Thursday, January 22, 2009

Due To His Own Weakness, The Priest Offers Sacrifice Not Only For The People, But For Himself

Today’s Reading from the Letter to the Hebrews continues the lesson of Chapter 7, about Jesus as the High Priest of the New Covenant.

Jesus, who is the Son of God, is holy, undefiled, free from sin. Unlike priests chosen from among men, he does not need to offer sacrifice in atonement for his own sins, and for the sins of the people. He did that once for all when he offered himself on the cross at Calvary.

From time immemorial, people have had a tendency either to ignore or to exaggerate the distinction between the priesthood of Jesus, and the priesthood of the men who, since Jesus returned to the Father, have been chosen by the Church to offer sacrifice on behalf of God’s people. We tend to place priests on pedestals, like plaster saints; then, when a priest demonstrates his humanity, whether in a small matter, or a grave matter (I trust I don’t need to give examples), we knock them off the pedestals they didn’t belong on to begin with.

Earlier in the Letter to the Hebrews, we read: Every priest is chosen from among the people in order to offer oblations to God, and sacrifices for sin. The priest can deal gently with sinners, since he also is beset with weakness. Due to his own weakness, he is obliged to offer sacrifices for sin, not only for the people, but also for himself.

Dear sisters and brothers, the lesson from Hebrews is this: God does not expect perfection from his people, not even from his priests. He knows that you are often weak, or selfish, or angry, or subject to other temptations, both of the spirit and of the flesh. He also knows that I am subject to the same sorts of temptations. It is Jesus Christ, God’s only begotten Son, who was sent to make reparation to the Father for the sins of His people, which he accomplished by offering himself as a sacrifice once for all. Not for himself, because he was sinless, but for popes, and bishops, and priests and people, because none of us can overcome our sinfulness by our own efforts. We can only offer ourselves to Him just as we are, and allow him to move our sinful self one step closer to sinlessness tomorrow than we were yesterday.

In today’s gospel, Jesus asks his disciples to get a boat ready so that he could preach to the crowd from the bow of the boat, so that they would not crush him. Many people who had diseases were pressing forward to get close to him, and he cured many of them. Whenever unclean spirits saw him, they would shout out, “You are the Son of God”, but Jesus warned them not to make him known.

It seems strange that it was not the religious leaders who proclaimed that Jesus was the Son of God, but the unclean spirits. The more the crowd pressed in to be healed, the further away the leaders withdrew. The real strength and the true healing Jesus offers is ignored by the Pharisees and the Teachers of the Law, because they consider themselves holy people. It is only those who acknowledge their need to be cleansed not only of their sickness of body, but of their sinfulness of soul who are healed.

Lord, I praise you for my weakness; for I know that it is only by acknowledging that I cannot heal myself that I can open myself to your healing grace.

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