The Letter to the Hebrews
For the weekday Masses starting Monday January 12th until Saturday February 7th, i.e. for four weeks, the first reading is from the Letter to the Hebrews. When heard just a little bit at a time, it may well be difficult to follow what it is all about. In addition, this letter, because it is written by a convert from Judaism in order to encourage fellow Jewish converts to persevere in their conversion, quotes from the Old Testament Scriptures of the Jews to support his exhortation some 35 times. But in doing so he doesn’t explicitly say he is quoting but rather simply says something like: “it is said, or “just as he said” (presuming the Scriptures are God”s word). Therefore, unless we are very familiar with the Old Testament, when we hear the Letter from the Hebrews proclaimed from the sanctuary, we may not recognize that at times we are hearing the Old Testament being used to further an argument to believe in the New.
And what might be the basic argument? It was accepted that the Messiah would be from the family line of David and would therefore be a king. Jesus fit this expectation. What they did not expect was that He would also be a priest, one who offered the perfect sacrifice –i.e. obedience – even unto death – to God.
Recall from the Acts of the Apostles that in the early days after Christ’s ascension, the disciples continued to go to the Temple in Jerusalem to pray. But then, when they reflected that Jesus said that He Himself was a new temple not made of stone, they began to see that the Jerusalem Temple and the old hereditary Levitical priesthood were no longer relevant.
How to argue this insight? The author of the letter to the Hebrews used the same style used by his Jewish contemporaries in interpreting the Scriptures. He used as a type, the priest Melchizedek found in the book of Genesis, i.e. one who appeared as it were out of nowhere and therefore we don’t know his background or what might have happened to him after father Abraham gave him a tenth of his possessions. And so psalm 110 proclaims that Melchizedek’s priesthood is forever. The author of the letter to the Hebrew’s takes this as a foreshadowing of the forever priesthood of Christ.
Note that the style used by the author of this letter– in many ways similar to the way a sermon might progress, often repeats himself in order to drive home his point: we have a new once and forever sacrifice offered by a new kind of priest based in the person of Christ, and that sacrifice is not of animals but of a perfect obedience to the will of God. As the prophet Amos preached: God desires obedience and not sacrifice in the old sense. Or as Jesus taught us to pray: “Thy will be done on earth ….as it is in heaven.”By the way, during the sacrifice of the Mass, what we are called to do before all else is to join Christ’s sacrificial mentality of perfect obedience to whatever God asks of us. Because we have not yet perfectly put on this mind is why we have to keep coming back to try again and again