Our Lord Jesus Christ, Eternal High Priest, 4th June 2020
Think of all the priests you know and start thinking of the words you might use to describe them. Holy, devout, I hope, almost certainly, a bit weird, eccentric, funny - in both senses of the word maybe. I would bet it would be many hours before you described any of the priests you know as men who love danger. Today we celebrate the priesthood of Jesus, a chance to remind ourselves that when people ask questions about who Jesus is, part of the answer will be ‘He is a priest.’ The person will almost certainly ask what a priest is. And we need to have an answer to that.
At the heart of a priest surely is offering.The letter to the Hebrews puts it like this: “Unlike the other high priests, Jesus has no need to offer sacrifices day after day, first for His own sins, and then for those of the people; this He did once for all when He offered Himself … every High Priest is appointed to offer gifts and sacrifices,” (Hebrews 7:27, 8:3). The Priest-King Melchizedek of Genesis 14 blesses Abraham in the context of the offering of bread and wine and Hebrews links this, strengthened by Psalm 110’s references, to the priesthood of Christ: “another priest arises, resembling Melchizedek, one who has become a priest, not through a legal requirement concerning physical decent, but through the power of an indestructible life,” (Hebrews 7:16).
One element of the Old Testament priesthood we’ve forgotten was the element of danger, in particular when the priests of old went into the Holy of Holies on the Feast of Atonement. Part of the kit they had to wear on this occasion is described in Exodus 28:33 and included a robe, which on the hem had “pomegranates of blue, purple, and crimson yarns, with bells of gold between them all around.” Why was this done? Not just for show, but so that the expectant attendants waiting the other side of the curtain could hear the bells when the priest moved and be reassured that he had not been struck down. Some later Jewish sources even refer to an ancient rite of tying a piece of rope to his ankle so that if he was struck down he could be pulled out and the dead body not left in the Holy of Holies for too long. Such things had to be considered!
It seems a slightly farcical position and not necessarily part of how we imagine the God who we know calls us and loves us. There are, however, warnings in the Old Testament and especially in this same book of Exodus about looking at God: “no one shall see me and live” (Exodus 33:20). The High Priest stepping in to the presence of God, such as was focused in the Holy of Holies, therefore carried risks. Moreover, what if something went wrong: there was a fear that if he got the rite wrong, the life of the priest would be forfeit. For example, Aaron’s sons Nadab and Abihu are consumed by fire from God for offering unholy fire in Leviticus 10.
Christ comes to earth and it is a place of danger for Him. There is a constant inevitability about His death; He knows the people are after His life. The Incarnation gets off to a pretty dangerous start you will recall as St Joseph has to lead the Holy Family in to Egypt for safety from the wicked intentions of Herod the Great. Eventually the sword Mary is told that will pierce her soul comes to be a reality as she watches her Son die on the tree of shame. And yet this movement for God to send His Son is charged with energy, as the Wisdom of Solomon foretold: “your all-powerful word leapt from Heaven from the royal throne, into the midst of the land that was doomed,” (Wisdom of Solomon 18:15). So, also as in the garden of Gethsemane as Jesus is betrayed, the danger heightens. The disciples want to protect Jesus from the danger and so raise their swords, but our Lord says, “Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and He will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels?” (Matthew 26:53). The anger could have been avoided but needed to be greeted head on.
This feast day of the priesthood of Jesus can be of a great comfort for us. There are no no-go areas for the Son of God or for His Church for priesthood is about entering into dangerous places for the salvation of this world and we know that the darkness cannot overcome the light of the Gospel. Relationship break-up, pandemic, our own sinfulness, our failure to pray: these are not places where the Church shies away from for her priestly nature calls her to those places to forgive and to offer sacrifice to God. One thing I think the national Church could be better at doing is speaking to uncomfortable truths to those who run many of the institutions of our country. Following the tragic death of George Floyd in the United States we are reminded once again of how imperfectly our own communities in London can be said to be safe for everyone or places where love flourishes. The Church reconnecting with her vocation to be priestly will go to the dangerous places of telling those with authority where things need to change. May we know ourselves to be a priestly people and so offer ourselves in the service of Christ. Amen.