Sunday of the Adoration of the Holy Cross, April 3, 2016
Hebrews 4:14-5:6; Mark 8:34-9:1
Rev. Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, one God. Amen.
Today is our fifth meditation in our eight-part series asking the question, “Who is God?” Today is also the third Sunday of Great Lent, the Sunday of the Adoration of the Cross, which is named that because today we place the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ in the center of the Church for our veneration.
As part of our celebration on this third Sunday, we read from the Epistle to the Hebrews, which is traditionally ascribed to the Apostle Paul. If you have read Hebrews—and I encourage you to do so—you know that it is an extended meditation on the priesthood, both the priesthood of the Old Testament and how it is fulfilled and completed in Jesus Christ.
Thus, the answer to our question today, “Who is God?” is this: “God is our priest.”
It might seem a little odd to refer to God as our priest. Isn’t a priest the person who connects us to the divine? Why would we say that God is a priest? That doesn’t make any sense. God is the one way up there, we’re down here, and the priest is somewhere in the middle. At least, that is how we tend to think of the priesthood and what it does in relation to God.
But I would like to suggest to you that that notion of the priest as being primarily an intermediary with God—as someone between us and God—is a problem. And indeed, if we read Hebrews correctly, we will see that, although the language of the priest as one who stands between God and the people is there, the role is not really about a fallible human person providing access to God. The priest does not have the keys to a gateway that cuts us off from God. No priest can prevent us from getting to God, and we do not require the priest to give us access we don’t already otherwise have.
There is also the problem here of a misunderstanding of the priesthood entirely, especially the question of who exactly is a priest and who is not.
Let’s begin where Paul begins, with the primary identification of the High Priest Himself. He writes this: “since we have a great High Priest, who has passed through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold fast the confession.”
So Paul identifies our High Priest as Jesus, the Son of God, Who, as he says, has “passed through the heavens.” He is referring here to the Ascension into Heaven, though we might also understand this in the opposite direction, that His passage “through the heavens” is also His coming to Earth to be incarnate as a man. Jesus Christ is that High Priest Who was incarnate for us and also ascended into Heaven and sat down at the right hand of God. Because we have that High Priest as our priest, then we should “hold fast the confession,” that is, we should remain faithful to this Christian faith that we profess.
But Paul then goes on to talk about this High Priest some more: “For we do not have a High Priest who is unable to sympathize with our infirmities, but one who has been in all points tempted like as we are, yet without sin.”
He stresses how Jesus Christ is like us, able “to sympathize with our infirmities.” Like us, He experienced pain and loss. He lost friends, He grieved over death and suffering, He suffered betrayal by one of those closest to him, arrest, torture, crucifixion and death for us. And Paul also says that He even suffered temptation “in all points,” “yet without sin.”
This High Priest Jesus is like us. He is one of us. He suffered like us.
So what does that mean? Paul continues: “Let us therefore draw near with boldness to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy, and may find grace to help in time of need.”
Because our High Priest is like us, we can draw near to the throne of grace—how? With boldness. I will be honest and say that I feel like a lot of our prayers are not very bold. Mine often aren’t. But Paul says because Jesus is like us, we can draw near with boldness to the throne of grace, “that we may receive mercy, and may find grace to help in time of need.”
Then he writes this: “For every high priest, being taken from among the people, is appointed on behalf of the people in things pertaining to God, that he may offer up both gifts and sacrifices for sins; who can have compassion on the ignorant and on those who are erring, since he himself also is encompassed with infirmity.”
Here now is where we have a precise image of what the priesthood is really about. Jesus our high priest, “being taken from among the people, is appointed on behalf of the people in things pertaining to God.” So Paul says, yes, the priest is appointed for “things pertaining to God,” but he is also “appointed on behalf of the people,” and he is “taken from among the people.” In a very real sense, Jesus is human like us and taken from among us to be our High Priest.
And why? What are these “things pertaining to God” that Jesus is appointed for? Paul writes: “Because of this he is bound, as for the people so also for himself, to offer up for sins.”
Now, he is still speaking generally here about high priests, since he mentions that the high priest offers up—that is, he makes sacrifices—for sins, not just for the people but also for himself. Jesus, of course, does not have any sins, so His sacrifice is not on His own behalf. Rather, when He makes an offering for sins, it is for us sinners.
We should not get the idea that Jesus was some sort of average guy who volunteered, though. He is nothing less than the One sent by God, the Son of God and Himself God, as Paul says: “And no one takes the honor upon himself, but as being called by God, as was Aaron. So Christ also did not glorify Himself to become a High priest, but it was by the One saying to Him, ‘Thou art My Son, today I have begotten Thee.’ As He says also in another place, ‘Thou art a Priest forever, according to the order of Melchizedek.’”
So the image Paul gives us is that our High Priest is Jesus Christ, the Son of God, Who is like us in every way yet without sin. And He is called by His Father to make a sacrifice for sins on behalf of the people.
So how do we understand this in terms of our own Christian experience? And how do we understand this in terms of the sacrificial priesthood that we have in our churches?
First we have to understand where Jesus is in all this. He is the High Priest, the One Who makes the sacrifice. But as we see Him today on the Cross, we also see that He is the One Who is the sacrifice. So He is both the offering and the offerer. He gives Himself. He is the High Priest Who sacrifices not an animal, but Himself. And being God, He is also the One to Whom the sacrifice is offered.
But He also gives Himself for us and to us, in that this sacrifice, having been offered to the Father as pure and blameless and without blemish, is distributed to us for our reception and our sanctification. When we worthily partake of this sacrifice of Christ on the Cross, then we are changed, we are forgiven, we are converted, we are made holy. When we partake in an unworthy manner, then we receive damnation to ourselves, as Paul says elsewhere (1 Cor. 11:27).
Thus, when we see the ordained presbyters standing before the altar and offering up the bread and wine, we should not see the fallible, sinful men who stand there in vestments. Rather, we should see their participation in the perfect priesthood of Christ. The presbyter does not stand between us and God. Rather, he participates in the one priesthood of Christ. He is not the keeper to the keys to Heaven, but rather one who stands next to the gateway and invites all in.
But let’s go even deeper. If you listen closely to the words of the Divine Liturgy, you will hear a word many times—the word we. It is we who mystically represent the cherubim, we who sing the Thrice-Holy Hymn, we who offer up the sacrifices of praise, of bread and of wine. So who are the priests here? We are all priests. Yes, there are those who are ordained to be elders among the priests, presbyters, commonly called “priests,” but all baptized Orthodox Christians are actually priests. We are a priestly nation, a royal priesthood, every one of us.
And since there is only one priesthood, the priesthood of Jesus Christ, then that means we are all participating in the one priesthood. We are all standing before the altar and offering up the sacrifice—though not truly us, but Jesus, Who lends us His presence so that this sacrifice may be acceptable and may truly become His Body and Blood.
So what does the priesthood do? The priesthood is not a gateway between us and God. No, the priesthood is a connection for us to God. And Jesus Christ is both God and man, which makes Him the one place where God and man therefore meet and are fully one. And if we are in Christ, participating in the one priesthood of Christ, then we are being connected to God in so doing.
So as we look upon the precious and life-giving Cross today, we see there our High Priest, called by God, taken from among us, Who has offered up Himself for us, so that we who are cut off from God may be reconnected back to Him.
Today, we ask: “Who is God?” And today, we answer: “God is our Priest.”
To our crucified and risen High Priest Jesus Christ, with His eternal Father and His all-holy and good and life-giving Spirit, be all glory, honor and worship, now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.