Friday, 22 April 2011
Good Friday, The High Priest, Shaftesbury
We have just heard the horror of Jesus’s death, and it is worth our while to take a moment to contemplate WHY this should matter to us, WHO He is TO US, why we should care, why we should even be glad on this "Good" Friday.
To consider "who" Jesus is to us we can consider the many titles that Jesus has, and one of those titles, as we heard in our second reading from the letter to the Hebrews, is that He is our "high priest". And I want to reflect on this using, again, some thoughts from Pope Benedict's new book.
It might seem, at first glance, that the title "priest" doesn't seem significant enough for Jesus. It might be possible to think, "why do I really want or need a priest?"
Well, the reason that the priesthood of Jesus is so significant in terms of who He is, is largely because of the TYPE of priest that He is.
A priest is someone who represents men in their relations to God (Heb 5:1). And, in particular, a priest represents us precisely in those parts of our lives that are most in need of being represented to God: those things by which we are separated from God. And the thing by which we feel most separated from God is our weakness, our weakness in two respects: our weakness in sin, and, in our general frailty -both of these are things whereby we feel separated from the Almighty.
But Jesus is not just ANY sort of priest, He is the perfect priest, the "high priest" of high priests. He is the one best able to represent us in our weaknesses because, as we heard in that letter to the Hebrews, because of His experience of suffering and weakness He is therefore capable of feeling our weaknesses with us (Heb 4:15).
He is therefore able to hold up to the Almighty the anguish of human existence and so bring man to God (Jesus of Nazareth, vol 2,.164).
It was precisely to be such a high priest for us that "Christ came into the world"(Heb 10:5).
It was precisely to be such a high priest for us that Christ started His public ministry, in which His destiny to make “vicarious atonement” for our sins "constituted the most profound content of [His] mission”(p.172).
It was precisely to be such a high priest that He "consecrated Himself"(Jn 17:19), as He said in the prayer that is called His “high priestly prayer” at the Last Supper -using a Greek word that made clear that this "consecration" was dedicating Himself to be the sacrifice(p.87).
And, it was precisely as such a high priest that He been foretold by the Prophet Isaiah as we heard in our first reading, that He might be both priest and victim: as priest by "surrendering Himself to death" (Isa 53:10); that the Lord might burden Him "with the sins of us all”(Isa 53:6) (p.81), as victim.
This said, however, let us not imagine that this suffering was something that came easily to Him.
Let us not forget the battle He experienced within His very self in the Agony in the Garden. It was there, as He beheld the horror of sin, as He contemplated the suffering He was about to undergo for our sakes, it was there that in His human will He prayed "let this cup pass me by” (Mt 26:39). Now, Jesus is truly God and truly man, He has both a human will and a divine will (pp.156-61), and I say this to acknowledge that it is impossible for us to know what it feels like to have two wills, to know what it feels like to be God. But, we do know that the horror of confronting sin and the horror of the death that awaited Him, this horror was so profound that it was a struggle –He sweated blood (Lk 22:44).
And yet, He obeyed, for our sakes.
He obeyed as the high priest, for us, His obedient "yes" brings disobedient mankind to God(pp.163-4, c.f. pp.233-5).
As we heard in the letter to the Hebrews it was by obeying through suffering that He was "made perfect" (Heb 5:9) -and the Pope notes that this phrase “made perfect” (that might well sound strange to us in English, how can the sinless perfect One be “made perfect”?), this phrase is another technical Greek phrase referring to priesthood: to "make perfect" is a phrase “used exclusively to mean ‘consecrated as priest’”(p.164).
Jesus prayed as our priest. The old Jewish high priest would pray firstly for himself, secondly for his house, and thirdly for all of Israel (p.78). The Lord Jesus likewise prayed firstly for Himself (that He might do the work He came to do), secondly for the Apostles, and thirdly for all who would believe (Jn 17:20).
Jesus died as priest. The old Jewish high priest wore a long seamless garment (p.217). Jesus went to His death, as we heard in that gospel account (Jn 19:23), wearing a long seamless garment that the soldiers cast lots for rather than tear.
And Jesus lives now as a priest, as OUR priest having gone before us "through to the highest heaven" (Heb 4:14), carrying with Him all of our human weakness.
It is precisely in our weakness that we can turn to Him, the priest and victim, the perfect high priest who has known our weakness.
"Let us be confident, then, in approaching the throne of grace, that we shall have mercy from Him and find grace and we are in need of help"(Heb 4:16).