Saturday, June 05, 2010

Messiah, King, and Priest

With Corpus Christi now upon us in most of the global church, via Vatican Radio, here's B16's homily from Thursday's Mass for the solemnity in Rome's cathedral -- the Basilica of St John Lateran....

* * *
Dear brothers and sisters!

The priesthood of the New Testament is closely tied to the Eucharist. Today, the Solemnity of Corpus Christi and near the end of the Priestly Year, we are invited to meditate on the relationship between the Eucharist and the priesthood of Christ. The first reading and the Responsorial Psalm, which present the figure of Melchizedek, point us in this direction. The brief passage in the Book of Genesis (cf. 14.18-20) states that Melchizedek king of Salem, was "priest of God Most High," and for this, "he offered bread and wine," and "blessed Abram,” who was returned from a victory in battle. Abraham himself gave him a tenth of everything. The psalm, in turn, contains in the last stanza a solemn expression, an oath of God himself, who declares to the Messiah King: "You are a priest forever / according to the order of Melchizedek" (Ps. 110.4), so the Messiah was proclaimed not only King but also Priest. The author of Hebrews drew on this passage for his extensive and detailed exposition. And we echoed this in the refrain: "You are a priest forever, Christ the Lord" almost a profession of faith, which acquires special significance in today's feast. It is the joy of community, the joy of the whole Church, which, contemplating and adoring the Blessed Sacrament, recognizes the real and permanent presence of Jesus the Eternal High Priest.

The second reading and the Gospel rather bring attention to the Eucharistic mystery. From the First Letter to the Corinthians (cf. 11:23-26) is taken the fundamental passage in which St. Paul recalls to that community the meaning and value of the "Lord's Supper," which the Apostle had taught and transmitted to them, but that was at risk of being lost. The Gospel is in its turn the story of the miracle of the loaves and fishes, in St. Luke: a sign to which all the evangelists attest, which heralds the gift that Christ will of himself, to give mankind eternal life. Both texts emphasize the prayer of Christ in the act of breaking bread. Of course there is a clear difference between the two moments: when dividing the loaves and fish to the crowds, he thanked the Heavenly Father for His providence, trusting that He will not allow all those people to go without food. At the Last Supper, however, Jesus transforms the bread and wine into his Body and Blood, so that disciples can nourish themselves on Him and live in intimate communion with Him.

The first thing that is always to be kept in mind is that Jesus was not a priest according to Jewish tradition. His was not a priestly family. He did not belong to the descendants of Aaron, but of Judah, and he was therefore legally precluded from the priesthood. The person and activity of Jesus of Nazareth do not find themselves in the way of ancient priests, but rather in that of prophets – and in this line, distanced himself from a ritual conception of religion, criticizing the approach that gave value to human precepts tide to ritual purity rather than observing the commandments of God, that is, to that love for God and neighbour, which is "worth more than all burnt offerings and sacrifices" (Mark 12:33).

Even within the Temple of Jerusalem, the sacred place par excellence, Jesus performed a purely prophetic act when he chased the money changers and sellers of animals, all of which were used for the traditional offering of sacrifices. So Jesus is not recognized as a priestly Messiah, but prophetic and royal. Even his death, which we Christians rightly call "sacrifice", had nothing of the ancient sacrifices. Indeed, it was the opposite: a most infamous death, by crucifixion, which took place outside the walls of Jerusalem.

In what sense, then, is Jesus a priest? The Eucharist gives us the precise answer. We can begin, again, from those simple words that describe Melchizedek: "He offered bread and wine" (Genesis 14:18). That is what Jesus did at the Last Supper: he offered bread and wine, and in that gesture summed up His whole self and his whole mission. In that act, in the prayer that precedes it and the words that accompany it, there is the whole sense of the mystery of Christ, as the Epistle to the Hebrews expresses in a decisive step that must be mentioned: "In the days of His earthly life,” the author writes, referring to Jesus, “He offered up prayers and supplications, with powerful cries and tears to God who could save Him from death, and, because of his complete abandonment to God, His prayers were heard and answered. Although he was a son, he learned obedience from what he suffered and, once made perfect, He became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey Him and was designated by God to be high priest in the order of Melchizedek."(5.8 to 10). In this text, which clearly alludes to the spiritual agony of Gethsemane, the passion of Christ is presented as a prayer and an offering. Jesus faces His "hour", which leads to death on a cross, immersed in profound prayer, which consists of the union of his own will with the Father. This dual and single will is a will of love. Lived in this prayer, the tragic proof that Jesus addresses is turned into an offering, a living sacrifice.

The Letter to the Hebrews says that Jesus "was heard." In what sense? In the sense that God the Father freed Him from death and raised Him. He was heard precisely because of his complete abandonment to the will of the Father: God’s loving plan was able perfectly to fulfil itself in Jesus, who, having obeyed even unto death on the cross, is become the "cause of salvation" for all those who obey Him. He is become the high priest himself, having taken upon himself all the sin of the world, as the "Lamb of God." It is the Father who gives this priesthood to Him at the very moment in which Jesus goes through the passage of his death and resurrection. It is not a priesthood according to the order of the Mosaic Law (cf. Lev 8-9), but "according to the order of Melchizedek" – according to a prophetic order, dependent only on its unique relationship with God.

Let us return to the expression of the Letter to the Hebrews, which says: "Son though he was, he learned obedience from what he suffered." The priesthood of Christ involves suffering. Jesus really suffered, and He did so for us. He was the son and did not need to learn obedience to God, but we do: we always have and we always will. For this reason the Son assumed our humanity and allowed Himself to be “educated” in the crucible of suffering, allowed himself to be transformed by it, like the grain of wheat, which in order to bear fruit, must die in the ground. Through this process, Jesus was "made perfect" in Greek teleiotheis. We must pause over this term because it is very significant. It shows the culmination of a journey, one that is precisely the the Son of God’s path of education and transformation by suffering through the painful passion. It is owing to this transformation that Jesus Christ has become "high priest" and can save all who trust Him. The term, teleiotheis, correctly translated as "made perfect", belongs to a verbal root, which, in the Greek version of the Pentateuch, i.e. the first five books of the Bible, is always used to indicate the consecration of the ancient priests. This discovery is very important because it tells us that the passion was for Jesus as a priestly consecration. He was not a priest according to the Law, but He became so existentially, in His in its paschal passion, death and resurrection, He offered Himself in atonement – and the Father, exalting Him above all creatures, constituted Him universal Mediator of salvation.

We now return, in our meditation, to the Eucharist, which will soon be at the centre of our liturgical assembly and subsequent solemn procession. In it, Jesus anticipated his sacrifice, not a ritual sacrifice, but a personal one. Jesus, in the Last Supper, moved by the "eternal spirit" with which He will then offer Himself on the Cross (cf. Heb 9:14), acts. Giving thanks and praise, Jesus transforms the bread and wine. It is Divine love, which transforms: the love with which Jesus accepts in advance the act of giving all of Himself to us. This love is nothing but the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of the Father and the Son, which consecrates the bread and wine, and changes their substance into the Body and Blood of the Lord, making present in the Sacrament the same sacrifice that takes place cruelly on the Cross. We may therefore conclude that Christ was the real and effective priest, because he was full of the strength of the Holy Spirit, was filled with the fullness of God's love, and this, precisely, "in the night he was betrayed," precisely in the “hour of darkness"(cf. Lk 22:53). It is this divine power, the same power that realized the Incarnation of the Word, which transforms the extreme violence and extreme injustice into the supreme act of love and justice. This is the work of the priesthood of Christ, which the Church has inherited and carried through history, in the twofold form of the common priesthood of the baptized and that of ordained ministers, in order to transform the world with the love of God. Everyone, priests and lay faithful alike, are nourished by the same Eucharist, we all prostrate ourselves in adoration, for the Eucharist is present our Master and Lord, the true Body of Christ, Priest and Victim, the Salvation of the world. Come, let us exult with songs of joy! Come let us adore Him! Amen.
PHOTO: Reuters