Commentary on Heb 4:12-16
We read today two much-quoted passages from Hebrews and the reading is in two distinct parts. The first is about the power of Scripture and the second speaks of Jesus as our High Priest.
First, we are told of the power of God’s word. It is a word that has been mediated all down the long line of prophets and other spokespersons in the Old Testament and culminating in the Word that has come to us in and through Jesus Christ, who in his whole being and life was the Word. It also comes to us in the earliest writings of the Church which we call the New Testament. And it continues to come to us in many various ways.
This word is able to penetrate into the deepest recesses of our thoughts and feelings, “sharper than any two-edged sword”. It is “living and active”. It is not a dead word on a printed page. By it our most inmost thoughts and intentions are evaluated and judged as we make our quest for that eternal “rest” in God’s bosom.
What a pity so many of our Catholics (as opposed to Christians of other denominations) are almost total strangers to this Word and have never experienced its power. By and large in our liturgy and catechesis we have done very little to help our people become familiar with this indispensable tool for their life with God, with each other and with the world in which they live.
In the second part of the reading Jesus is introduced as our “Great High Priest”. The author here alone calls Jesus by this title, which is a designation used by Philo for the Logos (the Word). It is the beginning of an extended discussion of the superior priesthood of Christ over and against the priesthood of the Old Testament.
Our High Priest has “passed through the heavens”. In the Old Testament, the high priest on the Day of Atonement would pass from the sight of the people into the Holy of Holies. He was the only person who had the right to enter this sacred space and then only once a year. Now, in a similar but much greater way, Jesus – his work of Atonement accomplished – has passed from the sight of his disciples and ascended through the various levels of the heavens into the sanctuary of Heaven, the place where God himself dwells.
This is the first mention of “heaven” or “heavens” (the Greek is plural) where, according to the Letter, Christ exercises his priestly functions in the presence of his Father. Sitting at the Father’s right hand, the closest place of honour, he belongs there no less than God himself. His single sacrifice, done once and for all, has a perfect and eternal value, never needing to be repeated. Here we find the fulfilment of our greatest hope in God.
The high priest of the Old Testament was a privileged and remote figure (as are many senior hierarchy of our own day). But in Jesus we have a High Priest who is fully able to sympathise with all our weaknesses for he has undergone trials and temptations similar to, and even exceeding, ours. How many of us have suffered as Jesus did?
But, in one respect, he is radically different – he is totally without the slightest taint of sin. We see how Jesus dealt with temptation to sin in the paradigm of the temptations in the desert, a story encapsulating all the events by which he might have been tempted to violate the will of his Father (cf. Matt 4:1-11). We are reminded that Jesus our High Priest is not some remote, lofty personage but someone who has shared intensely the experience of human living, including the weaknesses and temptations to which we are all subjected, though without sin. It is important to realise that weakness and temptation are not to be confused with sin.
Given that we have such a High Priest, we are encouraged to approach God’s throne “with boldness”. There we will find the compassion we need for our failures and the sources of strength in our times of trial.
In our Eucharist we continue to meet our High Priest and indeed the celebrant who presides over the Eucharist is said to be, in a very real way, in loco Christi (in the place of Christ). By our breaking together of the Eucharistic bread we express our deepest desire to be united with the self-giving sacrifice of our High Priest, a union that is manifested in the way we live out the Gospel message in our daily lives.