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The Holy Crusade of the High Priest

From the pre-Lent, “Gesima” Sundays onward, Holy Mother Church began her plunge into liturgical death. At first we lost the “Alleluia,” the Gloria, and on Sundays we dressed in penitential violet to herald the proximity of Lent. With Lent, these privations applied every day, with the exception of our great feasts. Moreover, we became stiller and more somber by the removal of instrumental music and cheering flowers, although last week on Laetare Sunday a hint of Easter was glimpsed from afar through their momentary return and the use of rosacea vestments. It was, as I wrote last time, like the deep breath before the plunge back into the cold waters. The waters of liturgical dying.

This Sunday, 1st Passion Sunday, initiates Passiontide, which extends across this rough fortnight to the first Sunday after the first full moon of northern Spring. The Roman Station is at St. Peter’s on the Vatican Hill, where in centuries past new priests were ordained at dawn after an all-night vigil. Yesterday’s, Saturday, Gospel from John 8, recounted Lord’s declaration, “I am the light of the world” (v. 12), after the Temple’s mighty candelabra, so tall that their light was seen from the whole city, were extinguished at the end of the festive week of Sukkoth, Tabernacles. As we enter Passiontide, a new theme rings in the readings, underscoring especially the persecution of the innocent Christ and the plots against Him and His followers, who have been threatened with excommunication from the synagogues for following Him.

Today’s Gospel continues with John 8. The Lord is in the Temple’s treasury where, especially during Sukkoth, alms were collected and distributed to the poor. He is convincing many new believers and the authorities are more and more enraged against Him. The Jews, that is Judeans, the people of Judea in the south where Jerusalem is (Christ is a Galilean from the north), accuse Him of being possessed by a demon. He refutes them and strongly underscores His divinity in saying, “before Abraham was, I am,” in Greek, egò eimí,” but in Aramaic or Hebrew would ring out as the unutterable Name of God. Accounting Him to be a blasphemer, the reading concludes with “they took up stones to throw at him; but Jesus hid himself, and went out of the temple” (8:59 – RSV).

“Jesus hid himself.” This verse has for over a millennium been tied to another stage of liturgical death which starts on this 1st Passion Sunday. At first, crosses in churches were not crucifixes, with the corpus, or body of the crucified Lord, but rather were triumphally decorated, often with precious stones. Such a cross was called a crux gemmata. As the Church’s collective reflection on the Passion deepened over time, we also matured liturgically, our evolving customs reflected our devotion. As of today, the Church dies a little more with the veiling, usually in purple, of all sacred images and especially crucifixes and pietà scenes. “Jesus hid himself” is reflected in the deprivation of our sense of sight. Our hearing is deprived as well in the omission of the “Iudica” psalm in the priest’s prayers at the foot of the altar, moving straight from the Introibo antiphon to the Adiutorium nostrum and first Confiteor. The concluding doxology is dropped from some prayers, such as the Lavabo. Our liturgical decease will accelerate as Passiontide shifts into the Sacred Triduum.

Through our full, conscious, and active participation in the liturgical, Sacramental renewal of these sacred mysteries, the baptized believer in the state of grace will keenly experience the process of dying liturgically before the glorious resurrection to new life at the Easter Vigil. Christ the High Priest, the true actor in the liturgical action, renews in our sacred words and gestures of worship the saving mysteries of His Passion, Resurrection and Ascension. He is in the heavenly sanctuary perpetually raising His Sacrifice and ours to the Father. Our incorporation into His Person in the Church enables us to encounter these mysteries, these “sacramenta.” Sacramental reality is not less real than sensible reality around us, but we must be conformed to it through baptism and then tuned to it through lifelong participation in sacred liturgical worship and personal prayer from the whole of us, mind and heart.

In the well-known Epistle reading from Hebrews 9, Paul stresses the High Priesthood of Christ, and our redemption in the shedding of His Blood. Since this is from a letter written to the Hebrews, Paul can use as shorthand references that every Hebrew of his day would understand right away. Every Jew would have known about how the brother of Moses, Aaron, was set apart to be the High Priest over the people and that he, and all subsequent priests were to offer sacrifices according to God’s prescriptions in the portable sanctuary or tabernacle and later in the Temples that would be built. They knew that on one special day of the year, the Day of Atonement – Yom Kippur – the High Priest entered the Holy of Holies to offer a blood sacrifice to reconcile the entire people with God and atone for all their sins. Paul underscores how that action of the High Priest of the old covenant was a foreshadowing of Christ’s Sacrifice.

Another point that Paul makes is that Christ is High Priest in a “greater and more perfect tent (not made with hands, that is, not of this creation).” This is a reference to the tent of presence, the tri-partite portable sanctuary. This subdivided tent contained, as the Temple would later, the area of sacrifices in an outer “court.” Sectioned off within that was the holy place for the Presence Bread, Menorah, and Altar of Incense. Within that was the inmost place, the Holy of Holies, where the Ark of the Covenant was, where only the High Priest could enter and only once a year (cf. Leviticus 16). So, if Christ is to enter a tent not made by human hands, Paul could only mean the sanctuary of Heaven. Into this Holy of Holies, the High Priest took His own Blood as the expiatory, reconciling the once-for-all time Sacrifice to atone for every sin ever committed.

Moreover, this is a new covenant with God. All previous covenants were marked by several features: they were instituted in a high place and they involved sacrifice and a meal to seal the deal. All previous covenants pointed to the Last Supper, the ascent to Calvary and, ultimately, the Ascension to the heavenly sanctuary outside of space and time. Because our High Priest is there, we can renew that same Last Supper and ascent to Calvary on our altars across the globe, even simultaneously.

As you contemplate the veils over our images and crucifixes during Passiontide, ponder that, paradoxically, this is the time when they should be most in view. Therefore, extra effort, additional time is needed to see through the veil. Above, I mentioned the crux gemmata. Indeed, our forebears had quite a different spirituality about the cross, such that it was adorned in jewels as a banner of victory. Their emphasis was less on the Passion of the Lord than on His and our victory over sin and death. While we now perhaps stress the bitter before the sweet in Lent, the thematic vector of Lent still bears this triumphal character. Pius Parsch explains Lent’s three phases in The Church’s Year Of Grace (English trans. 1953),

The first Sunday – Christ and the devil; Christ on the defensive. The third Sunday – the strong man and the stronger One; Christ on the offensive. Palm Sunday – Christ victor and king in His sacrificial death. Remember, too, that this battle was not finished 1900 years ago, it continues till the end of time. This Christ, struggling, battling, winning, is the mystic Christ in His Body, the Church, and in His members, individual Christians. So Lent is a “holy crusade” in which we are active participants not merely pious observers.

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