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Christ’s Sacrifice of Mercy

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Jesus, because he remains forever,
has a high priesthood which does not pass away.
Therefore he is always able to save those who approach God through him, since he forever lives to make intercession for them.
It is fitting that we should have such a high priest:
holy, innocent, undefiled, separated from sinners,
higher than the heavens.
Unlike the other high priests,
he has no need to offer sacrifice day after day,
first for his own sins and then for those of the people;
he did that once for all when he offered himself.
Hebrews 7: 24–27

Of the many words that describe Jesus in the Letter to the Hebrews, Son, Lord, heir, first-born, the great shepherd of the sheep, and mediator, the most distinctive description is high priest. Starting with this description, this passage from Hebrews invites us to explore what sets Jesus apart from other high priests, in particular, his unique lineage and the nature of his sacrifice.

The first distinction comes in the earlier verses of chapter seven, that Christ’s priesthood is higher than the traditional line of Levitical priesthood. We read in verse 11 “Now if perfection had been reached through the Levitical priesthood—and this was the basis of the Law given to the people—why was it necessary for a different kind of priest to arise, spoken of as being of the order of Melchizedek rather than of the order of Aaron?”(7:11) Jesus and Melchizedek were not descendants of Levi as other high priests were, thus they were uniquely chosen by God. Continuing in verses 16–19 we hear, “For [Jesus] is attested by the prophecy: You are a priest forever of the order of Melchizedek. The earlier commandment is thus abolished, because of its weakness and ineffectiveness since the Law could not make anything perfect; but now this commandment is replaced by something better—the hope that brings us close to God.” The high priesthood of Jesus, in the incarnation, brings us closer to God than the mediation of other high priests.

Further insight is given by Rubel Shelly, who notes that in the Old Testament we learn that on the Day of Atonement,

The high priest would go through the veil into the Holy of Holies and sprinkle the blood of sacrifice on the mercy seat. Once the blood was in place, mercy (i.e. sparing the people from the punishment they deserved) could be extended. More than that, on the merits of sacrificial blood, grace (i.e. showering the people with blessings they could never deserve) could flow from the throne.[1]

The sacrifices of animals brought mercy and grace.

Jesus’ mercy and grace comes not from animal sacrifice, but from offering his own Body, the Lamb of God, as a sacrifice that was offered just once, for our salvation. In his suffering Jesus shows that he is not removed from the suffering that we experience, but that he enters into it and suffers with us. He faced every temptation and yet was without sin. In Hebrews we see that Jesus is fully human, facing suffering and temptation—and fully divine, as we heard in this passage, “he is always able to save those who approach God through him, since he forever lives to make intercession for them.”

When I think about Christ’s sacrifice, what resonates most deeply with me is a song that follows the Adoration of the Cross in the community where I attended the Good Friday liturgy. The congregation joins the choir in singing, “Behold the Lamb of God, behold the Lamb of God! Jesus, Jesus, is the Lamb of God!”[2] This is a triumphant song, a song of overcoming suffering, death, heartache, all the separates us from the love of God. I think about times in my own life of experiencing anxiety or the death of a loved one, knowing that Jesus’ suffering came before my own suffering. Jesus lifts up my suffering and carries it with me. I, and we, are not alone.

The triumph of the singing also anticipates that sacrifice is not the end of the story. Jesus rises from the dead, and brings all new life, eternal life with God. In this Year of Mercy, Pope Francis, too, reminds us that “God’s mercy is given to everyone as a grace that flows from the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, all are the beloved of God. Thus the Cross of Christ is God’s judgement on all of us and on the whole world, because through it he offers us the certitude of love and new life” (Misericordiae Vultus, §21).

As we respond to the outpouring of the priestly love of Christ, of the sacrifice he offered just once, we are invited to show love and mercy to all, particularly in this Jubilee Year, knowing that Jesus goes before us.

On Saturdays I go to a drop-in center downtown South Bend to visit with guests. One morning I sat with George and had a nice conversation about where we were from, our families, and his vast knowledge about gardening. As I got up to leave I said, “It was nice to see you today,” and he replied, “It was nice to be seen.” I have thought about this conversation often. How easy it is not to see other people, especially people who live in poverty and may be a bit unkempt in appearance. What does it mean for me to love George—praying for him, talking to him on the weeks that he comes, thinking about what it means for him to live on the streets? These are small acts, but ones that expand my perspective as I think about God’s mercy that includes all people, especially those on the peripheries of society.

Pope Francis reminds us:

If we go out to bring his Gospel with love, with a true apostolic spirit . . . [Jesus] walks with us, he goes ahead of us, and he gets there first. . . . Jesus is waiting for us in the hearts of our brothers and sisters, in their wounded bodies, in their hardships, in their lack of faith.”[3]

We know from Hebrews that Jesus goes before us as we live as disciples of his priesthood. Pope Francis encourages the extension of mercy to all by reminding us the Jesus is waiting for us in the hearts of those in need. May we walk with Jesus and embrace the belovedness of all for whom his priestly sacrifice has been offered. Christ is risen! Alleluia!

Andrea Smith Shappell is the director of Summer Service Learning and Theological Reflection and Associate Director of the Center for Social Concerns at the University of Notre Dame.

 

[1] Rubel Shelly. “Our Compassionate High Priest” in Preaching Hebrews (Abilene, TX: ACU Press, 2003), 118.

[2] Bob Dufford, SJ.

[3] Pope Francis, The Church of Mercy (Chicago: Loyola Press, 2014), 19.