“For if the blood of goats and of oxen, and the ashes of an heifer, being sprinkled, sanctify such as are defiled, to the cleansing of the flesh:. How much more shall the blood of Christ, who by the Holy Ghost offered himself unspotted unto God, cleanse our conscience from dead works, to serve the living God?”[i]
As I mentioned to you a few weeks ago, the readings at the beginning of this penitential season were taken from the Book of Genesis. The Church had us read about the creation and fall of Adam and Eve. We read, at that time, that a finite man and woman, in a foolish attempt to “be like gods,” offered offense to their infinite God, voiding their privileged relationship with Him. They had no way to do anything sufficient to make up for their offence. But we also read that, almost immediately, God promised to send a Redeemer, Who, one day, would repair the breach between God and mankind. He promised that eventually a woman would be born who would crush the head of the diabolical serpent, by giving birth to the Redeemer of the world.
As we draw close to the completion of Lent, the Church, in her readings and ceremonies, will concentrate on the means by which that Redemption has been brought about. Particularly in the final week, we will read about the sacrifice our Lord made for us on the Cross. Invariably, our readings will connect that sacrifice with the Last Supper, for the Cross and the Mass are, as they say, “opposite sides of the same coin.” I hope that all of you will make the effort to attend the ceremonies of Holy Week as fully as you can, and that you will pay close attention to this inseparable pair. The sacrifice of the Cross was the means by which all mankind was redeemed—the sacrifice of the Holy Eucharist is the means by which individual men and women can personally avail themselves of that redemption, and capitalize on its opportunity for their own salvation.
How do we know this to be true—this connection between the Mass and the Cross? We have the words of our Lord, of course, in that sixth chapter of Saint John’s Gospel, and in the accounts of the Last Supper. We also have this Epistle to the Hebrews, of which we read just a little bit this morning. The complete Epistle is certainly within your ability to read, and would make good preparation for Holy Week, but I am going to summarize if for you today, so that you will know what to expect.
A fair amount of the Epistle is devoted to reminding the Hebrews about the way they were expected to worship before the Crucifixion; before the new covenant with which Christ made obsolete the former covenant.[ii] Paul reminds them of the Temple at Jerusalem, with its courts, its tabernacle, and its interior Holy of Holies. He reminds them of the myriad sacrifices offered in that Temple; the Passover lambs that would be slain at the Temple and carried home to be eaten as sacrificial victims with family and friends; the oxen, the cattle, the goats offered daily for sin, and even the doves of the poor. Most of the sacrifices were flesh and blood, “for without the shedding of blood there is no remission of sins.” There were also sacrifices of the finest wheaten flour, and the sweet smell of incense—but these paled in comparison to the virtual river of blood and the scent of roasting flesh that went on day after day in Jerusalem. He reminded them that “the priests were many,” the numerous descendants of Aaron anointed to serve at the altar—they were many because they were mortal: “because by reason of death they were not suffered to continue.”[iii]
By comparison, Paul tells us, that Christ, “who continues forever, has an everlasting priesthood: Whereby he is able to save for ever those who come to God by Him; always living to make intercession for us.”[iv] Whereas the priests of the Old Covenant were numerous and mortal, Christ the high priest of the New Covenant is one and immortal. Since He was sent to redeem mankind from sin it is “fitting that we should have such a high priest, holy, innocent, undefiled, separated from sinners, and made higher than the heavens:”[v]
Also, by comparison, Saint Paul tells us that while the victims of the Old Covenant were extremely many, the Victim of the New Covenant is unique: It is Christ Himself. Christ, “Who needeth not daily (as the other priests) to offer sacrifices, first for his own sins, and then for the people’s: for this he did once, in offering Himself.”[vi] “So also Christ was offered once to exhaust the sins of many. The second time he shall appear without sin to them that expect him unto salvation.”[vii] This one offering of the unique victim, by the unique high priest of the New Covenant, would exhaust the sins of as many men and women who would make use of His graces over the ages.
Well, what then is the relationship of the Cross to the Last Supper? How can we speak of a Christian priesthood, and speak of offering daily the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass?
There is but one Priest and one Victim of the New Covenant, Jesus Christ. Paul reminds us that Jesus was prefigured in the Old Testament in a large number of passages. You can read many of them in his epistle, but one is particularly significant to our question. We know that the Jewish people considered certain of the Psalms to be “messianic”; that they predicted and described the coming Christ. In particular, we have in Psalm 109: “The Lord has sworn and He will not repent: Thou art a priest forever according to the Order of Melchesidech.” Paul goes into this at length, but suffice it to say, that the “Order of Melchesidech” was not the same as the “Order of Aaron,” from whom all of the Jewish priests possessed their priesthood.
I mentioned Melchesidech only briefly last week. You will recall that he was the king and priest who offered sacrifice for Abraham after the victory over the King of Sodom. And you will recall that Melchesidech’s sacrifice was unique in the Old Testament; he was the only one to offer a sacrifice in bread and wine, rather than in the flesh and blood of animals. “A priest according to the Order of Melchesidech,” then, was a priest who offered bread and wine in sacrifice.
Our Lord is the High Priest who closed out the Old Covenant and opened the New Covenant in His blood. You will recall that, following the multiplication of the loaves of bread about which we read last week, our Lord promised His followers that He would give them His flesh to eat and His blood to drink. He told them that He was “the bread of life”; that “the bread that He would give was His flesh, for the life of the world.”[viii] Of course, at that moment, no one understood exactly what He was going to do—some seem to have just accepted Him at His word, for they already had seen Him work great miracles. But many questioned openly, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat? This is a hard saying. Who can listen to it?” “And from that time , many of His disciples turned back and no longer went about with Him.”[ix] On some level, we are fortunate that there were disbelievers—for they establish that Jesus meant what He said, and meant it literally: He was actually going to give His body and blood as food and drink. If He had meant anything else, He would have called them back; He would have said something like: “You misunderstood Me, I only meant it symbolically.” But Jesus didn’t call them back, for the Sacrifice that He would institute in bread and wine would, really and truly, be His body and blood.
A year later, at the Passover on the night before He died, He made good on this promise. Before closing out the Old Covenant with His bloody sacrifice on the Cross, He opened the New Covenant (according to the Order of Melchesidech), giving the bread and wine the substance of His body and blood: “Take and eat; this is My body. All you drink of this; for this is My blood of the new covenant, which is being shed for many unto the forgiveness of sins.”[x] And it was not just a one time thing—Jesus would be crucified on the Cross but once, but He had commissioned His Apostles to “do this in remembrance of Me,” making them also members of this Order of Melchesidech.
Jesus Christ would be crucified but once, but His Apostles and those who came after Him, as “other Christs,” would also give bread and wine the substance of the Lord’s body and blood, presenting anew the same sacrifice of the Cross, wherever and whenever they might be, without regard to the limitations of time or place. As Saint Paul would say to the Corinthians: “The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not the sharing of the blood of Christ? And the bread that we break, is it not the partaking of the body of the Lord?”[xi]
Paul would conclude his letter to the Hebrews with some words which speak to the sacrificial nature of the Mass, and the way in which the New Covenant had replaced the old:
“We have an altar,” and not merely a table, for under the appearances of bread and wine we receive the body and blood of Jesus Christ, making His one, unique, Sacrifice present for those who choose to follow Him throughout the ages of time.
Our Lord made the excruciating effort to die for us on the Cross. Please make the effort to be with Him in the Masses of Holy Week—both, so that you may more thoroughly comprehend this mystery of our salvation through the Cross and the Last Supper, but also so that your efforts may be united with His on the Cross.
[i] Hebrews ix: 13-14.
[ii] viii: 13.
[iii] vii: 23
[iv] vii: 24-25.
[v] vii: 26
[vi] vii: 27
[vii] ix: 28
[viii] John vi: 35, 52.
[ix] John vi: 53, 62, 67
[x] Matthew xxvi: 26-28.
[xi] 1 Corinthians x: 16.
[xii] Hebrews xiii: 10-13