturgy, when the priest brings the offered bread and wine behind the iconostasis.

To enter “the Presence behind the veil” alludes to Christ’s return to the Father, where He eternally offers His sacrifice for us and it is eternally accepted by the Father. Because His sacrifice is offered and accepted beyond human time, it is possible for us to partake of it continually in the Divine Liturgy. The Liturgy, then, is not a “new” sacrifice but the one sacrifice of Christ, eternally offered and accepted.

In this passage, Christ is called “the forerunner” (v. 20), meaning the One who goes before, to prepare a place for us. Christ has entered the presence of the Father offering the sacrifice of His blood for us who follow behind Him. The same reality is depicted elsewhere in agricultural terms when Christ is called “the first-fruits of those who sleep” (1 Corinthians 15:20).

The Promise of Christ’s Return

At His ascension Christ’s disciples are told by an angel, “This same Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will so come in like manner as you saw Him go into heaven” (Acts 1:11). Ever since, the members of the Church have been waiting for the return of Christ: “To those who eagerly wait for Him He will appear a second time, apart from sin, for salvation” (Hebrews 9:28).

This promise of a second appearance, or second coming, energized the preaching of the apostles, who placed the heart of our faith. As the Nicene Creed professes, we believe that Christ “… shall come again with glory to judge the living and the dead and of His Kingdom there shall be no end.” And this faith gives us hope.

Our Hope for Eternal Life

Another dimension is added to this teaching in the First Epistle of St Peter, where God is praised in these words: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who according to His abundant mercy has begotten us again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance incorruptible and undefiled and that does not fade away, reserved in heaven for you” (1 Peter 1:3, 4).

Putting these images together, we can say that our hope for eternal life in the company of the saints is not wishful thinking, but is solidly based on the reality of Christ’s sacrificial death and its acceptance by the Father. It is confirmed by Christ’s resurrection and becomes ours through our sharing in the Divine Liturgy. As forerunner and first fruits, Christ stands at the head of an endless procession, leading those united to Him beyond the veil into the eternal Holy of Holies.

This Is Our Hope

In popular speech hope is equated with wishing or feeling that something might be true, or might happen. There is nothing wishful about Christian hope, however. It is based on the witness of the apostles to Christ’s death and resurrection and their understanding that we are meant to share in the eternal life He had purchased for us by His blood. In St Paul’s words, “If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men the most pitiable” (1 Corinthians 15:19).

Christian hope, then, is a firm confidence in the witness of the apostles affirmed by the Church ever since.

The Fear of Eternity

Strange as it may seem, many people are afraid of endless life. Apeirophobia – the fear of eternity – afflicts more people than we can imagine. The thought of an impersonal existence that goes on forever amounts to torture. It appears to some to resemble life in prison without parole.

As we know from studying Christ’s sacrifice and the Divine Liturgy, there is no earthy time with God, no succession of tomorrows, only an eternal now. In Christ’s words, “Now this is eternal life: that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent” (John 17:3). The Christian faith depicts eternity as an endless now, knowing the truly existing One, the inexhaustible cup of life. The life we now share is but a shadow of life in and with God; if earthly time went on forever it would be something to fear. But our hope is not that earthly time would stretch out endlessly, but that an eternal now in the presence of Christ would truly transform us in ways we can but imagine. “… it has not yet been revealed what we shall be, but we know that when He is revealed, we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is” (1 John 3:2).

Temple, Cross and Altar

Of old, celebrating the dedication of the Temple, the wise Solomon offered to God sacrifices and holocausts of brute animals. Now that the God of grace and truth has come upon earth, He has completely fulfilled these sacrifices. Offering Himself as a sacrifice for our salvation, the Lover of Mankind has sanctified His Church, making it unshakable forever. He alone is Lord, and is glorified in the assembly of His saints.