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: “For 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” (Heb. 4:15). And again elsewhere it is said: “He 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” (Heb. 2:17). “For there is one God and one Mediator between God and men,” writes St. Paul: “the Man Christ Jesus” (1 Tim. 2:5).
The Fathers of the Church insist upon this apostolic teaching. The eternal Son takes the “material” of His priesthood, says St. Epiphanius, “from humanity” (Adv. Haer. 44:4). “In what is He a priest, save in that which He took to Himself from the priestly nation?” 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 “stuff” 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, “taken from amongst men” (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 “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” (Ps. 22:1) and “Into Thy hands I commend my spirit” (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 “upon his shoulders” and “upon his heart” – in the form of a breastplate – the names of the twelve tribes of Israel “to bring them to continual remembrance before the LORD” (Exod. 28:12, 29). Wisdom of Solomon recalls how the high priest dressed in a long robe which represented “the whole creation” (Wisdom of Solomon 18:24).
But now we hear of something greater: our High Priest – the only Son of God – 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: “As man He still pleads for my salvation, because He keeps with Him the body which He took.” (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 “bishop of our souls” (1 Pet. 2:25), and “the Amen, the faithful and true witness” (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 “with us as man… offering… himself on our behalf, and us through himself and in himself to God the Father” (St. Cyril of Alexandria, Thesaurus, 117CD, 361B-D).
This is why, before our liturgy begins, the deacon proclaims, “It is time for the Lord to act.” It is why, during the prayer of the Cherubic Hymn, the bishop or priest addresses our Lord with the words, “Thou art the Offerer and the Offering… O Christ.” And we are called to lift up our hearts: to ascend “boldly to the throne of grace” (Heb. 4:16), “where Christ is seated on the right hand of God” (Col. 3:1) – where, we pray, our gifts will be received “upon 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’s 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’s epistle reading, entails the offering of “both gifts and sacrifices” (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 – 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 – 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 – 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’s epistle. It says: “He can have compassion on those who are ignorant and going astray, since he himself is also subject to weakness… And no man takes this honor to himself, but he who is called by God” (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 – 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 – crosses which we are probably still learning how to bear with thanksgiving. And further, each of us here – every baptized man, woman and child – has been called by God. He has called us to be sharers in Christ’s “royal priesthood” (1 Pet. 2:9): to make the whole of our lives – our work, our rest and play, and all of our relationships – 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 – the ways which we so often fail in bearing our own crosses – then perhaps we can begin to approach others with that gentleness which – as one of the Desert Fathers said – comes of remembering that “each and every person we meet is engaged in a deep and bitter struggle.” 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).