A New Priesthood, a New Sacrifice, a New Covenant
Tuesday January 18, 2005 Homily by Fr. Robert Altier Second Week in Ordinary Time
Reading (Hebrews 6:10-20) Gospel (St. Mark 2:23-28)
In the Gospel reading today, we have this statement by Our Lord: The sabbath was made for man, not man for the sabbath. It is an important statement because it shows the order of things. While there is the sabbath rest on the seventh day, that is not the purpose for which God created us. He created the sabbath rest for us, rather than creating us for the sabbath rest.
The importance of this in the context of the first reading is that it shows the solicitude of God for His people. God, desiring only what is the very best for us, has created things in such a way that we will have this day that we are to have dedicated solely to Him. We look at this and say, “What does that have to do with the context of the first reading?” Again, it shows us what God is willing to do specifically for us so that we will be able not only to have proper balance, but we will have the guarantees God has given and also we are going to be able to see the love God has for us. Keeping in mind that the sabbath was made for us and not we for the sabbath, it shows the importance that God places upon the human person. He did not say, “This is about Me, and I’m creating you for My sabbath rest to be able to show how important I am,” but rather He created the sabbath rest specifically for us to show how important we are. But also, in being able to see the importance and the dignity of the human person through this, we also recognize that it is the sabbath rest. It is God’s rest. Our focus then, on the sabbath rest, is to be on God, reminding us, of course, that we are not the end-all and be-all, that God has created everything for us but we are created for Him.
Now it is with this in mind – to see how much God is willing to do for us, to be able to help us see what He really thinks of us, that is, how highly He regards our dignity – that we then look at the first reading. Saint Paul, talking about the promises that God made first to Abraham and now with regard to the Messiah, says that God made an oath, something which is immutable. If someone swears an oath, by law that has to stand. It cannot change. It is an oath which has been made and it is absolute. So God Who cannot change makes an oath that cannot change. There are two unchangeable witnesses, Saint Paul says, and they are two unchangeable witnesses to the promise that God has made. Just as God made a promise to Abraham (Saint Paul uses as an example that Abraham was promised a son and eventually after a long time and much patience that promise was fulfilled), now God has sworn an oath. And that oath is something that for the Jewish people would not have made any sense, that there was going to be a new priesthood, that the priesthood of the Old Testament and the sacrifices of the Old Testament somehow were not sufficient and therefore there was going to be a new priesthood. This is something that by nature the Jewish people would not have ever guessed because they had the priesthood that God Himself established in Aaron. They assumed because of that that the sacrifices they were offering according to the law which God Himself established must be perfect and must be the Will of God and therefore must be immutable. So God, wanting to show us how serious He is and placing us in a position of such immense dignity, swears an oath.
That concept is just mind-boggling, that God is going to swear an oath to us! Just ponder that for a while. It does not make sense. Why would God swear an oath, other than to show us how serious He is? So there are two immutable things: God Who cannot change and Who cannot lie, and an oath which cannot change. And what is the oath? You will be a priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek.
This is something that, again, we will have to look at as we proceed because Saint Paul is just getting to the heart of his argument with regard to the priesthood. These Jewish priests who had now become Catholic priests (to whom he was writing this letter), by comparing the two priesthoods and comparing the sacrifices and comparing the covenants, he is helping them to see the dignity of their priesthood that they now share in Jesus Christ by comparison to the priesthood they had in the Old Testament times.
For us, it is to understand that there is a new priesthood. If there is not, what we do here every morning is worthless. If there is not, what we do here every morning is idol worship because we worship Jesus Christ in the Blessed Sacrament and if there is not a new priesthood then that is just a piece of bread and it is not Jesus Christ. This is why this is so critically important, because there was going to be a new priesthood; and a new priesthood requires a new sacrifice; and a new priesthood and a new sacrifice are there because there is a new covenant. The Old Covenant priesthood was not going to work in the New Covenant. A new covenant requires a new priesthood and it requires a new sacrifice. This was so important that God promised it by an oath, so there would be no doubt, so it would be so evidently clear that if anyone tried to say, “This is not real,” we could go to the very oath that God had sworn to be able to recognize how important this is and to be able to see how much He thinks of us. It would be easy to question and to doubt because we do not see an animal being killed and burned, we do not see the sacrifice being offered as a holocaust to God, we do not see the change that takes place in the Eucharist. It would be very easy to doubt, to question, to wonder, to think, “Maybe this is just a human institution; it’s a neat idea that somebody made up but it’s not real,” but God swore an oath and He swore it by His own self so that by two immutable witnesses there could be no doubt. And it is going to stand forever – a new priesthood, a new sacrifice – not according to Aaron and the Levites, but according to the order of Melchizedek, so that the Messiah, the King Who would be coming, would have an entirely new priesthood, a new sacrifice, and a new covenant for His people.
* This text was transcribed from the audio recording of a homily by Father Robert Altier with minimal editing.