Jesus’ Eternal Priesthood and Its Intended Impact on Us, 2nd Wednesday (I), January 18, 2017

Fr. Roger J. Landry
Visitation Convent of the Sisters of Life, Manhattan
Wednesday of the Second Week in Ordinary Time, Year I
Beginning of the Octave of Prayer for Christian Unity
January 18, 2017
Heb 7:1-3.15-17, Ps 110, Mk 3:1-6

 

To listen to an audio recording of today’s homily, please click below: 

 

The following points were attempted in the homily: 

  • Today we make a shift in our three-week study of the beautiful Letter to the Hebrews. Until now, it’s introduced us to Christ’s priesthood as God the Father’s ultimate word, who through compassionate obedience in suffering and death, seeks to lead us through our suffering and death to perfection, if only we respond with eagerness and allow his living and effective word to profit us as it ought. Today we begin to look more deeply at Jesus’ high priesthood and its characteristics, a priesthood in which he offers himself as the Victim and seeks to transform us to make of our lives a loving sacrifice for God and others. The Letter to the Hebrews does so by focusing on the figure of Melchizedek, but before we get to him, it is important for us first to focus on the context of the priesthood in God’s plans in general. The priesthood, both in the Old Testament and in the New,  has a specific purpose: to offer sacrifices to God specifically for the forgiveness of sins. God had given his people the gift of the Law, the gift of the Covenant, the gift of the Commandments to help them to keep the Covenant, but just like we see with Adam and Eve in the beginning, people abused their freedom by failing to live their end of the Covenant. They chose against God, against the Law he gave to form them to love Him and to love others. Hence the priesthood was established out of God’s mercy to make sacrifices of expiation for the forgiveness of the sins against love of God and others, against the Law. But the Old Covenant Aaronic priesthood wasn’t sufficient to do this. Holocausts of various types of animals and other forms of sacrifice were not sufficient. Jesus came as the Eternal High Priest to make an expiatory sacrifice as the Lamb of God to take away the sins of the world. He did this through his own suffering and death. He did this by offering himself.
  • That brings us to Melchizedek. The Letter to the Hebrews tells us — a sentence of striking importance! —  that he was “made to resemble the Son of God.” When we say of Jesus, as we did at the end of the first reading and during today’s Responsorial Psalm, “You are a priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek,” we need to understand that, yes, Jesus is a priest like Melchizedek and not like the Aaronic Cohens, but that Melchizedek was made to be a particular type of priest in anticipation of Jesus. And so what are the qualities of Melchizedek’s priesthood that were made to resemble the priesthood of the Son of God? The first is in his name, which means “King of Righteousness.” Righteousness means being right with God and with others. The second is “King of Salem,” which means “King of Peace.” When we are right with God and others, peace comes as a fruit; when we’re not right with God and others, there will be no real, lasting peace. The third is that he is a “priest of God Most High,” who finds his lineage in God, since he is “without father, mother, ancestry.” This is in contract to the Jewish priesthood which is based on blood descent from Aaron. Fourth, he was superior to Abraham, shown in the fact that Abraham tithed to him and he blessed Abraham. Christ would say later, “Before Abraham was, I am” (Jn 8:58). Fifth, he was “without beginning of days or end of life,” meaning that his priesthood, resembling that of Christ, was eternal. Based on all of these criteria, the Letter to the Hebrews says, referring to Jesus, that he is “another priest… raised up after the likeness of Melchizedek, who has become so, not by a law expressed in a commandment concerning physical descent but by the power of a life that cannot be destroyed. For it is testified: “You are a priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek.” Jesus’ priesthood is one of righteousness, peace, God, superior to Abraham and eternal. We could also one other detail that is not in today’s passage: that Melchizedek offered a sacrifice of bread and wine, not animals, which is a clear allusion to Christ’s making his own definitive sacrifice under the appearance of bread and wine during the Last Supper and taking us from sign to signified the following afternoon on Calvary.
  • We see Jesus the High Priest carrying out his priesthood of righteousness in the Gospel. He returned to the Synagogue as a controversial figure because he had healed the paralyzed man’s sins (a divine action that was considered blasphemous by those unwilling to consider that he might be divine), ate with tax collectors and sinners, allowed his apostles to pluck heads of grain on the sabbath and more. In the synagogue, there was a man with a crushed hand who probably couldn’t work and support himself and his family. Jesus called him forward and asked what would on the surface seem to be a silly question, but one that was key to understanding the righteousness with God and others that Jesus had come to reestablish. “Is it lawful to do good on the sabbath rather than to do evil,” Jesus asked, “to save life rather than to destroy it?” Jesus was asking if it was possible to love someone in deeds on the Lord’s day. He was querying whether it was possible to save or redeem. Jesus’ opponents didn’t respond because they knew how ridiculous their response would seem, but after Jesus was gone, the Pharisees went out on the Sabbath, on the Lord’s day, and began to conspire with the Herodians (with whom they would ordinarily not interact at all because of the Herodians’ licentiousness and relations with the Romans) about how to put Jesus to death. They apparently thought nothing was wrong in using the sabbath to “do evil” and to “destroy” life, but they homicidally objected to Jesus’ trying to do good and save life. Even though the Pharisees were distinguished by their trying to live the Law in all its minutiae, many of them had ceased to be “righteous,” because they were no longer living the Law as a Covenant of Love. They were so obsessed about smaller details that they failed to live the main point of it. Rather than forming them to be God-like, they thought that it required murdering Jesus. It’s key for us to grasp what was happening behind the scenes. If the devil can’t get us to reject God’s law, he’s going to try to get us to misunderstand it and live according to a distorted notion of it. That’s what had happened with so many of the Pharisees, Scribes and others. Jesus had come to reestablish God’s people in righteousness and in the peace that flows from it. But not everyone would accept this priestly work and they would become participants in his priestly sacrifice not through their cooperation but through their conspiratorial plotting.
  • What happened to them is a warning to us. They had come to the synagogue that Sabbath not wanting to worship God, not wanting to love their neighbor, not wanting to seek and do God’s will, but to will something contrary to God and his holiness. When we come to Church, to this Chapel, do we want what God really wants? Do we desire to enter into his priesthood, his salvific will and action as the king of righteousness and peace? What Jesus does in the Mass is not merely come to be with us and enter into us through Holy Communion. He comes to unite us to himself so that he might unite us in love to each other, so that we might become “one body, one spirit in Christ.” Today the Church begins the annual Octave of Prayer for Christian Unity.  This year’s eight days of joint prayer among Christians is particularly special because it is occurring during the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation and the serious injury to the unity of Christians it precipitated. On the night before he would be executed, during the celebration of the first Mass, Jesus, the Eternal High Priest according to the line of Melchizedek, poured out his heart to his Father in what was truly the first Eucharistic prayer. He prayed for his apostles and then all of us who would owe our faith in Christ to the preaching of the apostles and their collaborators and successors. And he asked for something specific and almost incomprehensible: “that they may be all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us” (Jn 17:20-21). Jesus prayed that our unity with each other be as complete as the perfect unity that exists between the persons of the Blessed Trinity. We might be tempted to dismiss Jesus’ prayer as something that, however beautiful, is clearly utopian and unachievable. But Jesus would never have prayed for something intrinsically impossible. Prayer for him was never an exercise in “wishful thinking,” and he was fully aware of what was possible. Moreover, it is inconceivable that God the Father would refuse the prayer of his Son. As Jesus acknowledged before he raised Lazarus from the dead, “I thank you, Father, for having heard me. I know that you always hear me” (Jn 11:42). Therefore, if Jesus were praying that we be one, that we be as united among ourselves as the Persons in the Blessed Trinity are united, then that must mean it is not impossible and that the Father heard that prayer. While it is true that this dual communion will be achieved in heaven — when the communion of saints within the communion-of-persons who is the Blessed Trinity will reach its zenith — it is also clear that Jesus was praying for it in this world. During the same discourse he said, “I am not asking you to take them [us] out of the world.” He wanted us to be “in” the world without being “of” it, and gave us the reason why: he wanted our unity in this world to be the greatest sign of all of who God is and how God loves us. “As you, Father, are in me and I am in you,” he implored, “may they also be in us, so that … the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me” (Jn 17:15-23). Christian unity, in other words, will be the greatest testimony of the truth of Christ’s words and deeds as well as of God’s love. Division among Christians, on the contrary, will obscure that truth and love.  This year’s anniversary of the Protestant Reformation makes obvious that we — Christians and Catholics — do not have the type of union in the world sought by Christ. But that type of disunity, caused by sins Jesus came to die for, affects much smaller realities as well. Take any three members of the same parish or even of the same Christian family and we would be hard-pressed to find an image of the communion of love that exists between Father, Son and Holy Spirit that Jesus wants to exist among his disciples throughout the world. Hence it is obvious why the unity of Christians is such a priority for Jesus and for all those who really will what he wills. It is not as if this type of unity has never been approximated. The first disciples approached it. The members of the Church in Jerusalem “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers,” as we read in the Acts of the Apostles. “All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people.” And the impact of their loving union was dramatic, obtaining the results Jesus prayed such union would bring about: “Day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved” (Acts 2:42-47). The chronicle of division that has happened in the Church since then — from the Great Schism with the Orthodox in 1054 to the Protestant Reformation in the 1500s, to so many other separations through the centuries — is not a sign that Jesus’ prayer was ineffectual or had an expiration date. Jesus’ prayer was heard and God the Father will certainly not withhold the graces necessary for this communion. The reason for division rests in our rejecting those graces, in the actions various Christians have committed over the course of the centuries against communion, and in the various things we have failed to do in order to keep communion. Every sin ruptures communion. Every genuine act of Christian love begins to repair it. If this communion with God and with each other meant so much to the Lord that he poured out his very soul praying for it to the Father, then each of us who loves him must make it our life’s mission to try to bring about that union of love.
  • And so the question for us is whether we have come to the Chapel today to meet Christ and allow him to incorporate us into his priesthood more deeply, the common priesthood we received on the day of our baptism, the priesthood that seeks to reconcile all things in him and overcome the division caused by sin; or whether we have come with with contrary plans, like the Pharisees in the Capernaum synagogue. Our “Amen” in Holy Communion is meant to be an act of faith just to the reality of Christ’s real presence in the Eucharist but also to the reality of what he wants to accomplish in us in making us his united body. Today we want Christ not to look at us with “anger” or “grief” at our hardness of heart — like he looked at those in the synagogue — but with love and consolation for our desire to love him and others purely and chastely and offer ourselves in love to do go to them and to help Jesus reconcile and save them. As we prepare now to receive the fulfillment of Melchizedek’s sacrifice, we ask Jesus to fill us with the love that will make us one!

The readings for today’s Mass were: 

Reading 1 Heb 7:1-3, 15-17

“Melchizedek, king of Salem and priest of God Most High,
met Abraham as he returned from his defeat of the kings
and blessed him.”
And Abraham apportioned to him a tenth of everything.
His name first means righteous king,
and he was also “king of Salem,” that is, king of peace.
Without father, mother, or ancestry,
without beginning of days or end of life,
thus made to resemble the Son of God, he remains a priest forever.
It is even more obvious if another priest is raised up
after the likeness of Melchizedek, who has become so,
not by a law expressed in a commandment concerning physical descent
but by the power of a life that cannot be destroyed.
For it is testified: “You are a priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek.”

Responsorial Psalm Ps 110:1, 2, 3, 4

R. (4b) You are a priest for ever, in the line of Melchizedek.
The LORD said to my Lord: “Sit at my right hand
till I make your enemies your footstool.”
R. You are a priest for ever, in the line of Melchizedek.
The scepter of your power the LORD will stretch forth from Zion:
“Rule in the midst of your enemies.”
R. You are a priest for ever, in the line of Melchizedek.
“Yours is princely power in the day of your birth, in holy splendor;
before the daystar, like the dew, I have begotten you.”
R. You are a priest for ever, in the line of Melchizedek.
The LORD has sworn, and he will not repent:
“You are a priest forever, according to the order of Melchizedek.”
R. You are a priest for ever, in the line of Melchizedek.

Alleluia See Mt 4:23

R. Alleluia, alleluia.
Jesus preached the Gospel of the Kingdom
and cured every disease among the people.
R. Alleluia, alleluia.

Gospel Mk 3:1-6

Jesus entered the synagogue.
There was a man there who had a withered hand.
They watched Jesus closely
to see if he would cure him on the sabbath
so that they might accuse him.
He said to the man with the withered hand,
“Come up here before us.”
Then he said to the Pharisees,
“Is it lawful to do good on the sabbath rather than to do evil,
to save life rather than to destroy it?”
But they remained silent.
Looking around at them with anger
and grieved at their hardness of heart,
Jesus said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.”
He stretched it out and his hand was restored.
The Pharisees went out and immediately took counsel
with the Herodians against him to put him to death.