Were today not Passion Sunday, we
would be celebrating the Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin Mary—the day on
which the Angel Gabriel revealed to Mary that she had been chosen to be the
mother of our Incarnate God, to which she gave her total ascent, saying
“Behold the handmaid of the Lord, be it done to me according to thy
word”—and, with her words, “the Word was made flesh and dwelt amongst us.”
We will celebrate that great event tomorrow, a day later than usual, but
today we must celebrate the feast of our Lord’s Passion, and begin the two
week intensification of Lent known as “Passiontide.”
Today’s readings are intended to
tell us something about our Lord’s priesthood—which is to say His
sacrificial mediation between man and God—so that we may more clearly
understand the actions commemorated this Holy Thursday and Good Friday, in
which our Lord offered Himself as priest and victim to atone to the Father
for the sins of mankind.
Today’s Epistle is taken from Saint
Paul’s Epistle to the Hebrews. The Church has us read only a few verses
today, but well informed Catholics will want to read the entire Epistle for
themselves. It is read in the Office only in years that have all six
Sundays after Epiphany, so please don’t wait for the next time that happens.
The idea of priesthood is central to
Judaism and Christianity. Man fell from God’s grace through the sin of
Adam; an infinite insult because of God’s infinite glory. Very early on,
the sons of Adam recognized the need to offer God something in reparation
for that insult. Various Old Testament figures offered sacrifices to God,
pleasing God in varying degrees, but never completely making up for the sin
of Adam. In all cases they were imperfect, human priests, who attempted to
mediate between God and God’s people, but who, of necessity, offered God
imperfect sacrificial offerings. In Sacrifice, something of value to men
and women is offered to God, and then destroyed so that they can no longer
With the benefit of revelation,
God’s people have learned more specifically what He expects of us in
worship. In the Old Testament we learn that “God looked with favor upon
Abel and his offering … the first born of his flock.”
After the flood, Noah offered a sacrifice of the clean animals and birds
that pleased God, Who promised “never again to curse the earth because of
After the defeat of four kings, Abraham had the priest-king Melchisedech
offer a sacrifice of bread and wine (a foreshadowing of things to come).
Later, to test Abraham’s loyalty, God commanded that he sacrifice his own
son Isaac, but then provided a stag as an alternate victim to redeem the boy.
The Exodus from captivity in Egypt
began with the sacrifice of lambs ordered by God; the blood being smeared
over the doorways of the Jews so that the angel of death would pass-over
their homes without harming their first born sons.
The Passover sacrifice was to be eaten in haste, with unleavened bread, wine
and bitter herbs, a feast to kept “from age to age, an irrevocable
It was this Passover sacrifice that provided the context for the first Mass,
offered at the Last Supper, the night before our Lord offered Himself in
Sacrifice on the Cross.
During the Exodus from Egypt, Moses
received the Law from God. In addition to the moral instructions summarized
in the Commandments, the Mosaic Law contained instructions about ritual
purity and the way in which God wanted to be worshipped. Moses’ brother
Aaron and Aaron’s sons were to be consecrated as priests and ordered to
offer a myriad of sacrifices on a continuous basis. The sacrifices included
clean animals, birds, and various forms of wheaten flour and cakes. Details
are found in the book of Leviticus.
The Old Testament sacrifices were to be carried out in the portable
sanctuary carried about through the desert, and later at the Temple built in
Jerusalem. They were still being offered at the time of Christ. Some of
the sacrificial victims were completely destroyed by fire (holocausts),
others might be partially burnt with the remainder being consumed by the
priests, and still others might be shared by the lay people who offered
Later on, the prophet Malachi was
sent by God to warn the Jews that they were offering unacceptable victims on
His altar, and to announce that sacrificial worship would be transferred to
the Gentiles (non-Jews) “a pure offering that would be offered everywhere
from the rising of the sun unto its going down.”
In the New Testament we encounter
Jesus Christ, true God and true man. In today’s Gospel we hear our Lord
identifying Himself with the Father. He was clearly a man—some of those in
the crowd may have been alive when He was born. But in the Gospel He makes
the startling claim that “before Abraham was made, I am.”
That rather strange construction was not a grammatical error, for our Lord
is not only claiming to pre-date Abraham, but He is using the name by which
God identified Himself to Moses, “I am.” “God said to Moses: I AM WHO AM.
He said: Thus shalt thou say to the children of Israel: HE WHO IS, hath sent
me to you.”
To the unbelieving Jews, it was clear that this man Jesus was claiming to be
God, Whose name reflected His eternal existence—indeed it was so clear to
them that they were going to stone him to death for blasphemy. But, being
both God and man, Jesus Christ is the perfect priest; the perfect
intercessor between the two.
Jesus Christ is also the perfect
sacrificial victim. What offering could be more precious to God or to man
than God’s own Son:
“If the blood of goats and of
oxen, and the ashes of an heifer being sprinkled, sanctify such as
are defiled ... 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?”
If you read the sixth chapter of
Saint John’s Gospel, you know that during the previous Passover, our Lord
promised that He would give Himself to His disciples: “I am the bread of
life, anyone who eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I
shall give is my flesh, for the life of the world…. Anyone who eats of this
bread will live forever.”
We know that our Lord was speaking literally about giving His body, for some
in the crowd murmured about it, saying, “How can this man give us His flesh
to eat?” At which point Jesus reiterated His intention to give us His flesh
and blood. Many of His followers walked away in disbelief—He could have
brought them back by saying that He was only speaking figuratively, that He
intended to give mere symbols of his body and blood—but He did not, because
He meant what He had said.
A year later, at the Passover in
Jerusalem, He made good on His promise. As he ate the Passover meal with
His Apostles, He took some of the unleavened bread and a cup of wine and
gave it to them, saying,
Take it and eat. This is My
body…. This is My blood, the blood of the covenant, which is to be
poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.
And, having said these words, He went out, was captured
by the Jews, and in less than a day gave up His body and His blood in the
Sacrifice of the Cross.
There is but one Sacrifice of the
Cross, “for this He did once, in offering himself,” but that sacrifice is
re-presented wherever and whenever Mass is offered.
Our Lord gave His Apostles and their successors the power to do this.
In his letter to the Hebrews, Saint
Paul speaks in clear sacrificial terms, describing the practice of the
Christians relative to those who rejected Christ and remained with the
Temple: “We have an altar from which those who serve the tabernacle (the
Temple) have no right to eat.”
Saint Paul wrote in Greek, and the word he used for “altar” was the same
word (θυσιαστήριον, thusiastērion, thoo-see-as-tay'-ree-on) that was used to
describe the sacrificial altar of the Temple in the Septuagint (Greek)
translation used by the Jews of the Old Testament—it was not a table.
It is my custom not to preach during
Holy Week, which begins next Sunday. But I will ask you to attend the
ceremonies, make use of what you learn today, and discern the close
connection between the events of Holy Thursday and Good Friday—between the
Altar and the Cross.