Passion Sunday. Saint Stephen’s, Athens, GA. 29 March 2020.
Hebrews ix, verses 13 & 14 – For if the blood of bulls and of goats, and the ashes of an heifer sprinkling the unclear, sanctifieth to the purifying of the flesh: how much more shall the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without spot to God, purge your conscience from dead works to serve the living God?
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
Once a year in ancient Israel on the Day of Atonement, which we know as Yom Kippur, the High Priest performed a complex set of rituals at the temple in Jerusalem. The priest first presented a bull and a goat, next sacrificed them, and then offered their blood by carrying it into the Holy of Holies of the temple, along with a lighted censer. In the Holy of Holies the priest offered the incense and sprinkled the blood seven times on the mercy-seat. Then he returned from the Holy of Holies to the altar outside the veil. Finally he placed his hands on the head of another goat, confessed the sins of the nation, then sent the goat away to a solitary place to represent the banishment of sins and the restoration of unity with God.
In the epistle to the Hebrews, including our lesson from this epistle today, the rituals and fixtures of the ancient temple are taken as foreshadows and symbols of the work of our Lord upon the cross. Today, as we begin to turn our concentrated attention to the Passion, and as we read of our Lord’s presence in the temple in the controversy described in the eighth chapter of Saint John, perhaps we can benefit from thinking about the relation between the Day of Atonement in ancient Israel and the Passion of our Lord.
The sequence of events in the temple has a movement whose goal is the forgiveness of sin and the restoration of unity between God and sinful men. The movement is that of a people, a nation, not merely of individuals. In the name of the whole community the high priest presents the sacrificial victims and then slays them. Christ is, as Hebrews makes clear, the true, great High Priest, as well as the sacrificial victim. In Christ’s Passion the presentation of the victim includes the events leading up to Calvary as well as the crucifixion itself. When Pontius Pilate says, ‘Behold, the Man!’, he is presenting the sacrificial victim to the nation. When our Lord is lifted high upon the cross, he is presented to the world. If Christ is to unite the world with God, the world has to see him do so. The sacrifice has to be presented, beheld, observed.
Next the sacrificial victim is slain. It was not enough that Christ be crucified. The Muslims accept that Christ was crucified. Christ also had to die, which the Muslims do not believe occurred. The sacrifice is not completed except by the death of the victim. A thing is not really offered until it is offered completely and fully – and in the case of a life a complete offering involves death.
While today we are mainly concerned with the Passion leading up to the cross, we should note that the other acts of Yom Kippur also are enacted by our Lord. The priest entered into the Holy of Holies with the sacrificial blood represents our Lord’s Ascension, when he takes our human nature into the true Holy of Holies, which is the presence of God. The sprinkling of the mercy-seat with blood suggests baptism, whereby the fruit and benefits of Christ’s bloody sacrifice are bestowed upon us to bring us mercy and forgiveness. After Old Testament sacrifices the priest and people ate those parts of the sacrificial animal that were not burnt in offering. For Christians such participation in the sacrificial meal occurs in Holy Communion. From beginning to end the outward symbols of Israel’s Day of Atonement are completed and fulfilled by Christ and the Church.
The point of our epistle today is that all of the Old Testament system of worship could not really bring forgiveness of sins or atonement between God and man. The killing of animals and other outward, ritual acts don’t really change or do anything. The significance of these outward and visible signs lies in the reality towards which they point. That reality of our Lord, Jesus Christ, who in his own person combines the two poles that need to be united, God and man. As true God Christ has the power and the right to forgive us our sins, to give us his help and grace. As true man Christ is able to offer on the behalf of us all human worship that is acceptable to God and a sacrifice that is unblemished. The outward sacrifices and rituals of the Day of Atonement were enacted with great solemnity. How much more effective are the sacrifices and rites of a priest who is perfect and who offers a sacrifice which is spotless.
These same ideas are presented more subtly in our gospel lesson today. Our Lord is debating with the authorities in the temple, where the worship of ancient Israel was performed. Our Lord there applies to himself the divine name from Exodus iii, namely, ‘I AM’: ‘Before Abraham was, I AM.’ Abraham, the father of the Jews, is surpassed by his descendant, Jesus, as the worship of the temple will be surpassed by the worship of the Church. The Church surpasses the ancient temple because the Church worships through the priesthood of Christ, who is himself the God is who is worshipped.
One way to think of this all is to contrast the Jewish altar and its sacrifices with the Christian altar and its single sacrifice. In Judaism there was a single temple, a single altar, and an overflowing multiplicity of sacrifices. The Old Testament is awash in the blood of doves and pigeons, goats and bulls, sheep and calves. All of these countless animals were sacrificed in a single place on a single altar. But in Christianity, in contrast, there are countless temples, countless altars, countless places of acceptable worship, on which, however, there can only be a single Sacrifice and Victim, as there is in truth a single great High Priest. The Eucharists of Christendom are simply re-presentations of the one sacrifice, oblation, and satisfaction, offered once and for all on the altar of the Cross long ago. In the timelessness of God and in the mystery of the Sacrament this great and unique sacrifice is made present again for us here and now. The Cross is made present again, without being repeated, as Christ at his Ascension brought into his Father’s eternal presence that which in time was once and for all in the past. So there are countless altars, but a single sacrifice.
That which bulls and goats could not do, Christ has done. That which fallible and weak human priests could not perform, Christ has performed. That which the countless little passions of sacrifice and suffering that our world endures, are all taken up and united in the one great Passion of our Saviour, both God and man, both Priest and Victim. It is through Christ that our consciences are made pure from dead works and sin. In Christ we are enable to worship the Father in spirit and in truth. The Father seeketh such to worship him, and we become such through the merits and mediation of our Saviour and our Lord. The Priest and the Victim are one, and those who are saved thereby are without number.
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.