Fr. Matthew Baker: Priesthood and Sacrifice (Homily for Sunday of the Holy Cross)

Fr. Matthew Baker at his first Divine Liturgy as a priest
Fr. Matthew Baker at his first Divine Liturgy as a priest

I committed to blogging every day for 40 days this Lent, but I have to admit that I don’t feel like writing about almost anything right now except trying somehow to keep my friend Fr. Matthew in my immediate memory, as if that somehow holds off the reality of his shocking departure from this earthly life. (For more on Fr. Matthew and also for information on how to help his family, click here.)

But I made this commitment, so here I am again today trying to put a post together. I won’t write much here myself, because I’ve decided to give you something from him. The last conversation Fr. Matthew and I had was about the priesthood of Christ. The chat was over email, and I am probably like many people who have a vast archive of email from our conversations together. When Fr. Matthew sent you email, you just wanted to save all of it.

So here’s what he sent me just a couple of weeks ago, a homily on the priesthood of Christ that he delivered at St. Tikhon’s on the Sunday of the Cross either in 2007 or 2008 (he couldn’t remember). Even though his voluminous pre-doctoral publishing hadn’t quite gotten off the ground at that point, you can see from this piece that he was masterful not only with the English language and with his sources but profoundly concerned about those with whom he was speaking.

Here’s the homily.


Priesthood and Sacrifice: Homily for Sunday of the Holy Cross

Hebrews 4:14-5:10; Mark 8:34-9:1

1. In today’s readings, the Church invites us to contemplate the mystery of the Holy Cross in light of the high-priestly ministry of Jesus Christ.

Jesus Christ, the Epistle to the Hebrews tells us, is our great High Priest. He is the mediator of a new covenant (Heb. 9:15; 12:24): a new relationship of love between God and man.

St. Athanasius points out that whenever¬†the¬†Apostle Paul speaks¬†of¬†Christ as priest or mediator, he always connects this to His being made¬†man (Contra Arianos II: XIV:10).¬†As we heard today: ‚ÄúFor we do not have a High Priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who was in all points tempted as we are, yet without sin‚ÄĚ (Heb. 4:15). And again elsewhere it is said: ‚ÄúHe had in all things to be made like unto his brethren, that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in things pertaining to God‚ÄĚ (Heb. 2:17). ‚ÄúFor there is one God and one Mediator between God and men,‚ÄĚ writes St. Paul: ‚Äúthe¬†Man¬†Christ Jesus‚ÄĚ (1 Tim. 2:5).

The¬†Fathers¬†of¬†the¬†Church insist upon this apostolic teaching.¬†The¬†eternal Son takes¬†the ‚Äúmaterial‚Ä̬†of¬†His priesthood, says St. Epiphanius, ‚Äúfrom humanity‚ÄĚ (Adv. Haer. 44:4). ‚ÄúIn what is He a priest, save in that which He took to Himself from¬†the¬†priestly nation?‚ÄĚ asks St. Ambrose¬†of¬†Milan (Expositio Fidei¬†III: XI, 86-88). It is as one sharing fully in¬†the condition¬†of¬†our fragile,¬†mortal humanity¬†(Heb.2:14) that¬†God¬†the¬†Son¬†was made High Priest for us. And¬†the¬†very ‚Äústuff‚Ä̬†of¬†His priestly offering is¬†the¬†wounded humanity which is shown to us on¬†the¬†Cross.

2. On¬†the¬†Cross, Jesus prayed to¬†the¬†Father. As our High Priest, ‚Äútaken from amongst men‚ÄĚ (Heb. 5:1), our Lord¬†offered¬†worship.¬†As St. Cyril¬†of¬†Alexandria tells us:

Since he put on the form of a servant, he fulfilled the ministry befitting a servant, without ceasing to be God and Lord Worship is a thing most befitting men, reckoned in the order of a debt and offered by us to God. Therefore he worshipped as man when he became man, but is ever worshipped with the Father, since he is God and ever will be God by nature, and true God (In Joannis Evangelium, LXXXIII, 340, 305).

On¬†the¬†Cross, Jesus offered to¬†the¬†Father¬†the¬†prayer¬†of¬†Israel, a prayer from¬†the¬†psalms¬†of David,¬†the¬†prayer-book¬†of¬†the¬†Jerusalem Temple, crying ‚ÄúMy God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?‚ÄĚ (Ps. 22:1) and ‚ÄúInto Thy hands I commend my spirit‚ÄĚ (Ps. 31:4). He united to Himself the prayers of every generation, completing and fulfilling them, offering in¬†the Temple¬†of¬†His Body¬†the¬†sacrifice¬†of¬†His¬†holy¬†life.

3. Today’s epistle announces to us that this priestly offering is not simply a fact of past history: through His ascension into the Heaven, the prayer of Jesus and His sacrifice on the Cross is gathered into eternity.

In¬†the¬†Old Covenant,¬†the¬†high priest entered¬†the¬†Holy¬†of¬†Holies once a year, on the Day of Atonement. Exodus tells us how the high priest bore ‚Äúupon his shoulders‚ÄĚ and ‚Äúupon his heart‚ÄĚ ‚Äď in¬†the¬†form¬†of¬†a breastplate ‚Ästthe¬†names¬†of¬†the¬†twelve tribes¬†of¬†Israel ‚Äúto bring them to continual remembrance before¬†the¬†LORD‚ÄĚ (Exod. 28:12, 29). Wisdom of Solomon recalls how the high priest dressed in a long robe which represented ‚Äúthe¬†whole creation‚ÄĚ (Wisdom¬†of¬†Solomon 18:24).

But now we hear¬†of¬†something greater: our High Priest ‚Ästthe¬†only Son¬†of¬†God¬†‚Äď now stands in¬†the¬†presence¬†of¬†the¬†Father in Heaven,¬†still bearing our humanity. He brings our names into continual remembrance before God, bearing us upon His heart, offering¬†the whole creation to¬†the¬†Father. As St. Gregory¬†the¬†Theologian confesses: ‚ÄúAs man He still pleads for my salvation, because He keeps with Him¬†the¬†body which He took.‚ÄĚ (Fourth Theological Oration,¬†14).

It is into this heavenly liturgy which¬†Christ performs before¬†the¬†face¬†of¬†the¬†Father that¬†the¬†Church is drawn in her worship. Jesus Himself is¬†the¬†one chief “liturgist¬†of¬†the¬†sanctuary” (Heb. 8:2),¬†the¬†‚Äúbishop¬†of¬†our souls‚ÄĚ (1 Pet. 2:25), and ‚Äúthe¬†Amen,¬†the¬†faithful and true witness‚ÄĚ (Rev. 3:14), through whom that we offer our Amen to God (2 Cor. 1:20). True God, worshipped with¬†the¬†Father and¬†the¬†Spirit, Christ also prays ‚Äúwith us as man‚Ķ offering‚Ķ himself on our behalf, and us¬†through himself and in himself to God¬†the¬†Father‚ÄĚ (St. Cyril¬†of¬†Alexandria,¬†Thesaurus,¬†117CD, 361B-D).

This is why, before our liturgy begins,¬†the¬†deacon proclaims, ‚ÄúIt is time for¬†the¬†Lord¬†to act.‚ÄĚ It is why, during¬†the¬†prayer¬†of¬†the¬†Cherubic Hymn,¬†the¬†bishop or priest addresses our Lord with¬†the¬†words, ‚ÄúThou art¬†the¬†Offerer and¬†the¬†Offering‚Ķ O Christ.‚ÄĚ And we are called to¬†lift up our hearts: to ascend ‚Äúboldly to¬†the¬†throne¬†of¬†grace‚ÄĚ (Heb. 4:16), ‚Äúwhere Christ is seated on¬†the¬†right hand¬†of¬†God‚ÄĚ (Col. 3:1) ‚Äď where, we pray, our gifts will be received ‚Äúupon His¬†holy, heavenly and ideal altar.” By¬†the¬†coming¬†of¬†the¬†Holy¬†Spirit upon us and upon these gifts¬†of¬†bread and wine,¬†our¬†feeble, often halting prayers and¬†our simple offering are being united to¬†Christ‚Äôs¬†prayer and Christ’s offering of Hid Holy Body and Blood. We are being made sharers in His priesthood.

4. Now priesthood, as we heard in today‚Äôs epistle reading, entails¬†the¬†offering¬†of¬†‚Äúboth gifts and sacrifices‚ÄĚ (Heb. 5:1). It was for¬†this¬†that we were created: to receive¬†the¬†gift¬†of¬†life from¬†the¬†Creator, and to return this gift to Him in praise and thanksgiving; to¬†know¬†God, to commune with Him, in¬†the¬†enjoyment¬†of¬†every created thing. Yet in our fallen world, so scarred by sin and death, every gift must¬†of¬†necessity be touched with¬†sacrifice. Nothing less than sacrifice is able to break open¬†the¬†death-grip¬†of¬†sinful egotism ‚Äď in order that true sharing, true exchange¬†of¬†life, real communion between persons, may take hold. For it to be¬†gift, every gift which we exchange with God and one another must be marked with a¬†Cross.

The bread which we use in the liturgy, the gift of the world which we offer up in thanksgiving to the Creator, is stamped with a Cross. The Holy Body of Christ, which we receive in return, is also a broken body, bearing the marks of the Cross. So it must be with the whole of our life: We must be broken open, marked with the Cross, that we might share life together with God and one another.

This is a challenge to all¬†of¬†us. Brokenness,¬†the¬†Cross¬†‚Äď these are not things we want to face. We want to run away, to hide. How much energy do I spend in hiding my own weakness, my vulnerabilities, from¬†the¬†eyes¬†of¬†other people? And how much time do I spend in escaping any consideration of¬†the¬†fragility,¬†the¬†brokenness,¬†of¬†the¬†other human beings around me ‚Äď or worse, in scorning and trampling upon this very brokenness?

5. But there is Good News. Let us listen again to¬†the¬†description¬†of¬†the¬†high priest given in today‚Äôs epistle. It says: ‚ÄúHe can have compassion on those who are ignorant and going astray, since he himself is also subject to¬†weakness‚Ķ And no man takes this honor to himself, but he who is called by God‚ÄĚ (Heb. 5:2, 4).

This priest is not a religious super-hero. Rather, this priest, according to our epistle, is a person with three chief distinguishing characteristics.¬†First: he is in touch with his own weaknesses: he knows his own fragility, his limitations; he does not hide them from himself or other people.¬†Second: because¬†of¬†this, he can have compassion on¬†the weaknesses¬†of¬†others ‚Äď his weaknesses, his own brokenness, become¬†the¬†very means and form¬†of¬†his compassionate sharing with others. And¬†third: he is called by God.

Now all¬†of¬†us here today have¬†weaknesses, profound limitations,¬†of¬†which we may or may not be aware. All¬†of¬†us have encountered crosses in life, some¬†of¬†them very painful; crosses which perhaps we did not choose ‚Äď crosses which we are probably still learning how to bear with thanksgiving. And further, each¬†of¬†us here ‚Äď every baptized man, woman and child ‚Äď has been¬†called by God.¬†He has called us to be sharers in Christ‚Äôs ‚Äúroyal priesthood‚ÄĚ (1 Pet. 2:9): to make¬†the¬†whole¬†of¬†our lives ‚Äď our work, our rest and play, and all¬†of¬†our relationships ‚Äď a living sacrifice to God (Rom. 12:1).

This is a high calling, an arduous task. Yet I suggest we can make a start today by beginning, not with our strengths, but with our¬†weaknesses. If we can look realistically at our own deep limitations ‚Ästthe¬†ways which we so often fail in bearing our own crosses ‚Äď then perhaps we can begin to approach others with that¬†gentleness which ‚Äď as one¬†of¬†the Desert Fathers said ‚Äď comes¬†of¬†remembering that ‚Äúeach and every person we meet is engaged in a deep and bitter struggle.‚ÄĚ Then we can begin to see¬†the¬†wounds which we have received in life for what they truly are: a way in which¬†the¬†Lord is preparing us to bring healing to others. We can begin to exercise¬†the¬†priestly virtue¬†of¬†compassion. As in the¬†Holy¬†Eucharist itself, our very brokenness can become¬†the¬†opening through which life may be shared with others.¬†Then¬†our crosses truly become¬†the¬†Holy¬†Cross. By coming to terms with our own weakness, by showing gentleness towards¬†the¬†weaknesses¬†of¬†others, we can begin to make our whole life a sacrifice: a priestly offering to God, through Jesus Christ our great High Priest.

Unto him that loved us, and washed us from our sins in his own blood, and hath made us kings and priests unto God and his Father; to him be glory and dominion for ever and ever. Amen (Rev. 1:5-6).

11 comments:

  1. Amen. Thank you for sharing this, Fr. Andrew. My condolences to you in the loss of your friend and brother priest. May Fr. Matthew’s memory be eternal! May the Lord hold and comfort all who love him and mourn his loss, especially his dear wife and beloved children.

  2. So sorry to hear about the death of this servant of God. Thanks for sharing what I perceive is just a small part of his legacy. I hope his friends and family can find hope and comfort in his deep love and conviction for the truth of The Lord Jesus and His Church.

  3. Thank you so much for sharing Fr Matthew’s homily. May God be with you & yours, & with his families & parish, in this deep loss. I hope more of his writing gets published!

  4. Taken from the world that needed him so very much, may +Fr Matthew rest in peace. Thank you, Rev. Fr Andrew, for sharing this homily with us all. Prayers going out to +Fr Matthews entire family.

  5. Memory Eternal to Fr. Matthew!

    I’m hoping that his works can be published in the future. Everything of his I’ve read over the last few days is simply top-shelf. Thank you Fr Andrew, looking forward to more.

  6. I wonder whether anyone has thought about collecting Fr. Matthew’s writings and sermons and publishing them. Clearly he had a brilliant mind and a loving heart for God and his neighbor. I know I would be greatly enriched by reading them, and I bet others would be as well.

    1. Whoops, I posted before I read the other comments. Seems like someone already thought of this!

  7. Amazing homily – abundance of faith, truth and love. I never met or heard Fr. Matthew, but I feel – through this unfortunate tragedy – many more, like me, will be exposed to his Spirit-filled gems. May the memory of this good servant, Fr. Matthew, be eternal.

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