It is clear that the Church is urging us today to direct our thoughts to the very rapidly approaching events of Holy Week. The statues and pictures within the sanctuary are all covered in purple cloth – a very old custom that is intended to make us look away from the glitter of the world and force us to consider the inner reality of the Passion of Christ, which we are about to re-enact a few days hence. We are, indeed, asked to look within our own souls to see whether or not the proper dispositions can be found there: love of God, sorrow for sin, and a firm resolve to do better in the future. We are asked to take a sort of “inventory,” seeing what is within us and determining how we can build upon it.
The Scripture readings today tell us something about the eternity of God – a concept that ought to make us humble indeed. God is not just ancient – He has not just been around a little longer than we – He is eternal. The phrase which our Lord uses in the Gospel sounds, at first, as though it were just a grammatical error in translation. “Before Abraham came to be, I am,” If you know your Old Testament Scripture like the Jews of Jesus’ time, you know that Jesus was using the same name that God the Father used to identify Himself to Moses in the burning bush – when Moses asked His name, He said: “I am who am … He who is.” And the Jews of Jesus time certainly understood what He was saying, for, as the Gospel tells us, “They took up stones to cast at Him.” Understand that they were not simply going to throw rocks at Him like schoolboys might throw rocks at each other – they were picking up stones to kill Jesus, for they thought this claim of His to be God a serious sin of blasphemy.
Now, the Jews were not a greatly philosophical people like the ancient Greeks who lived in more or less the same time frame. The philosopher might explain this name of God – “I am who am … He who is.” – as a definition – the philosopher might say that this was another way of saying that “God is the only being whose essence is existence” – that “God is the one necessary being who had to exist from all eternity, and will continue to so exist for eternity.”
That singular necessary of the eternity of God has some important implications. It implies that everything else is un‑necessary, and for it to exist, it had to be the work of God as its Creator. And further, it implies that all truth and morality take their shape from the way in which God ordered His creations. And finally, it implies that we owe God everything we are and everything we have – it implies a responsibility for respecting His truth and His morality, and perhaps even an obligation to worship Him.
But, what I have said so far sounds rather abstract, particularly if you are not of a philosophical bent. This morning’s Epistle suggests something more tangible – more “concrete” if you will. It is a brief passage from Saint Paul’s letter to the Hebrews – the Jewish converts to Christianity, living in Palestine, who were under pressure to return to the Law of Moses, or at least to resume the practices of the Old Law in addition to their Christianity. For in Paul’s time (and for centuries later) there were Christians who felt that in order to be a Christian, one first had to be Jewish – we call this notion the “Judaizing heresy.”
And heresy it is, because, as Paul told us this morning, the Sacrifice of Christ on the Cross was a one time Sacrifice which replaced all of the sacrifices that came before it. It replaced “the blood of goats and bulls, and the sprinkled ashes of a heifer,” it replaced the offering of doves, and lambs, and offering of show‑bread in the Temple. We no longer observe the ritual ordinances and impurities of the Old Law, for they have been completely replaced with the Sacrifice and Sacraments of the New Law.
In contrasting today’s Epistle with the Gospel, we see another idea, important for our observance of Holy Week and Easter. If the Gospel speaks to the eternity of God, the Epistle suggests that God has taken a very great interest in the affairs of His creatures, and has personally entered human history. The animal sacrifices which Paul mentioned went back to the dawn of fallen mankind. God Himself shed the blood of animals to make clothing to hide the newly discovered nakedness of Adam and Eve after their sin of disobedience (fig leaves didn’t work very well). Adam’s son Abel offered a sacrifice of the first animals of his sheep flock, and God was pleased, and likewise we read of Melchesidech and Abraham offering animals in sacrifice to return thanks for all of the bounty God bestows upon mankind. (These three are mentioned every day in the Canon of the Mass – there were others.)
The most well known sacrifices of the Old Testament, come from yet another intervention in human history, when God led his chosen people out of Egypt and directed that each household sacrifice a Passover lamb – and shortly thereafter instituted an hereditary priesthood in the sons of Aaron, (Moses’ brother) and gave them an elaborate list of sacrifices that would be offered each day in the meeting tent in the desert, and later in the Temple at Jerusalem. It is precisely these sacrifices to which Paul is referring as being obsolete.
They are obsolete because they have been replaced. At the Passover observance on Holy Thursday, the true Lamb of God superceded the offering of the sacrificial lamb with the offering of His own Body and Blood, under the appearances of bread and wine: “This is My body … this is My blood of the new covenant which is being shed for many unto the forgiveness of sins… do this in remembrance of Me.” It would no longer be necessary for Christians to sacrifice the Passover lamb, or any of the multitude of other Jewish sacrifices – the Mass and the Sacraments would take their places, making the Sacrifice of the Cross, and Its forgiveness, and Its Saving Victim present to Christians across the miles and the centuries.
Let me mention one more thing. If the God of the philosophers is rather abstract, the God who entered into human history to make His truth, and His morality, and His mercy known to mankind, is a personal God and not an abstraction. Perhaps this is the most important thing we can consider during this season of Passiontide. The eternal God entered into time, which He created, to show us His love and mercy – it has thus become our duty to go far beyond the philosophical abstraction I mentioned earlier of “respecting His truth and His morality, and perhaps even an obligation to worship Him” – it has become our duty to know Him, and to love Him, and to serve Him in this world – for now we know without a doubt that He loves us.