It is always a very joyful as well as an important tradition for me to be able to begin Lent with my Presbyterium, the Priests of Rome. Thus, as the local Church of Rome but also as the universal Church, we can start out on this essential journey with the Lord towards the Passion, towards the Cross, the Easter journey.
Let us meditate this year on the passages from the Letter to the Hebrews that have just been read. The Author of this Letter introduced a new way of understanding the Old Testament as a Book that speaks of Christ. The previous tradition had seen Christ above all, essentially, in the key of the Davidic promise, the promise of the true David, of the true Solomon, of the true King of Israel, the true King since he was both man and God.
And the inscription on the Cross truly proclaimed this reality to the world: now there is the true King of Israel, who is King of the world, the King of the Jews hangs on the Cross. It is a proclamation of the kingship of Jesus, of the fulfilment of the messianic expectation of the Old Testament which, at the bottom of their hearts, is shared by all men and women who await the true King who will bring justice, love and brotherhood.
However, the Author of the Letter to the Hebrews discovered a citation which until then had gone unnoticed: Psalm 110 : 4 “You are a priest for ever after the order of Melchizedek”. This means that not only does Jesus fulfil the Davidic promise, the expectation of the true King of Israel and of the world, but he also makes the promise of the real Priest come true. In a part of the Old Testament and especially in Qumran there are two separate lines of expectation: of the King and of the Priest. In discovering this verse, the Author of the Letter to the Hebrews realized that the two promises are united in Christ: Christ is the true King, the Son of God in accordance with Psalm 2: 7, from which he quotes but he is also the true Priest.
Thus the whole of the religious world, the whole reality of sacrifices, of the priesthood that is in search of the true priesthood, the true sacrifice, finds in Christ its key, its fulfilment. And with this key it can reinterpret the Old Testament and show precisely that also the religious law abolished after the destruction of the Temple was actually moving towards Christ. Hence it was not really abolished but renewed, transformed, so that in Christ all things might find their meaning. The priesthood thus appears in its purity and in its profound depth.
In this way the Letter to the Hebrews presents the theme of the priesthood of Christ, of Christ the priest, at three levels: the priesthood of Aaron, that of the Temple; Melchizedek; and Christ himself as the true priest.
Indeed, the priesthood of Aaron, in spite of being different from Christ’s priesthood, in spite of being, so to speak, solely a quest, a journey in the direction of Christ, is nevertheless a “journey” towards Christ and in this priesthood the essential elements are already outlined. Then Melchizedek we shall return to this point who is a pagan.
The pagan world enters the Old Testament. It enters as a mysterious figure, without father or mother the Letter to the Hebrews says it simply appears, and in this figure can be seen the true veneration of the Most High God, of the Creator of the Heavens and of the earth. Thus the pagan world too experiences the expectation and profound prefiguration of Christ’s mystery. In Christ himself everything is recapitulated, purified and led to its term, to its true essence.
Let us now look at the individual elements concerning the priesthood as best we can. We learn two things from the Law, from the priesthood of Aaron, the Author of the Letter to the Hebrews says: If he is truly to be a mediator between God and man, a priest must be man. This is fundamental and the Son of God was made man precisely in order to be a priest, to be able to fulfil the priest’s mission.
He must be man: We shall come back to this point, but he is unable, on his own, to make himself a mediator for God. The priest needs divine authorization, institution, and only by belonging to both spheres the divine and the human can he be a mediator, can he be a “bridge”.
This is the priest’s mission: to combine, to link these two realities that appear to be so separate, that is, the world of God far from us, often unknown to the human being and our human world. The priest’s mission is to be a mediator, a bridge that connects, and thereby to bring human beings to God, to his redemption, to his true light, to his true life.
As the first point, therefore, the priest must be on God’s side. Only in Christ is this need, this prerequisite of mediation fully brought about. This Mystery was therefore necessary: the Son of God is made man so that he may be the true bridge for us, the true mediation. Others must have at least an authorization from God, or in the Church’s case, the Sacrament, that is they must introduce our being into the being of Christ, into divine being.
Only with the Sacrament, this divine act that makes us priests in communion with Christ, can we accomplish our mission.
And this seems to me a first point for our meditation: the importance of the Sacrament. No one can become a priest by himself; God alone can attract me, can authorize me, can introduce me into participation in Christ’s mystery; God alone can enter my life and take me by the hand.
This aspect of divine giving, of divine precedence, of divine action that we ourselves cannot bring about and our passivity being chosen and taken by the hand by God is a fundamental point we must enter into. We must always return to the Sacrament, to this gift in which God gives me what I will never be able to give; participation, communion with divine being, with the priesthood of Christ.
Let us also make this reality a practical factor in our life: if this is how it is, a priest must really be a man of God, he must know God intimately and know him in communion with Christ and so we must live this communion; and the celebration of Holy Mass, the prayer of the Breviary, all our personal prayers are elements of being with God, of being men of God. Our being, our life and our heart must be fixed in God, in this point from which we must not stir. This is achieved and reinforced day after day with short prayers in which we reconnect with God and become, increasingly, men of God who live in his communion and can thus speak of God and lead people to God.
The other element is that the priest must be man, human in all senses. That is, he must live true humanity, true humanism; he must be educated, have a human formation, human virtues; he must develop his intelligence, his will, his sentiments, his affections; he must be a true man, a man according to the will of the Creator, of the Redeemer, for we know that the human being is wounded and the question of “what man is” is obscured by the event of sin that hurt human nature even to the quick.
Thus people say: “he lied” “it is human”; “he stole” “it is human”; but this is not really being human. Human means being generous, being good, being a just person, it means true prudence and wisdom. Therefore emerging with Christ’s help from this dark area in our nature so as to succeed in being truly human in the image of God is a lifelong process that must begin in our training for the priesthood. It must subsequently be achieved, however, and continue as long as we live. I think that basically these two things go hand in hand: being of God and with God and being true man, in the true sense meant by the Creator when he formed this creature that we are.
To be man: the Letter to the Hebrews stresses our humanity; we find this surprising for it says: “He can deal gently with the ignorant and wayward, since he himself is beset with weakness” (5:2). And then even more forcefully “In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up
prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to him who was able to save him from death, and he was heard for his godly fear” (5:7).
For the Letter to the Hebrews, the essential element of our being human is being compassionate, suffering with others: this is true humanity. It is not sin because sin is never solidarity but always tears solidarity apart, it is living life for oneself instead of giving it.
True humanity is real participation in the suffering of human beings. It means being a compassionate person metriopathèin, the Greek text says that is, being at the core of human passion, really bearing with others the burden of their suffering, the temptation of our time: “God, where are you in this world?”.
The humanity of the priest does not correspond to the Platonic or Aristotelian ideal which claims that the true man is the one who lives in contemplation of the truth alone and so is blessed happy because he only has friendship with beautiful things, with divine beauty, while “the work” is left to others.
This is a hypothesis; whereas here it is implied that the priest enter, like Christ, into human wretchedness, carry it with him, visit those who are suffering and look after them and, not only outwardly but also inwardly, take upon himself, recapitulate in himself the “passion” of his time, of his parish, of the people entrusted to his care.
This is how Christ showed his true humanity. Of course, his Heart was always fixed on God, he always saw God, he was always in intimate conversation with him. Yet at the same time he bore the whole being, the whole of human suffering entered the Passion.
In speaking, in seeing people who were lowly, who had no pastor, he suffered with them. Moreover, we priests cannot withdraw to an Elysium. Let us rather be immersed in the passion of this world and with Christ’s help and in communion with him, we must seek to transform it, to bring it to God.
Precisely this should be said, with the following really stimulating text: “Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears” (Heb 5: 7). This is not only a reference to the hour of anguish on the Mount of Olives but sums up the whole history of the Passion that embraces Jesus’ entire life. Tears: Jesus wept by the tomb of Lazarus, he was truly moved inwardly by the mystery of death, by the terror of death. People forgive the brother, as in this case, the mother and the son, the friend: all the dreadfulness of death that destroys love, that destroys relationships, that is a sign of our finiteness, our poverty. Jesus is put to the test and he confronts this mystery in the very depths of his soul in the sorrow that is death and weeps. He weeps before Jerusalem, seeing the destruction of the beautiful city because of disobedience; he weeps, seeing all the destruction of the world’s history; he weeps, seeing that people destroy themselves and their cities with violence and with disobedience.
Jesus weeps with loud cries. We know from the Gospels that Jesus cried out from the Cross: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mk 15:34; cf. Mt 27:46) and cried out once again at the end. And this cry responds to a fundamental dimension of the Psalm: in the terrible moments of human life many Psalms are a loud cry to God: “Help us, hear us!”.
On this very day, in the Breviary, we prayed like this: God, where are you? “You have made us like sheep for slaughter” (Ps 44: 11 [rsv]). A cry of suffering humanity! And Jesus, who is the true subject of the Psalms, truly bears this cry of humanity to God, to God’s ears: “help us and hear us!”. He transforms the whole of suffering humanity, taking it to himself in a cry to God to hear him.
Thus we see that in this very way he brings about the priesthood, the function of mediator, bearing in himself, taking on in himself the sufferings and passion of the world, transforming it into a cry to God, bringing it before the eyes and to the hands of God and thus truly bringing it to the moment of redemption.
In fact the Letter to the Hebrews says that “he offered up prayers and supplications”, “loud cries and tears” (5: 7). It is a correct translation of the verb prosphèrein. This is a religious word and expresses the act of offering human gifts to God, it expresses precisely the act of offering, of sacrifice. Thus with these religious terms applied to the prayers and tears of Christ, it shows that Christ’s tears, his anguish on the Mount of Olives, his cry on the Cross, all his suffering are nothing in comparison with his important mission. In this very way he makes his sacrifice, he becomes the priest. With this “offered”, prosphèrein, the Letter to the Hebrews says to us: this is the fulfilment of his priesthood, thus he brings humanity to God, in this way he becomes mediator, he becomes priest.
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