Monday of week 3 of Ordinary Time – First Reading


Commentary on Heb 9:15, 24-28

We begin our third and last week with the Letter to the Hebrews.  We continue showing the superiority of Christ’s sacrifice over that of the old covenant.  The death of Christ alone is effective in wiping out sins which were committed under the old covenant.

Here we see how Jesus seals the new covenant with his blood.  The passage shows that the death of Christ was essential for him to act effectively as mediator.  It does this by a play on words: the Greek word diatheke (diaqhkh) can mean ‘pact’ (covenant) as it does in the opening sentence of today’s reading or ‘last will and testament’, as it does further down in the passage (but not included in our reading).  So the author can argue that a ‘pact’ or covenant also suggests the death of a ‘testator’.

All pacts at the time were sealed with the shedding of blood.  In signing the covenant between Yahweh and the Israelites at Sinai we read in Exodus: “Moses took half of the blood [from the sacrificial animals] and put it in large bowls; the other half he splashed on the altar…  Then he took the blood and sprinkled it on the people, saying ‘This is the blood of the covenant which the Lord has made with you’.”  (The similarity with our words of consecration in the Eucharist is not accidental.)  Hence, it is argued that Christ needed to die in founding the New Covenant (or ‘Pact’) between God and the human family.

Jesus is, in fact, the mediator of a new covenant, a new solemn and mutual bonding between God and the world.  This covenant brings the promise of an “eternal inheritance” which was promised by Jesus during his public life.  This has been brought about by the death of Jesus which saves us from the sins which the old covenant could not remove.  It brings about deliverance from sins committed under the old covenant, which the Mosaic sacrifices were incapable of effacing.  Until this happened, the “eternal inheritance” promised by God could not be obtained.

As High Priest, Jesus did not enter a sanctuary erected by human hands, like that of the Temple in Jerusalem, which was only a distant copy of the true sanctuary where God dwells.  Jesus entered that sanctuary, Heaven itself, standing in the very presence of God on our behalf.

And, in contrast to the Levitical high priest, he did not need to offer himself again and again, as the high priest each year entered the Holy of Holies in the Temple to make the same sacrifice and offering “blood that is not his own”, the blood of some slaughtered animal.  If Jesus’ sacrifice had not been once for all, he too would have had to offer himself in sacrifice again and again.

As it is, he offered himself just once for all mankind “at the end of the age” and took away our sin by the sacrifice of himself.  Jesus is both Priest and Victim in this unique sacrifice.

In using the term “end of the age” the author is reflecting Jewish Christian eschatology which speaks of the “present age” and the “age to come”.  Saying that the sacrifice of Christ is unique because it is being offered “at the end of the last age” is to say that it in a way marks the end of human history and has no need to be repeated.

Jesus’ sacrifice wipes out sin not with “other” blood but with Christ’s own blood.  It is once and for all.  Jesus’ coming has ushered in the great Messianic era, towards which all history has moved.  “He was destined before the foundation of the world, but was revealed at the end of the ages for your sake” (1 Pet 1:20).

And just as it is our destiny to die once and then face our God in judgement, so Christ, having offered himself and given his life just once to bear the “sins of many”, will appear just once more to take with him to the Father all those who await him at his Second coming, also called the parousia.

Then Jesus will appear “a second time”, as the high priest reappeared on the Day of Atonement, emerging from the Holy of Holies, which he had entered “to take away sin”.  This scene is described dramatically and poetically in Sirach 50:5-11.  It was a high point in the Jewish calendar.

The reference to the taking away of sin is to a passage in Isaiah about the Suffering Servant: “He surrendered himself to death and was counted among the wicked; and he shall take away the sins of many, and win pardon for their offences” (Is 53:12).  Since the Greek verb anaphero (‘anaferw) can mean both “to take away” and “to bear”, the author no doubt intended to play upon both meanings: Jesus took away sin by bearing it himself.  See John 1:29 where John the Baptist says to his disciples, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away/bears the sin of the world.”

The “sins of many” is used in the Semitic meaning of “all” in an inclusive sense, as, for instance, in Mark (14:24): “Jesus said to them, ‘This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many’.”  In the Eucharistic Prayer the celebrant says, “This is the cup of my blood… it will be shed for you and for all.”  The old Latin translation was pro multis, literally meaning “for many”.

Christ has died once and for all for our sins – every sin we have ever committed and those we have yet to commit.  But, to experience his forgiveness and be fully reconciled with him, we need constantly to express since repentance and turn back to our Father, as the prodigal did in the parable.

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