Sunday, July 5, 2009

The Old and New in Hebrews

This is a continuation of the discussion of heaven and the book of Hebrews.  The same caveats apply.
What do you know about the old sanctuaries?  There were various courts in the Temple, each one getting successively more holy.  If I remember correctly, first there was an outer court, were everyone could be (including Gentiles), and there was a court for the women and children, then for the men.  Then there was the Holy Place.  This, as I understand it, is where the altar was.  This was the place that the priests entered to perform their duties.  They were only allowed to enter at certain times, and had very specific duties that they attended to (see Luke 1:8-9).  Finally there was the Holy of Holies.  

This was the place.  This was where the throne of God was on earth.  This is what made the Temple so holy.  This is why the Jews came to Jerusalem to offer sacrifice instead of offering sacrifices to God wherever they were.  Only the high priest was allowed to enter there, and he was only allowed once a year, or on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.  This was the holiest of days and the holiest of places.  That was the day that God was said to be closest to the people, the most ready and willing to hear their prayers for mercy.

Can you imagine the first time you entered into the Holy of Holies as a high priest?  It had to be intimidating, if you had any thought for eternal realities.  Yet, if you only looked at it through earthly eyes, it may have been rather ridiculous.  When the ark of the covenant was there, it may have been a sight to see, yet the brilliance of the gold cherubim had to be dimmed by the dust of centuries.  The ark held the manna from the desert (Exodus 16:2-5), the rod of Aaron that had flowered (Numbers 17), and the stone tablets of the Ten Commandments (Exodus 34:1-4), but who could see those things?  They were in the ark.  After Jeremiah hid the ark before the Babylonian exile, the Holy of Holies in the new temple was empty.  There would have been nothing but dust and cobwebs and dried blood.  

Yes, dried blood.  For when the high priest entered, it was "not without taking blood which he offers for himself and for the errors of the people." (Heb 9:7)  This is an important part of the Day of Atonement sacrifices.  It was not complete unless the high priest entered the Holy of Holies with the blood of goats or calves and sprinkled it as an offering for the sin of the people. 

The author of Hebrews refers to the sacrifices being less than perfect, because they could not cleanse the conscience of the people (Heb 9:9-10).  That's why they had to be repeated all the time. Let's talk for a moment about those imperfect sacrifices.  "Imperfect" does not equate to "worthless".  God did not specifically choose a people to be His own and command them to perform worthless, mindless tasks.  These rituals are each shot through with meaning and overflowing with symbolism that can lead us deeper into the mystery of God.  Though they are imperfect, they are the way that God prepared the minds and hearts of the people for something greater.  These structures may only be a shadow of things to come (Heb 10:1), but even a shadow has an outline and a form that matches in some way to the reality.

Verses 11-12:

"But when Christ appeared as a high priest of the good things that have come, then through the greater and more perfect tent (not made with hands, that is, not of this creation) he entered once for all into the Holy Place, taking not the blood of goats and calves, but his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption."

Everything that was present in the Holy of Holies on the Day of Atonement is now present in heaven.   The empty, earthly one is now obsolete, and this was shown by the tearing of the Temple veil in two at the moment that Jesus died.  The high priest that entered the true Holy of Holies was Jesus, and the blood that He brought was His own.  The rod of Aaron was replaced by a much greater, eternal high priesthood of Christ.  The word of God on the stone tablets was replaced with the living Word, Christ (John 1:1).  And the manna was replaced by the living Bread come down from heaven (John 6).  Even the ark was replaced for a living one, Mary (Revelation 11:19-12:1).

There is frequently an accusation made that Catholics re-sacrifice Christ at every Mass because we believe that the sacrifice of the cross is present every time at the moment of consecration.  These verses, with the phrase "once for all" are used to show how "un-biblical" such a notion is.  I do believe that Christ's actual sacrifice is present at each Mass, but it is not that He is re-sacrificed every time.  It is that His one, eternal sacrifice is made present.  He is eternally present in the Holy of Holies in heaven, eternally present in the moment of offering His blood of sacrifice to the Father for our sins.  That one and only and eternal sacrifice is what is made present at the moment of consecration in the Mass.

I heart my Judaism class from college.

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