“For the sins of His people ... He offered up Himself, once and for all.”
This morning’s epistle is taken from Saint Paul’s letter to the Hebrews—a longer work that is well worth reading if you want to know how Catholics understand the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. In order to appreciate the epistle, one must also spend a little time reading the Old Testament books which describe the way in which God was worshipped under the Law of Moses. It must be remembered that God gave His people the Mosaic Law in order to prepare them for the more perfect Law of Christ. There are important parallels and distinctions to be noted.
God accepted, and even demanded, sacrifice from His people. These sacrifices became progressively more organized with time. Abel was the son of Adam, who seemed to discover that the sacrifice made from his flock was more pleasing to God than the vegetables taken from Cain’s garden. Noe followed suit after the flood. Abraham was prepared to follow God’s orders to the letter, even to the point of sacrificing his first-born son Isaac, if God required that—but God was more pleased by his obedience, and accepted the sacrifice of a ram on Mount Moria—which, centuries later, would be the site of God’s Temple in Jerusalem. Let me not forget Melchesidech, the king and priest, who came to Abraham as one “out of due time” to offer the prophetic sacrifice of bread and wine, instead of the customary “clean animal.”
With the exodus of the Jewish people from captivity in Egypt, the sacrifices became more and more ordered by divine precept: first with sacrifice of the Passover lamb—a little later with the formal ordination of the sons of Aaron as the only priests in Israel; and a daily prescribed round of sacrifices of clean animals, wheaten flour and breads, and sweet smelling incense.
Long before the time of Christ, while the Jews still wandered in the Sinai, God gave them directions to build a sort of portable Temple where the sacrifices would be offered; the tent dwelling where the true Presence of God would abide. “In the daytime the cloud of the Lord was seen over the Dwelling, whereas at night fire was seen in the cloud by the whole house of Israel in all the stages of their journey.”
Both in this portable tent, and in the Temple when it was finally built at Jerusalem, God remained in an enclosure within an enclosure called the “Holy of Holies”—a tabernacle of a veil enclosed within a veil, where no man could enter, apart from the High Priest on one special day of the year.
Outside of the veil there was a table where the priests set up hot loaves of bread—shewbread, (lechem (hap)pānīm(לחם פנים)) it was called—and replaced them each Sabbath. There was also an altar upon which sacrifices were offered—oxen, sheep, and goats; turtle-doves, and young pigeons. The Book of Leviticus describes a number of sacrifices, some for all of the people, some offered for personal guilt or devotion, some to expiate ritual impurities or to redeem the firstborn (as we saw last month in the feast of our Lord’s presentation in the Temple). The first fruits of the harvest were given to God, with the understanding that God really owned the entire harvest.
Some of the sacrifices (the holocausts) were completely consumed by fire; some were partially burned, with portions reserved to feed the priests or their families; some were partially burned, with portions returned to the donor and his guests to feast upon.
In all of this, there was the underlying idea of substitution. Man could put off his guilt and punishment onto a sacrificial victim. A firstborn animal could be exchanged for a firstborn son, or for those later born in the flock. With the offering of one sacrifice or another, sinful man could barter for atonement, redemption, forgiveness, to avoid punishment, or simply to give thanks.
Yet, all of this was somehow imperfect. The victims were imperfect, by definition being less valuable substitutes for what was retained. The Temple was imperfect, an earth-bound place in which God’s Presence was only temporary (and sometimes withdrawn). Man offered God’s own creatures to God, for he had no creatures of his own. The priests were likewise imperfect. They were mortal men, eventually to die, and never really without sins of their own for which to atone. In the fullness of time, God would remedy this imperfection, but only after it had properly prepared mankind to receive a perfect replacement.
That perfect replacement was, of course, Our Lord Jesus Christ. As true God and true man, he was both perfect priest and perfect victim. He is sinless and immortal. “He does not need to offer sacrifices daily, first for his own sins, and then for the sins of His people.” “He continues forever, having an everlasting priesthood. Therefore He is able at all times to save those who come to God through Him, since He lives always to make intercession for them.” “For the sins of His people ... He offered up Himself, once and for all ... Christ was offered once to take away the sins of many.”
As Saint Paul tells us today, he did not enter into the imperfect, earthly, and temporary tabernacle at Jerusalem, “but entered once and for all into the greater and more perfect tabernacle ... that is not of this creation.” Jesus Christ entered heaven itself, and not a material representation of heaven achieved with bricks and a few yards of linen veil. And He entered not “by virtue of the blood of goats and calves, but by virtue of His own blood.” He entered into heaven itself with the offering of His body and blood on the Cross—an offering to the Father which is never repeated, but which continues for all time—an offering He makes present without regard to time or place, through the ministry of the priests of His New Law; who function not on their own, but as “other Christs.”
Saint Paul quotes God’s oath to the promised Christ in the messianic Psalm 109: “Thou art a priest forever, according to the order of Melchesidech.” Melchesidech, you will recall, was the priest-king who offered sacrifice in bread and wine on behalf of Abraham. This was part of the Father’s plan of perfection, something witnessed by the Son, who could honestly say: “Before Abraham came to be, I AM.” Melchesidech prepared us for the way in which Christ planned to make the Sacrifice of the Cross present in every place and time—offering us a share in the sacrificial victim—offering His body and blood under the appearances of bread and wine.
The Presence of God left the Temple on the day of the Crucifixion, as the veil of the tabernacle was torn in two, from the top to the bottom. The sacrifices too, came to an end a few years later when the Romans destroyed the Temple. While they were still going on, Saint Paul wrote to the Hebrews: “We have an altar from which they have no right to eat who serve the tabernacle.” But, by the grace of God and the Holy Sacrament of Baptism, we have that right—a right that we should exercise often; daily if possible. Those who ate portions from the sacrifices of the Temple ate only meat—we who receive from the altar of God receive God Himself.
Next week, on Palm Sunday, we begin Holy Week. I urge you to attend the Masses of that week, as many as you can. And I urge you to pay particular attention to the Gospel readings, which demonstrate the close connection between the Last Supper and the Crucifixion. Finally, I urge you to make a good Confession, and to receive Holy Communion—for this week commemorates, especially, God’s replacement of the imperfect sacrifice with the perfect—the fulfillment of Jesus’ promise: “I am the bread of life. If anyone eat of this bread he shall live forever: the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world.”
 Hebrews vii: 27.
 http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/0/06/Secondtempleplan.jpg http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Image:Secondtempleplan.jpg
 Genesis iv.
 Genesis viii: 20.
 Genesis xxii.
 Genesis xiv: 18-20.
 Exodus xii (the Passover); Exodus xxix (ordination of priests); Leviticus (principal directions for the sacrifices).
 Exodus xxxv-xl.
 Exodus xl: 38.
 Exodus xxx: 10; Leviticus xvi; Hebrews ix
 Cf. Alfred Edersheim, “The Temple: Sacrifices, Their Order and Meaning”. http://www.biblehelpsonline.com/alfrededersheim/temple05.htm
 Ezechiel x. God returns in chapter xxxiv.
 Hebrews vii: 27.
 Hebrews vii: 23-25.
 Hebrews vii: 27; ix: 28.
 Psalm cix: 4; Hebrews vii: 21.
 Today’s Gospel: John viii: 46-59.
 Hebrews xiii: 10.
 John vi: 51-52.