Melkite Greek Catholic Church
 
WHEN THE ISRAELITES LEFT EGYPT under Moses, the Bible says that they “plundered the Egyptians” (Exodus 12:35), taking with them articles of silver and gold and precious fabrics. They also took with them something which would be at the center of their society for over one thousand years: the institution of a High Priest.

There were a number of gods revered in Egypt and each of them had a central sanctuary. Thebes, for example, was the center of the cult of Amun, the “king of gods.” The highest-ranking priest of Amun was called the High Priest. Several other prominent gods had similar sanctuaries and high priests.

The High Priest of Israel

During the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt Moses’ brother Aaron was chosen to be their first High Priest (see Exodus 28). The High Priest served, first, in the portable sanctuary which accompanied the Israelites in their travels. When Jerusalem became the center of Israel, its temple replaced the portable sanctuary. From then on, the High Priest was associated with the Jerusalem temple. When the Romans finally destroyed the temple in ad 70 and forbade the Jews from living around Jerusalem (ad 135), the office of High Priest ceased.

The most important role of the High Priest was to serve in the temple on the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur), the holiest day of the Jewish year. The High Priest first offered a bull in sacrifice for his own sins and those of his household. Then he entered the inner sanctuary of the temple alone. After offering incense, he sprinkled the blood of the sacrificed bull around the inner sanctuary. Then he would offer a goat to be sacrificed for the sins of the priests. Returning to the inner sanctuary, he would sprinkle it with the blood of the goat. In the Epistle to the Hebrews, Christ’s death would be both compared to and contrasted to this ritual.

Christ as High Priest

In this epistle, there are a number of times that Christ is compared to the High Priest of the Jewish temple. The first of these is that both are selected by God: “no one takes this honor to himself, but he who is called by God, just as Aaron was” (Hebrews 5:4). Two psalm verses are then cited as witnesses to Christ’s call, the first being Psalms 2:7 – “You are My Son, today I have begotten You.”

This verse does not seem to refer to priesthood until we recall that the Israelite high priesthood was held by the descendants of Aaron, passing from father to son. If Christ was to be considered High Priest, it was important to know who His Father was.

The second psalm verse cited in Hebrews is Psalms 110:4 – “You are a priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek.” This verse refers to the priest-king of Salem who greeted Abram after his victory over the Elamites (Genesis 14). Later in the epistle, Melchizedek is described as “without father, without mother, without genealogy, having neither beginning of days nor end of life” (Hebrews 7:3), a very Semitic image of an unceasing priest and, therefore, “made like the Son of God.”

The epistle thus presents Christ as Son of God and eternal High Priest, without human genealogy or descendants. Yet, He is also described as a very human High Priest, one who can sympathize with our weaknesses because He “was in all points tempted as we are, yet without sin” (Hebrews 4:!5).

Priesthood and Sacrifice

A second point of comparison between the Lord Jesus and the High Priest of the Jewish temple is that both are appointed to offer sacrifices for sins. In the temple, sacrifices were offered each day, year after year, morning and evening, usually by the priests who were delegated to do so. Livestock, grain, meal, wine and incense were offered in sacrifice to God as qurban, or oblations.
The Epistle to the Hebrews contrasts the frequency of these oblations with the one sacrifice of Christ. While the temple oblations were offered daily, Christ offers but one sacrifice. He “who is holy, harmless, undefiled, separate from sinners, and has become higher than the heavens; who does not need daily, as those high priests, to offer up sacrifices, first for His own sins and then for the people’s, for this He did once for all when He offered up Himself” (Hebrews 7:26-28).

This contrast is also evidenced by what was sacrificed. It is “Not with the blood of goats and calves, but with His own blood [that] He entered the Most Holy Place once for all, having obtained eternal redemption” (Hebrews 9:12). Christ offered Himself, a gift of His whole being, sacrificed on the cross.

The Divine Liturgy and Christ’s Sacrifice

Many of the elements of sacrifice are found in our Divine Liturgy. As the bread – called the Lamb – is prepared, the priest recites these verses, which call to mind Christ’s sacrifice: “Like a sheep, He was led to the slaughter. Like a spotless lamb silent before its shearer, He opens not His mouth. ,,, The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world is immolated for the life and salvation of the world.”

St Nicholas Cabasilas describes this rite in his commentary on the Divine Liturgy: “Whatever was said and carried out on the Lamb to symbolize the Lord’s death, are simple descriptions and symbols. The Lamb remained bread, just that now it became a gift dedicated to God, and it symbolizes Christ’s body.”

The holy gifts do not remain a mere symbol, however. During the prayer called the Anaphora or Oblation, the priest retells the events of the Lord’s mystical supper, then, as the Gifts are raised up to God, he joins in offering the sacrifice of Christ to the Father, “Remembering, therefore, this precept of salvation … we offer You Your own, from what is Your own, in all and for the sake of all.”

Through this offering we are mystically united with the sacrifice offered by Christ on Calvary, and through the descent of the Holy Spirit we are joined to its eternal acceptance by God on our behalf. The first part of the sacrifice, the killing of the Victim, is past, because Christ died at a certain time and place. The second part, the offering to God, and the third part its acceptance by God, are accomplished in eternity, outside of human time. Because the Liturgy transcends time and space, we can be united to Christ in the Liturgy as He enters the heavenly sanctuary once, for all.

Hebrews summarizes its view of Christ as our eternal High Priest with this invitation to us to join in His sacrifice: “For if the blood of bulls and goats and the ashes of a heifer, sprinkling the unclean, sanctifies for the purifying of the flesh, how much more shall the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered Himself without spot to God, cleanse your conscience from dead works to serve the living God?” (Hebrews 9:13, 14)

Confusion about the nature of the Liturgy was common in the Middle Ages. Some, reading Hebrews’ description of Christ’s sacrifice as “once for all,” concluded that the Eucharist could not be another sacrifice. Western Catholics countered that the Mass was indeed a sacrifice, “For the victim is one and the same, the same now offering by the ministry of priests, who then offered Himself on the cross, the manner alone of offering being different” (Council of Trent). Sadly, this expression did not eliminate the objection that the Mass was another sacrifice, rather than our sharing in the one sacrifice presently being offered by Christ.
 
AT THE DIVINE LITURGY on the Sundays of the Great Fast we regularly read from the Epistle to the Hebrews. Perhaps the most important theme in this epistle is the priesthood of the Lord Jesus expressed in two Old Testament images: the priesthood of Melchizedek and the priesthood of Israel. In both cases priesthood was intimately connected with the offering of sacrifices.

Sacrifices in the Old Testament

While the epistle makes special reference to the Israelite temple and the role of the high priest, we know that a priesthood and sacrifices were part of most religions in pre-Christian times. Ritual sacrifices were a way of expressing a relationship to God in more than mere words. People showed their thanks to God by offering gifts which could not be returned to their own use. Incense was burned up, wine was poured out, animals were immolated, Destroying the object offered meant that it could no longer be for anyone – it was surrendered completely to God.

The Hebrews offered sacrifices long before the time of Moses. Cain and Abel offered sacrifices (Genesis 4:3, 4); Noah and his sons offered sacrifices (Genesis 8:20). By the time of Moses, however, sacrifices were restricted to the tabernacle (later the temple) under the supervision of priests.

During the era of the temple at Jerusalem sacrifices were offered to express adoration, thanksgiving and atonement for both intentional and unintentional transgressions of the Law. A portion of some sacrifices, often those offered in thanksgiving, were shared between the priest and the offerer in a kind of communion with God, the Giver of the gift.

The Law also included some restrictions which highlighted the unique holiness of God. Separate parts of the temple were marked off for the people and the priests while the Holy of Holies, the innermost area, was inaccessible to all but the High Priest, and that only on the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur). The temple, its priesthood and its sacrifices would be seen by the first Christians as a foreshadowing of the priesthood of the Lord Jesus, “high priest of the good things that have come” (Hebrews 9:11).

Christ’s Death as a Sacrifice

In the Gospels the Lord Jesus is described as “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29). This term alludes to the spotless lamb whose blood, spread on the doorposts of the Israelites, saved them from the wrath of God against the Egyptians. “The blood shall be a sign for you on the houses where you live: when I see the blood, I will pass over you, and no plague shall destroy you when I strike the land of Egypt” (Exodus 12:13). On the Jewish feast of Passover unblemished lambs would be sacrificed and consumed at the Seder meal in remembrance of that event.

The Gospel of John describes Jesus’ crucifixion as taking place on Friday afternoon, the day before the Passover, when the priests would begin to sacrifice lambs for the feast. St Paul makes the same connection when he tells the Corinthians, “For indeed Christ, our Passover, was sacrificed for us” (1 Corinthians 5:7). The death of Christ initiates the New and Ultimate Passover, His blood delivering all mankind from the curse of eternal death.

The Scriptures do not portray Christ as merely the victim of the sacrifice but as the One who offered Himself for us. St Paul tells the Ephesians, “Walk in love, as Christ also has loved us and given Himself for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God for a sweet-smelling aroma” (Ephesians 5:2). This image recalls an occasion recorded in the Book of Exodus when a sacrifice was made to God, “a sweet aroma, an offering made by fire to the Lord” (Exodus 29:18). This was the consecration of Aaron and his sons as the first priests of the Old Covenant. St Paul borrowed that imagery to say that Christ is at once the Lamb offered in sacrifice and the High Priest who offers that sacrifice.

Our Liturgy and Christ’s Sacrifice

According to many rabbis of Christ’s day, all sacrifices would cease with the coming of the Messiah, except for the thank-offerings (in Hebrew, todah) which would never cease to be offered throughout all eternity. Some Jewish writers in the Greek-speaking Roman Empire used eucharistia to translate the Hebrew todah. Little wonder that the first Christians saw the Eucharist as their sharing in the sacrifice of Christ.

Our Liturgy today expresses in several ways this connection with Christ’s sacrifice. In the prothesis, or preparation of the gifts, the priest takes up the bread and says, “In remembrance of our Lord, God and Savior Jesus Christ… ‘Like a sheep He was led to the slaughter. Like a spotless lamb silent before its shearer, He opens not His mouth. In His humiliation His judgment was taken away. And who shall declare His generation?’” These verses from Isaiah 53 describing the “Suffering Servant” are explained as pointing to Christ in the encounter of the apostle Philip with the Ethiopian (Acts 8:26-40). Here the priest is commemorating Christ’s sacrifice, making the first “remembrance” in the Liturgy.

Another reference to sacrifice in the prothesis rite concerns the Eucharistic bread itself. In our tradition the central portion of the loaf, inscribed with the monogram ic xc nika (Jesus Christ is victorious) – the part of the loaf which will be consecrated – is called the Lamb.

Once he has cut the Lamb away from the rest of the loaf, the priest pierces it with the lance, saying, “‘The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world’ is immolated for the life and salvation of the world.” The Bread/Lamb is identified with Christ, the Victim/Lamb of the New Passover.

The Sacrifice Accepted in the Heavens

Christ’s sacrifice did not end at the cross. In the Epistle to the Hebrews what followed is described in terms of the Yom Kippur sacrifice in the temple at Jerusalem. “Not with the blood of goats and calves, but with His own blood He entered the Most Holy Place once for all, having obtained eternal redemption… For Christ has not entered the holy places made with hands, which are copies of the true, but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God for us (Hebrews 9:12, 24). In our Liturgy this is remembered graphically as the priest, bearing the holy gifts, enters the altar, the Most Holy Place “behind the veil” (Hebrews 6:19) which represents the throne of God.

At the highpoint of the Liturgy the priest recounts how the Lord instituted the Eucharist at the mystical supper, making another remembrance, recalling Christ’s command, “Do this in memory of me” (Luke 22:19). Remembering “… this precept of salvation and everything that was done for our sake, the cross, the tomb, the resurrection on the third day, the ascension into Heaven, the enthronement at the right hand, the second and glorious coming again” he offers the holy gifts to God.

A remembrance or memorial (anamnesis) in the Liturgy is not a simple mental act: the priest recalling something that happened in the past. While the death of Christ occurred in human time, His offering to the Father occurred in “God’s time.” It is an eternal action in which we share through our remembrance in the Liturgy. We do not repeat these events, but we become present to them in a mystical way. Thus our Liturgy is not a new sacrifice but a “sacrifice of praise” in which we enter into the eternal mystery as Christ offers Himself to the Father once for all for our salvation, and the Father accepts it.

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