Fourth Sunday of Advent – December 23, 1973 – St. Anthony’s Nanuet – 10th Anniversary
The readings today prepare for our celebration of Christmas, the Gospel with the account of the Visitation, the Old Testament reading with its prophecy of Bethlehem, and the reading from Hebrews with its interpretation of Jesus’ whole life as the offering of the one great sacrifice which God desired. There’s a happy coincidence in this reading’s appearance today, and I’d like to make a few comments about it.
This section of the Letter to the Hebrews is part of a consistent argument in which the author contrasts the new covenant with the old, especially with regard to worship. A new Temple replaces the old; there is a new priesthood, too, and here in our text, a new sacrifice as well. True worship of God is not to be found in the offering of the sacrifices and holocausts of the Hebrew worship, exterior rites which could not effect inner cleansing. Something more was needed; and the author finds it predicted in the words of the Psalm: “Sacrifice and offering you did not desire, but a body you have prepared for me…. I have come to do your will, 0 God.”
These are the words by which Jesus’ whole life is to be understood. That life was a priesthood and its office was sacrifice, not, however, the sacrifice of something else, rather the sacrifice of the “body” God had prepared for him. This was a new interpretation of Jesus’ ministry: now his teaching and his deeds, his suffering and death, his resurrection and glorification, are given a cultic interpretation: he is a priest and his life is a sacrifice.
What is really going on here is a new interpretation of both priesthood and sacrifice. They are taken out of the Temple and brought out into the world. Sacrifice was not something Christ did in a building, with the dead bodies of animals. Sacrifice was what Christ was about in his life, his daily life, and especially in the surrender of his life: it was something he did with his own will, and “by this ‘will’ we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.”
The whole Church–all of us–are the first and central recipients of that blessing, and we are to be its first imitators. Although we gather again in a sacred building, around a physical altar, where a priest ministers, we are here for no other purpose than to hear the word about Christ’s sacrifice in his life and to join ourselves to it in the faith and love that define our Christian being. That is not something merely for a sacred time and a sacred place. That, too, is a matter of our decisions, of our “wills,” and the sacrifice which God especially expects of us is the offering of ourselves when we leave here: the surrender of ourselves in love and service of one another. As the essence of Christ’s sacrifice was his reconciliation of mankind to God, so the central meaning of our common priesthood and sacrifice must be the reconciliation of man with man and of nation with nation, even through the surrender of ourselves for that purpose. Then the Church will be a priesthood and sacrifice after the model of Christ himself.
As for the priest who ministers to the Church around this altar, he is to be considered at the service of your priesthood and sacrifice, trying, in spite of his own ignorance and sin to keep alive the memory of Christ’s life, death and resurrection, trying to help gather Christ’s Church together, focusing in the eucharist the many and diverse ways in which we all offer the sacrifice of our single lives to God. He is not supposed to stand separate from you all. In fact, he does not. What he preaches is your faith; what he exhorts you to is the love which God has already poured into your hearts; he receives from the Church as much and more than he ever gives you. If we are to celebrate this day, then, celebrate the priesthood and sacrifice of Jesus himself, celebrate the victory of his grace in our lives individually and as the Church, celebrate the great mercy by which he has brought us into this fellowship in the Holy Spirit–and then pray that the Church ever be, through God’s power and the word and work of her ministers, a people faithful to the Lord, ever ready to say herself, “I come to do your will, O God.”