Readings: 1 Kings 17:10-16; Psalm 146; Hebrews 9:24-28; Mark 12:38-44
In the Christian religion there is really only one priest, Jesus Christ, the 'ideal high priest'. This is the clear message of the Letter to the Hebrews which we have been reading at Sunday Mass over the past few weeks. It is a letter addressed, precisely, to Hebrews and so it argues from the Jewish traditions of priestly sacrifices and offerings. Many books of the Old Testament bear witness to the existence and practices of the priesthood among the people of Israel. For those who came to believe in Christ these earlier customs and practices were signs of what was to come. Their meaning and purpose were fulfilled in the sacrifice and priesthood of Christ.
The letter argues, on the basis of the Hebrew scriptures themselves, that the first covenant is fulfilled in a new one, that the old sacrifices are fulfilled in a new sacrifice, that the old temple is replaced by a new one, and that the old priesthood - that of the family of Levi - is replaced by a new priesthood. As Paul appeals beyond Moses to the promise to Abraham, the author of Hebrews appeals beyond the Levitical priesthood to that of Melchizedek, priest-king of Salem. Jesus is not a levitical priest, then, his priesthood is of another order.
In this fulfillment of the Jewish religion, there is only one priest who offers a single sacrifice once and for all. There are a number of factors which place Jesus Christ above any other kind of priest.
Firstly, Jesus lives for ever. The priests of the Old Testament all came from the same family. As one generation died, it was replaced by another. But Christ, our high priest, lives for ever (Hebrews 7:24).
Secondly, the Old Testament priest offered daily sacrifices of bulls and goats to take away sins, both his own and those of others. Christ the high priest offers his sacrifice once, and for all (Hebrews 7:27).
Thirdly, while the Old Testament priests offered animals and incense and the first fruits of the earth, Jesus Christ has offered himself. It means that the New Covenant, the new promise of God, is sealed in nothing less than his own blood. The law of this new covenant is therefore the law of love, the first and the greatest of the commandments, fulfilled in the love and obedience of the Son who is the perfect image of the Father (Hebrews 1:2-3; 7:12,27; 9:11-14). The widow mentioned in today's gospel is thus a type of Christ: he is the one who has 'put in all he has, his whole livelihood'. This gives him, Hebrews says, a power to save which is utterly certain.
Fourthly, the Old Testament priests were themselves weak and sinful men, mediators of the tradition which had come down from Moses. Christ is the high priest, the one and only true mediator, because he is the Son of God who has been made perfect through suffering. He is 'ideal' for us because, sharing the same flesh and blood as we do, he is without sin (Hebrews 2:10,18; 4:15; 5:8).
Finally, he intercedes for us, not in a temple made of wood and stone, but in the true sanctuary, in the presence of the Heavenly Father, in that spiritual realm where all who believe and hope and love are already present with God and the angels (Hebrews 8:1-2; 12:22-24).
Jesus Christ has thus founded a new religion. Its law is love, its covenant is in the hearts of men and women, its sacrifice is the sacrifice of self so that others might live. All who belong to Christ share in his priesthood. Baptism makes each person a member of the holy nation, God's own people, gathered in worship. We are 'christened' or 'christed', his images in the world. Within this holy nation there are those who serve its needs: the deacons, the presbyters (whom we call 'priests'), and the bishops.
The passage from the Letter to the Hebrews read at Mass today summarises many of these themes. It speaks also of Christ returning not to judge sins a second time - his death on the cross is the judgement of this world - but to bring salvation to all who eagerly await him. As the same letter says elsewhere, 'let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need' (Hebrews 4:16).