Thursday of week 4 of Ordinary Time – First Reading

Commentary on Heb 12:18-19, 21-24

The reading gives a striking contrast between the appearance of God on Mount Sinai and the God that comes to us in Jesus Christ. It is another word of discouragement to the ‘Hebrews’ who want to go back to the old dispensation. They are being reminded of just what they want to go back to and what they are want to leave.

This remarkably beautiful passage contrasts two great assemblies of people: that of the Israelites gathered at Mt Sinai for the sealing of the old covenant and the promulgation of the Mosaic Law, and that of the followers of Jesus gathered at ‘Mt Zion, the heavenly Jerusalem’, the assembly of the ‘new covenant’. This latter scene, marked by the presence of ‘countless angels’ and of ‘Jesus’ with his ‘redeeming blood’ is reminiscent of the celestial liturgies of the Book of Revelation. (New American Bible)

The approach to God no longer occurs in an awe-inspiring theophany as on Sinai but in a city built by God, for which the Old Testament saints yearned, the heavenly city. Together with the angels are assembled round the triumphant Mediator all Christians, whom he has sanctified and made perfect.

In approaching God through Jesus, the Christians do not have to go through the experience that the Israelites had at the foot of Mount Sinai, where Moses received the Law from Yahweh and where the covenant between Yahweh and his people was sealed. That was a truly awesome and frightening theophany.

Some of its features are listed here: the blazing fire, the darkness and gloom, the thunder and lightning, the sound of the trumpet and the voice that spoke from the cloud “whose words made the hearers beg that not another word be spoken to them”. For, in a verse omitted in today’s reading, we are told “they could not endure the order that was given: ‘If even an animal touches the mountain, it shall be stoned to death'” and, impatient with Moses’ delay in coming back made the golden calf as an idol. In fact, so terrifying was the sight of this idolatrous image that even Moses, who had spoken face to face with Yahweh, admitted that he trembled with fear.

But the situation of Christ’s followers is completely different. The author tells the ‘Hebrews’ (using very traditional terms but in a very different sense) that they have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem and “to innumerable angels in festal gathering”. The original Mount Zion was Jerusalem, the site of the Temple in whose sanctuary Yahweh dwelt. Here the author speaks of the “new Jerusalem”.

They have come to the assembly of the first-born who are enrolled in heaven. These are all those who have identified themselves with Jesus as his disciples and identify with the New Covenant.

They come to God, the Judge of all, and to “the spirits of the righteous now made perfect”. This last phrase would appear to apply to the “righteous” in the Old Testament who are now given final deliverance and redemption through the saving death of Christ on the Cross (cf. Matt 27:52).

And, most of all, they have come to Jesus, “the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel”. When Abel was killed by his brother Cain, his blood cried out to God for vengeance (Gen 4:10). His was the first recorded murder in the Bible and, in addition, was the blood of a good and innocent man. But the innocent blood of Jesus, poured out on the Cross, is far more powerful. Abel’s blood cried out from the earth for vengeance, but the blood of Jesus has opened the way for everyone, providing cleansing and access to God. The blood of Jesus brings not vengeance but forgiveness and reconciliation.

The awesomeness of Sinai was one that overpowered the senses. The awesomeness of our Christian faith is in the radical change it can bring about in our lives when we surrender ourselves totally to the Way to God that Jesus has shown. Our Saviour is “meek and humble of heart” and intimately accessible at all times. His favourite words are: “Do not be afraid.”

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