March 11th, 2016

The Tragic and Triumphant Cross Leading to Hope for Us All” 

cross30“Since the law has only a shadow of the good things to come and not the true form of these realities, it can never, by the same sacrifices that are continually offered year after year, make perfect those who approach. Otherwise, would they not have ceased being offered, since the worshipers, cleansed once for all, would no longer have any consciousness of sin? Bun in these sacrifices there is a reminder of sin year after year. For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins. Consequently, when Christ came into the world, he said, ‘Sacrifices and offerings you have not desired, but a body you have prepared for me; in burnt offerings and sin offerings you have taken no pleasure. Then I said, See, God, I have come to do your will, O God. (in the scroll of the book it is written of me).'”

When he said the above, ‘You have neither desired nor taken pleasure in sacrifices and offerings and burnt offerings and sin offerings’ (these are offered according to the law), then he added, ‘See, I have come to do your will’ He abolishes first in order to establish the second. And it is by God’s will that we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.

And every priest stands day after day at his service, offering again and again the same sacrifices that can never take away sins. But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, ‘he sat down at the right hand of God,’ and since then has been waiting ‘until his enemies would be made a footstool for his feet.’ For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are sanctified. And the Holy Spirit also testifies to us, for after saying, ‘This is the covenant that I will make with them after those days, says the Lord; I will put my laws in their hearts, and I will write them on their minds.'”

“He also adds, ‘I will remember their sins and their lawless deeds no more.’ Where there is forgiveness of these, there is no longer any offering for sin.”

“Therefore, my friends, since we have confidence to enter the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain (that is, through his flesh), and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us approach with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful. And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the day approaching.” (Hebrews 10:1-25)

The entire letter to the Hebrews explains the cross of Christ through terminology familiar from the Old Testament; the cross is the ultimate sacrifice, offered by the perfect high priest, establishing a new covenant. This passage summarizes the teachings of the letter, demonstrating that the sacrificial system of the old law was only a shadow of the true form found in Christ’s cross.

The first verses offer a critique of the temple sacrifices, especially those made on the Day of Atonement. Those same sacrifices had to be continually offered year after year. The endless repetition of sacrifices pointed to their inadeuacy in fulfilling their purpose. They did not truly transform people and absolve their interior consciences, but were, rather, an annual reminder of sin, prolonging the agony of guilt. In addition, the blood of bulls and goats could not truly take away sin, for brute animals, without a mind, will, and consciousness, could never substitute for human beings. Sinful people need a willing substitute to cleanse them through sacrifice.

The sacrifice of Christ was truly effective because his life was one of total self-giving and obedience. Under the old covenant, people often offered sacrifice without the corresponding obedience to God’s commands. But that deficiency was settled once and for all in Jesus who fulfilled the ideal life set out in Psalm 40:6-8. A life of doing God’s will was more pleasing to God than all the offerings and sacrifices of the old covenant. The total self-offering of Jesus to the will of the Father, climaxing in his crucifixion, introduced an unprecedented and ideal form of sacrifice, the offering of the new humanity. This is a sacrifice that was offered once for all. Because it truly sanctifies us, there is no need for a daily or even yearly offering. The entire life of the church, wit its Eucharist and sacraments, makes present in time the one sacrifice of Christ. The here and now experience of God’s grace is possible only because of the then and there offering of Jesus Christ.

In addition to being the ultimate sacrifice, Jesus is also the perfect high priest who establishes the new covenant. The priests of the former covenant were compelled to offer sacrifices day after day. Yet their never-ending task could never take away sins. Their offerings only pointed to Jesus, the new high priest, whose single offering perfected us for all time. As the priestly mediator between God and humanity. Christ became our ideal representative before God through his self-offering experienced through humility, weakness, and suffering. Though his sacrifice is complete, his priestly intercession continues from his exalted place in heaven, offering salvation to all who look to him.

The cross is the sacrifice that not only atones for sins but also inaugurates the new covenant. This is a covenant that brings about a decisive and inward change in people’s lives. God’s law will no longer be an external code, but an inner law written in the minds and hearts of God’s people. Truly forgiven, freed from perpetually nagging feelings of shame and guilt, we have confidence to approach God. What had previously been the unique privilege of the high priest one day in the year, entry into the presence of God, is now the privilege of every member of the community of faith. We have direct access to God because the curtain shielding the Holy of Holies has been parted through the death of Jesus on the cross. His sacrificial blood has opened for us the new and living way, beckoning us to come in with him to the presence of God. This spiritualized language of the ancient temple expresses the new confidence we have before God. Assured of our forgiveness, cleansed of guilt, we can worship our God in freedom and in truth, united with  him in an awesome intimacy.

Reflection

How can trust and confidence in Christ’s cross free you from nagging feelings of shame and guilt?

Prayer

Merciful Lord, you are both the priest and the victim for the once and for all sacrifice of the cross. Assure me that I am truly forgiven and free my conscience from the guilt of sin. Help me to live in the new covenant with trust and confidence.

Amen

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