Monday of Holy Week - Jesus the 'New Priest'
But when Christ came as a high priest… he entered once for all into the Holy Place, not with the blood of goats and calves, but with his own blood, thus obtaining eternal redemption.
In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
O Beauty ever ancient, ever new, late have I loved you!
Yesterday, Palm Sunday, we considered those wonderful words from Saint Augustine – Jesus Christ is ever ancient, he is the one who has existed for all eternity, and he is ever new, his saving work will continue until all things are gathered up in him.
We heard of how Jesus, embodying the truth, proclaiming God’s word and revealing God’s plan of redemption was the long-expected prophet whose task was to instruct his people in the ways of righteousness, preparing them for God’s coming Kingdom. Ancient promises are fulfilled in him, he makes them new: he speaks of himself as the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed One. How does Jesus make things new? Through his role as the prophet, calling God’s people, and today, we hear, as a priest.
In this and every Holy Week, Christ is revealed as the ‘new’ ‘high priest’ as we heard in the letter to the Hebrews. What was the role and function of a priest in the time of Jesus? The scriptures once again give us the answer: to ‘obtain redemption.’
Redemption was obtained through sacrifice. We’ll hear more about the specifics of Jesus’ sacrifice as the week goes on, but suffice to say, that this, along with teaching (a nod to the idea of prophet which we heard yesterday), was the main function of the priest.
Why then was sacrifice needed? What did it achieve? Quite simply: life. The sacrificial offering restored life between God and his people: where sins had been committed, they were forgiven, where relationships were broken, they were restored. The sacrifice lifted the veil between the people and God, uniting them once more.
How is Jesus revealed as the priest in the scriptures today? Whilst our second reading cuts straight to the point, it is to the prophet Isaiah and the gospel of John that we turn.
Isaiah states clearly:
‘See, the former things have come to pass, and new things I now declare’.
He is saying that there will be a person, who brings about salvation, like in the ancient time of the Exodus, when the people were saved from Pharaoh; these people will be saved, through a new covenant, a covenant that includes all the peoples, and all nations of the world. The Psalmist sums it up: ‘you save your people in your steadfast love’.
How does God reveal his ever-ancient love that is ever new? Through his priest, Jesus Christ, his only begotten Son, and more specifically, through the sacrifice that he offers.
In order to be a priest in biblical times, to be a servant of God, you had to be anointed; the book of Leviticus states that the anointing made the priest holy, to act as a mediator, his work was to bestow God’s life to the people – to make it present in their midst, bringing them from death to life.
What do we hear today? In the opening sentence of our first reading God speaks: ‘here is my servant, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my spirit upon him’. The outpouring of the Spirit on this servant is nothing less than an anointing.
The passage refers, of course, to the suffering Messiah. Jesus is the servant who had received the Spirit of God – the anointing of God – at his baptism for the work of salvation – his work of redemption – as God’s own priest.
Today, Mary of Bethany, a woman recognised as a sinner, brings oil to Jesus, the newpriest. She recognises his holiness, she recognises his identity as the priestly Messiah, and as a demonstration of her love, pours out her costly perfume.
In anointing his feet with oil she sees him as the anointed one, the one in whom God delights, the one who will do a new thing and finally bring God’s salvation.
Mary’s use of the perfumed oil anticipates the offering he will make as a priest, the offering of himself – for he is also the victim. What did the priests do before sacrificing? They would cleanse their feet. What would the people do to the Lambs they were to sacrifice? Anoint their feet to indicate they were free from blemish, in the immediate days before. The gospel tells us that Jesus’ anointing was in the days preceding the Passover. Mary recognised Jesus not only the priest but also as the victim – the Lamb of God – his anointed. He is preparing and is being prepared for his own death, death that will bring about eternal redemption to Israel.
Jesus is ready for his priestly duty: his duty of death which brings life. And in a final twist, whilst anointing the feet of lambs prepared to die was normal, anointing a man’s feet with oil was part of the burial ritual. Mary knows that this priestly lamb who takes away the sins of the world, the one in whom the Lord ‘delights’ will redeem the people from death – he will give life to the world – as he gave life to Lazarus her brother.
The work of this priest overcomes darkness. Tomorrow, we will see that Jesus is not only the new prophet and the new priest, he is the light: ever ancient, ever new.