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Sacrifice in the Temple, South Netherlands, ca. 1515-24, The Cloisters, NY

Sacrifice in the Temple, Netherlands, ca. 1515-24, The Cloisters, NY

In the two months before the great season of Advent this year, the Church sets before us an extended passage from the Epistle to the Hebrews, which Pope Benedict XVI described as “a new way of understanding the Old Testament as a Book that speaks of Christ.” In a particular way, these readings set out the place of the Eucharistic sacrifice—the preeminent worship of the new covenant—in the context of the sacrifices of the old. In them we read of the role of sacrifice in the new dispensation, and of the fulfillment of the sacrifices of the old covenant, and indeed of all sacrifice, in the sacrifice of the cross, which is re-presented for us in the Eucharistic oblation. As the Council of Trent taught: “in this divine sacrifice which is celebrated in the Mass, that same Christ is contained and immolated in an unbloody manner, who once offered himself in a bloody manner on the altar of the cross” (Sess. xxii. cap. II.).

In fact, on this last Sunday before the Solemnity of Christ the King, the Epistle to the Hebrews reiterates the language and teaching expounded earlier in the letter, yet does so, in those words of Pope Benedict, by presenting exactly “a new way of understanding the Old Testament as a Book that speaks of Christ.” This is most appropriate as we reach the threshold of the season of Advent, marked as it is by the prophets of the Old Testament crying out to prepare the way for the coming of the Infant King. And We can say that, in these readings, the Church is at once softening the ground for the acknowledgement of Christ’s sovereignty, and opening our hearts to receive his kingship as subjects, ever seeking to serve the cause of his eternal reign.

Why, then, all this talk of sacrifice? Here it is important to recall what the Church describes as the munus triplex of Christ; his threefold office of Prophet, Priest, and King. Christ, as his name suggests, is the anointed one, the Messiah. In the Old Testament, those anointed were prophets, priests, and kings; yet Christ is not just an example of one, or even all, of these. Rather, he is the Prophet in whom all prophecy is fulfilled; the Priest in whom all sacrifice finds its culmination; the King of whose reign there is no end. It is in his sacrifice that he has “perfected for all time those who are sanctified” (Heb. 10: 14). Thus it is in the sacrifice of Christ—Prophet, Priest, and King—that we find his authentic identity, and learn who he truly is and why we must follow him.

To understand the importance of this emphasis on sacrifice, we can follow the Fathers of the Church as they trace the priestly office back to the garden of Eden. Here, Saint Ephrem writes, God clothed Adam with glory (Comm. on Genesis, 2). Adam was not a priest ordered for the offering of sacrifice, for there was no sin for which to atone, rather, “The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it” (Gen. 2: 15). In the Book of Numbers these ideas resurface in the description of the role of the levitical priesthood, and so we can say that Adam’s priestly office was characterized by his ministry in the sanctuary of the garden, and his protection of the garden from the evil one who was, in the end, the cause of our fall (Num. 3: 7; 8: 26).

It is with this in mind that Bishop Robert Barron has said that, before the fall, Adam “walked in easy fellowship with God”. That is to say Adam was in perfect union with God; his precepts and his ways. Adam embodied the priestly office by offering perfect worship to the Lord not through sacrifice, but by living in union with him. He was in perfect adoration of God; that is, as Pope Benedict taught, in “mouth to mouth contact” with the Lord, in the union common to lovers. The Song of Songs declares: “O that you would kiss me with the kisses of your mouth! For your love is better than wine, your anointing oils are fragrant” (1: 2-3).

After the fall, that adoration was interrupted; never quite true, never quite perfect. Despite the sacrifices of the old covenant, the People of God were unable by themselves to restore the relationship lost through disobedience. The prophet Ezekiel, himself a priest, bears witness to this in his vision of the new temple—the restored and perfected place of sacrifice—which we see fulfilled in the person of Christ (Ez. 40-43). For this reason the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews laments, “every priest stands daily at his service, offering repeatedly the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins” (Heb. 10: 11). As the Old Testament consistently shows, from the infidelity of Eden to the worship of idols, even by God’s chosen people, false, even imperfect, worship cannot ultimately lead back to that union with God which was an essential character of Eden and which was, in fact, the reason for our creation.

It is that essential right worship, then, that is restored in Christ. By his perfect sacrifice the relationship between man and God is set aright. As we read, Christ “offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins” (Heb. 10: 12). And elsewhere, God has reconciled “to himself all things, whether on earth on in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross” (Col. 1: 20). Thus, in Christ there is reconciliation; the restoration of true worship. In Christ the union of God and man is restored to a loving embrace. In Christ the perfect order of creation in Eden’s garden is opened to us anew in the kingdom of heaven. As Charles Wesley wrote: “Finish, then, thy new creation; / pure and spotless let us be. / Let us see thy great salvation / perfectly restored in thee; / changed from glory into glory, / till in heaven we take our place, / till we cast our crowns before thee, / lost in wonder, love, and praise.”

That is why the sacrifice of the cross, and so the Eucharistic sacrifice, is essential to our identity: it is who we are. Sacrifice makes us Christian, and being Christian—one with Christ the Priest, the Prophet, and the King, in baptism—obliges us to offer sacrifice to God, not because he is in need of it, but because he deserves our right worship, and because we desire to remain in the relationship of love restored in Christ, for all eternity. Here we learn to join ourselves to the perfect worship of Christ in heaven, the perfect sacrifice of praise. Here we learn to prepare not simply for his coming as the babe in the manger, but as the one who comes to judge both the quick and the dead. Here we find the paradise of Eden thrown open to us, with Christ the new Adam and Mary the new Eve, front and centre, bidding us welcome. Conscious of this great invitation, let us strive in all we do to accept.