"He entered once for all ... by virtue of His own blood, into the [Holy of] Holies, having obtained eternal redemption."
Today is Passion Sunday, the beginning of two weeks that will culminate in Holy Week and Easter, the commemoration of our Lord's triumphal entry into Jerusalem, His Last Supper, Crucifixion and Death on the Cross, and finally His resurrection from the dead. You will note that all of the statues in the sanctuary are veiled today, a suggestion that for the next two weeks our meditation ought to be on the eternal realities and not be distracted by external displays.
The theme of today's Mass is the priesthood of our Lord -- something about which we must know if we are to understand the events of Holy Week.
In the Gospel, our Lord makes the claim that "before Abraham was, I am."1 It cannot be dismissed (as the modernists sometime do) as a grammatical error -- the Jews understood our Lord precisely enough to pick up stones with which to kill Him -- for our Lord was here claiming to be one with the Father who is eternal -- the God who is not restricted by terms like past, present, or future, but who sees all things with one single glance. God is not limited by time, but rather time is limited by God who created it. From our perspective, He always was, is now, and ever shall be -- but from God's perspective, He simply says "I am."
The reason the Church has us read this Gospel together with Saint Paul's Epistle to the Hebrews,2 is that Christ's eternal priesthood is a reflection of His eternal being as God. In created time, man sinned and fell from grace. Adam and Eve lost the graces freely given them by God. Almost immediately, man attempted to make up to God for the transgression of Adam. When we first come upon Cain and Able, the sons of Adam and Eve, we find them offering sacrifice to God.3 Cain murders his brother Abel out of jealousy; because God is pleased with the animal sacrifice offered by Abel, and not with the vegetables offered by Cain. Almost from the very beginning, then, we see mankind offering up sacrificial victims to God in hopes of forgiveness for sin.
With very few exceptions, the sacrifices offered to God are those of animals. First on man's own initiative, and then on the command of God, the Old Testament is a virtual "river of blood" offered in sacrifice, for as Saint Paul tells us, "without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins."4 It is an idea foreign to us, but after the animal was sacrificed, the people would be sprinkled with its blood to symbolize the purification from sin. Sacrificial blood was the sacred force of life, at least symbolizing the cleansing of the people from the death of sin. But under any other circumstance, blood was taboo -- not to be touched, at the risk of incurring ritual impurity, and certainly not to be eaten or drunk.
But all of this was imperfect. Imperfect men sacrificed imperfect gifts that were really not their own to offer to begin with. Man had offended God, but he certainly could not sacrifice one of his own; the goat, or the heifer, or the turtle doves were mere substitutes. And there was no proportion between the infinite offence offered to God, and these very finite sacrificial victims. Puny man had offended an infinite God and had no way to atone for his sins.
It is for this reason that God had to step into the picture Himself to set things right between Himself and His creatures. God allowed, and even encouraged man to offer sacrifice all those years, in order to enable us to understand the manner in which He would redeem us. For only in comparison with all of the imperfections of the animal sacrifices, could man began to see the perfection of the Sacrifice that God would provide for our redemption. Christ the High Priest would replace the imperfect human priests; Christ the Lamb of God would replace the innumerable goats and cattle and birds. The relatively worthless blood of animals would be replaced by the Precious Blood of God's own Son. Yet, mankind could still claim to be offering the sacrifice on its own behalf, for Jesus Christ is truly man just as He is truly God.
And this Sacrifice of the New Testament would be a single Sacrifice, "offered once and for all," so that all mankind could be redeemed; and so that His Apostles could offer His eternal salvation to all "who believe and are baptized."5 It is an important distinction to make -- if a hundred priests (or a million) offer the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, it is still one Sacrifice. Christ is not taken out and murdered over and over, for His sacrificial death was accomplished "once and for all" -- but through the agency of His priests, that one Sacrifice is made present in many places and different times. That same Son of God, who could say "before Abraham was, I am -- who sees all places and all things as "here" and "now," makes His sacrifice on the Cross present in the "here" and "now" by means of the Mass and His priests.
By the same agency, He makes His Body and Blood present under the appearances of bread and wine. In this way, He is able to fulfill the promises He made, and which are recorded in Saint John's sixth chapter -- that He will literally and truly give us His flesh and blood to eat and drink, so that those who believe in Him, those who "eat His flesh and drink His blood will have life everlasting."6
Hopefully, we will able to come back to this a little bit more on Holy Thursday and Good Friday. But do begin to give some consideration to the Sacrifice of the Cross, the offering of Holy Mass, the real presence of our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament, and the nature of the priesthood over the next two weeks, so that they will be meaningful to you during Holy Week. For these things are quite central to our salvation.
Keep this brief season of Passiontide holy. Let the veiled statues remind you that our prayer and meditation must be a true inward journey, and not the satisfaction of external pursuits.
1. Gospel: John viii: 46-59.