The High Priesthood of Jesus
June 22, 2003 Homily by Fr. Robert Altier The Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ
Reading I (Exodus 24:3-8) Reading II (Hebrews 9:11-15)
Gospel (St. Matthew 14:12-16, 22-26)
Today, as we celebrate the great solemnity of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Our Lord Jesus Christ, one could ask why it is that in the readings, all three of them, we hear about a covenant. Why not a greater focus on the Blessed Sacrament? But instead, the Church has given to us the focus on a covenant. The first reading tells us about how the old covenant was made, that Moses had to take the blood of the bulls and goats, sprinkle some of it upon the altar, and then he had to sprinkle some of it on the people. It was only by having that blood sprinkled upon them that the people became partakers in that covenant. Saint Paul, in his Letter to the Hebrews that we heard in the second reading, tells us that if the blood of bulls and goats and the sprinkling of a heifer’s ashes could make a person’s body pure so that the individual would be able to enter into the worship of the Jewish people, then how much more will the blood of Christ do. It is not about the cleansing of our body, but cleansing of our conscience, he tells us; it is the cleansing of the soul.
But it is much, much more than just simply that. Saint Paul talks about the fact that there is a new covenant, that there is a new priesthood, and, therefore, that there is a new sacrifice. We recall that his Letter to the Hebrews was written to Jewish priests who were now Catholic priests. And one of the questions that a Jewish priest would naturally have is, “Where is the high priest? We have always had a high priest so that he could enter once a year into the Holy of Holies on the feast of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, and he could offer sacrifice so that the people’s sins could be forgiven.” Remember that the high priest had to offer a bull for himself because the original high priest, Aaron, had made a golden calf, a bull, out in the desert so that he and the people could bow down and worship. Because of that, Aaron had to offer a bull for himself. So every year the high priest had to offer a bull for himself and then he had to offer the goat or the sheep for the people. As these new Catholic priests would be looking at what they were doing, they would have naturally asked themselves, “Where is the high priest? Where is the offering of the bull and where is the offering of the goat or the sheep?”
So Saint Paul is explaining it to them. The nature of a covenant has not changed. Therefore, just as in the old covenant the only way a person could become a partaker in the covenant was by having the blood of the sacrificed animal sprinkled upon him, in this case, that which is sacrificed is the Lamb of God – it is Jesus Himself. And the only way that we can be partakers of that covenant is to have the blood of Christ sprinkled upon us. For each one of us, that took place on the day we were baptized. Each covenant also has a sign, and so each time the people would see the sign they would be reminded of the covenant. We too have a sign for our covenant, but this covenant is different from any of the others. All of the other covenants being more objective and separate from the people, they would have a sign that was external. For instance, the sign for the covenant with Noah was the rainbow. Every time the people saw the rainbow, they would remember that God would never again destroy the earth by a flood. The sign of the covenant with Moses was the circumcision, so constantly the people were reminded that this was a covenant in the flesh and a covenant for the purification of the flesh to make them children of God. But because what is sacrificed in this new covenant is Jesus Himself, and because Jesus is the covenant, the very sign of the covenant is Jesus. It is the Blessed Sacrament which we receive week after week and day after day so that we are reminded not only externally of our participation in this new covenant, but rather we enter every single time more deeply into the very essence of this covenant, into the very Person of Jesus Christ.
Now again, if we line these two covenants up, as Saint Paul does in his Letter to the Hebrews so that these former Jewish priests would be able to understand the dignity of their new office, he tells us that in the old covenant there is a high priest who is different each year. Once a year he enters into the Holy of Holies and he offers that bull for himself and the sheep for the people. But Jesus, he tells us, is our High Priest and He has entered the Holy of Holies, not the one that was a model made by Moses (Remember, Moses, back in the book of Exodus, saw a vision of the worship of Heaven. He saw the temple in Heaven and he was told to make a temple in the likeness of what he had seen. And he had to worship according to the likeness of what he had seen), but Jesus has now entered into the temple in Heaven, in the New Jerusalem. He has not entered into the Holy of Holies made by human hands, not a copy of the original, but He has entered into the original itself, into the royal throne room of God. And because Jesus risen from the dead lives forever, He has a priesthood which will not pass away. Because He is without sin, He had no need to offer a bull for Himself as the high priest. But because we are with sin, we, the people of God and His children, needed to have the Lamb sacrificed for us. In the Old Testament, a lamb, obviously, could only be sacrificed once. If you kill the lamb and burn it, you are not going to be able to do that a second time; it is nothing but ashes. But because Our Lord lives forever, the Lamb once slain Who now is alive and will never die, standing before the royal throne of God, continues to offer that one sacrifice for our sins. We do not need a new lamb to be sacrificed because the one Lamb Who has been sacrificed continues to offer Himself in the Holy of Holies for the forgiveness of our sins.
That is why in the New Testament there is only one priest, Jesus Christ. It is why in the New Testament there is only one sacrifice, Jesus Christ. And it is why still there is only one priesthood and one sacrifice. I am not my own priest. Each priest in the Old Testament was his own priest and he had his own priesthood. In the New Testament, and today and until the end of the world, there is but now one priesthood and one Priest, which is why the priest stands in the very Person of Jesus Christ and why we continue to offer the one sacrifice foretold by the prophet Malachi that there would be “one pure sacrifice offered to God from the rising of the sun until its setting”. It is not a separate sacrifice, and it is not that we are sacrificing Jesus again. It is the one sacrifice being offered still for each one of us so that the sign of our covenant, and indeed our covenant itself, will continue to be offered to God so that our sins could be forgiven.
And so in the Gospel reading when we hear Our Lord telling us about His Body and Blood at the time of the Passover, and that this is the blood of the covenant, just as Moses had sprinkled the blood of the old covenant upon the people, now Our Lord sprinkles us with the blood of the new covenant – His own blood. And we share in His life. Remember, in the Old Testament times, the people believed that the life of the animal or the life of the person was contained in the blood. And so when they sprinkled the blood upon the altar and upon the people, it was sprinkling the people with the very life of the animal. In this case, we are covered with the Blood of Christ; we are covered in His life. We become partakers in his life because it is not merely an external covering so that the flesh is made clean, but rather it is something which is internal so that the whole person, body and soul, is made clean. And more than that, because we have become children of God, being lifted up to a divine level of acting and being, we not only receive the Body and the Blood and the Soul of Christ so that our body, blood, and soul will be purified, but we receive the very Divinity of Jesus Christ Himself in the Eucharist so that that which has been made divine within us will continue to be strengthened and we will be purified to act as true sons and daughters of God.
That is the new covenant. That is what we participate in. That is why this is given to us on this feast so clearly in the readings, the nature of a covenant, an agreement between God and His people, so that we would know who we are, so that we would constantly be reminded of the covenant which is ours. Recall, it is not a covenant with Jesus; rather, Jesus is the covenant. When we became partakers in the covenant, we became members of Jesus Himself. Therefore, each time we participate in the sign of the covenant, which is the Eucharist, we participate in the Lord Himself, in His life, in His nature. We enter more deeply into the heart of Jesus Christ, as He enters more deeply into our hearts each time we receive Him. As we participate in the Eucharist, we are to become what we receive. We are to be conformed – and, indeed, transformed – into Jesus Christ.
So for us, this covenant is not at an arm’s distance. It is not something which is merely objective and was done 2,000 years ago for us and now we can share in it. But rather it is something which is within us. It is something which is subjective. It is something which continues to be offered for us today so that we can enter into the very essence of the Person Who is the covenant, the Lamb of God, the Son of God, Jesus Christ Who takes away the sins of the world. And as we enter into Christ, we participate in the fullness of His Person – Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity – so that we will be able to give true and fitting worship to God. Not merely in this sanctuary made by human hands, but we with Christ will be able to share in His eternal priesthood, in His eternal sacrifice, and enter into the Holy of Holies, the original made by God, where we will be able to worship Him in the one true sacrifice which has been offered and continues to be offered before the royal throne of God. That is what we are called to. That is the term of the covenant which is ours, a covenant which promises eternal life and the eternal worship of God through the one sacrifice of the Lamb of God, the new covenant, the new blood sprinkled upon us, and the new sacrifice offered for us.
A new priesthood, Saint Paul reminds us, is required if there is a new covenant. And we have a new priesthood, not the priesthood of the order of Aaron, but the priesthood of the order of Melchizedek. It is a new priesthood because it is not a Levitical priesthood. Jesus was not a Levite. He was from the tribe of Judah, so He could not be a priest according to the Old Testament. But He is a priest according to what is promised in Psalm 110: You are a priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek. And so the sacrifice that we offer is the sacrifice of Melchizedek, that is, bread and wine. But Jesus tells us in John 6: The bread that I will give is My flesh for the life of the world. And the wine that He offered, as He made clear in today’s Gospel reading, is His Blood, and it is the blood of the new and eternal covenant which is offered for us so that we can have eternal life, that we can share in the new covenant, the new priesthood, the new sacrifice, and the new life, which is a divine life offered for each one of us so that we can worship God, not only here, but in the Holy of Holies in Heaven forever.
* This text was transcribed from the audio recording of a homily by Father Robert Altier with minimal editing.