Updated: Dec 5, 2021
For a number of weeks now, our second reading has come from the Letter to the Hebrews. This will continue for another few more weeks. And so, it’s worthwhile to reflect upon it, and to perhaps to read it on one’s own. The entire letter can be read in a single sitting.
A major theme in the letter is the priesthood of Jesus Christ. Now, every civilization throughout history, especially ancient history, seemed to have some priestly caste. In the most basic of terms, a priest is someone who offers sacrifice in mediation for others before God (or gods with regard to ancient civilizations). That’s the basic function of a priest.
While in our day we readily appeal to Jesus Christ as our High Priest, he wasn’t always seen as such. In fact, in his own lifetime prior to his death and resurrection, Jesus wasn’t considered a priest by his own people. He was known rather simply as the son of a carpenter.
In those days, priests only came from the Tribe of Levi. But Jesus belonged to the tribe of Judah. So how did our understanding evolve to the point where Jesus is regarded not only as a priest but as the high priest and sole mediator between God and man? That’s a topic the author of Hebrews attempts to address.
I mentioned that the Levites were the priestly tribe, but even that wasn’t always the case. They were designated by God as the priestly tribe due to a certain incident in the days of Moses during the great exodus from Egypt.
You might remember when Moses ascended Mount Sinai and received the Ten Commandments. Moses had been gone for a long while and was presumed lost. And so, the people had compelled his brother, Aaron, to create the Golden Calf. And many in Israel came to worship that Golden Calf.
When Moses returned, he was filled with the righteous indignation in God's behalf at the sight. He summoned to himself all who remained faithful to the Lord. All the sons of Levi gathered to Moses, and with holy fury they together slaughtered the idolators, about three thousand men.
In the eyes of God, that was a priestly act. And so, from that time on, priests only came from the tribe of Levi. Incidentally, Moses and Aaron also belonged the tribe of Levi.
Prior to the rebellion at Sinai, priests came from the firstborn sons of every tribe of Israel. When God spared the firstborn sons during the Passover, he had claimed the firstborn for himself. Those sons sacrificed the Passover lamb in mediation for their families and all the people.
But even long before the days of Moses, there’s evidence that the priesthood belonged to firstborn sons; and that the priesthood was transmitted through a blessing from one generation to another. Bear with me as I invoke a few names.
Adam was the first priest. He's not called that anywhere in Scripture to my knowledge. But he acted as one since he mediated between God and creation. In Genesis 1, he has "dominion" over creation. In Genesis 2, he "tends" the Garden.
After the Fall, the third son of Adam, Seth inherited that role, because the eldest, Cain had become a murderer, and Abel had been slayed. After the Great Flood, Noah was the covenant mediator between God and the world, as the head of the sole family to survive the devastating waters.
At some point, the patriarch Abraham received a blessing from the mysterious king of Salem, known as Melchizedek. We heard that name in last week’s reading from Hebrews. Some have speculated that "Melchizedek" wasn’t his actual name, because it’s strikingly descriptive in its meaning, coming from the Hebrew words: malak meaning “king”, and tsadiq, meaning “righteousness”. And so, Melchizedek literally means, King of Righteousness.
(He’s also referred to as the king of peace, because he was the king of Salem, and the root meaning of Salem is peace. Think of the Hebrew greeting: shalom—peace; or Solomon, the man of peace.)
Some speculators believe Melchizedek may have been Shem, a son of Noah, and ancestor of Abraham. Biblically, Shem and Abraham lived in the same lifetime. And those speculators see Melchizedek’s blessing of Abraham in Genesis 14 as a form of priestly blessing from one generation to another within the same family line.
Eventually, Abraham’s son, Isaac would impart that blessing, not to Esau, his firstborn, but to Jacob, the second born, because Jacob tricked his father to it, which we find in Genesis 27.
In the Letter to the Hebrews, the author refers to the Melchizedek and the priesthood in relation to Christ, quoting more ancient scripture: You are my son; this day I have begotten you; and You are a priest forever, according the line of Melchizedek.
Again, Jesus was not a Levitical priest. He wasn't viewed as a priest. Nevertheless, unknown to his own contemporaries, his priesthood is much more ancient. Like Melchizedek, who mysteriously enters and departs from history, there is no beginning or end to Christ nor his priesthood.
His priesthood reaches back to God’s original plan. In the beginning, Adam was the first mediator between God and creation. He's even called the son of God in Luke's gospel. In Adam, we all fell and share in the consequence of his sin. But now—in Christ—the new Adam, who is the true and only begotten and uncreated Son of God, we are redeemed.
I mentioned that the basic function of a priest to mediate between God and man through sacrifice. Through his sacrifice on the Cross, Jesus mediated once and for all between God and creation. And he re-established that primordial priesthood which was lost after the rebellion at Sinai. We heard a snippet of it today in our second reading:
Brothers and sisters, the Levitical priests were many because they were prevented by death from remaining in office, but Jesus, because he remains forever, has a priesthood that does not pass away… It was fitting that we should have such a high priest: holy, innocent, undefiled, separated from sinners, higher than the heavens.
I'll fast forward to the relevant point. All of us who are baptized in Christ belong to this ancient order of the priesthood. We have more claim to the priesthood than any other priest throughout human history and civilization outside of Christianity. I'm also a ministerial priest, an order established by Christ the night before he died, but all of us share in the baptismal priesthood.
When we were baptized, we were reborn in Christ. We became a new creation, and Jesus Christ truly lived in us from that moment on. Because Jesus Christ is priest, prophet, and king, we too are the same in Christ. If your parent, grandparent, friend or neighbor ever told you to, "offer it up," after getting hurt in some way, that's actually accurate theology. When Jesus said, “Take up your Cross and follow after me,” it was an invitation to share in his priesthood. We call can offer up our sufferings to God as priests. When the Father looks upon you and me, he does not see a sinner. He sees his Son, his High Priest.
To quote the First Letter of Peter: You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, that you may declare the wonderful deeds of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were no people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.
As priests, the priestly sacrifice falls to each of us. That is our way. We each must offer sacrifice in mediation for others. What is your sacrifice, and who are you praying for?