Twenty-Ninth Sunday in Ordinary Time – October 17, 2009 – St. John’s, Goshen
In today’s New Testament readings, we find statements about Christ that show both his similarity and his dissimilarity to us. In the passage from the Epistle to the Hebrews, we hear first of Christ’s dissimilarity: He is “a great high priest who has passed through the heavens.” In the Old Testament, the high priest passed through the outer parts of the Temple until he reached the Holy of Holies, the innermost part, where he offered the prescribed sacrifice. Christ is our great high priest, who by his resurrection and ascension has entered into the true Temple, the Holy of Holies who is God himself, to whom he has presented his sacrifice of himself on the cross. This is what the author calls “our confession,” to which we ought to “hold fast,” that is, keep permanently in mind as the center of our faith and the ground of our hope. It is the faith that makes us Christians and distinguishes us from all others: the belief that God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself.
But while this statement shows the greatness and uniqueness of Christ, the author hastens to show his similarity to us: “We do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who has similarly been tested in every way, yet without sin.” Two weeks ago from this same Epistle we heard Christ’s common origin with us described: “He who consecrates and those who are being consecrated all have one origin. That is why he is not ashamed to call them ‘brothers.’” To this identity with us in our human nature today’s reading adds Christ’s similarity to us in the tests and trials that mark our human condition. He too was tested in every way. What are commonly called the “temptations” of Christ might more properly be translated the “testings” of Christ. These tests of Christ’s fidelity and obedience to his Father were not just the three described at the beginning of the Gospel, but also all the other trials he underwent in the course of his three years of ministry. He knew what it meant to encounter opposition and incomprehension (even from his disciples, as in today’s Gospel), mockery and slander (as when he ate and drank with sinners), injustice and violence (when he was arrested and convicted and executed). This is why our passage says that “he is not a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses”; to “sympathize” is to “suffer with,” to experience as one’s own the weakness or suffering of one whom one loves. St. Thomas Aquinas says that through such experiences Christ came to know by his own experience what as God he knew in the abstract.
It is, of course, the Gospels that show us how much Christ identified with us in our human weakness, in our inability to pass the tests life brings us. But right there, in this common experience of humanity, we find also Christ’s dissimilarity with us. In the passage we heard today, we find two of the apostles, James and John, asking for the most important places at Christ’s side when he begins to reign as Messiah. This becomes the occasion for Jesus to instruct the disciples again as to the nature of his own work and what it will mean for them to follow after him. They will have to drink the same bitter cup that he will drink, be “baptized,” that is, drowned in the same flood in which he will drown. When and where he reigns, those in authority must not lord it over others, but serve them. Things will be turned upside-down among his followers. And why? Once again it is because Jesus himself breaks with expectations: “the Son of man did not come to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for the many.”
Even as we recognize the dissimilarity in how Christ lived out his own mission, how it broke with what human beings would normally, almost naturally, do, we do not forget the lesson that it was precisely by paying the price for his dissimilarity with us that Christ learned to sympathize with us in our weakness, and that we are able, as our second reading says, “confidently to approach the throne of grace to receive mercy and to find grace for timely help.” Because of Christ we are able to approach God confidently–not in fear of his anger or rejection, but trustingly, knowing that our great high priest, the one who intercedes for us, knows what it means to be a human being, to be tested, to suffer. We Christians should keep this sentence constantly before us every time we start to pray: Because of Christ, we may approach God confidently in the knowledge, faith, and grounded hope that we will find mercy and grace with him. We end all our prayers, “Through Christ our Lord,” which should not be a phrase that we just toss off unthinkingly. We approach God through Christ our Lord, and we will find mercy in God because of what Christ has done, and because of what Christ is, our great high priest, the one who sympathizes with us.