Jesus’ Eternal Priesthood of Righteousness and Peace, Second Wednesday (I), January 21, 2015

Fr. Roger J. Landry
St. Bernadette Parish, Fall River, MA
Wednesday of the Second Week in Ordinary Time, Year I
Memorial of St. Agnes
January 21, 2015
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 the Letter to the Hebrews begins to describe in greater depth the priesthood of Jesus, 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 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.
  • The same type of opposition to Christ’s work of righteousness and peace happens in every age. Today we celebrate the memorial of St. Agnes who suffered in 304 precisely because of her desire to love God and others as Christ taught. Agnes was 13 when she was accused of being a Christian because she was living chastely and refusing advances. She was tried and sentenced to be violated, but God by various means protected her. Eventually she was beheaded after a valiant martyrdom. St. Ambrose would write about her later in his Treatise on Virginity that virginity is praiseworthy not because it is found in martyrs but because it makes martyrs. Her chaste love for the Lord in little things became the school of the training in courage that allowed her to remain faithful in love of the Lord and others while under the threat of torture and death. She was righteousness and living in the Lord’s peace in day-to-day life and she was able to take that justice and that peace to her death, entering into Christ the High Priest’s one eternal sacrifice. Today we ask her to intercede for us so that Jesus, looking at the way we will live out our life today, will not 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 save them. Agnes was strengthened in her chastity because she assimilated the chaste love of Jesus in the Holy Eucharist. 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 martyrs, make us true witness, like Agnes.

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.