This is a Greek Orthodox icon of ‘Jesus Christ the High Priest’. If you joined our worship this morning live-streamed from our church you would have noticed that it was not a Mass, but the Office of Readings and Morning Prayer – this is because today, Maundy (or Holy) Thursday, Mass is only celebrated, even in these strange times, this evening (and I will put up a post about this later today).
In the Church’s ‘Divine Office’ recited every day by clergy, Religious and many laypeople, we have been reading from the Letter to the Hebrews since the beginning of the fifth week of Lent. Today’s reading, from chapters 4 and 5, portrays Jesus as ‘the supreme high priest who has gone through to the highest heaven’. Alongside our image this week, reiterated for the last few weeks of Lent by devotions such as Stations of the Cross, of Jesus suffering through his arrest, torture, carrying his cross and crucifixion, the Church puts before us a very different picture of a priest, fulfilling in his sacrifice the traditional sacrifices of the Temple in Jerusalem (which had probably just been destroyed by the Romans when the letter to the Hebrews was written). This is to some extent a glorious image; and part of the theology of this week, made evident particularly in the way the gospel of John describes the Lord’s Passion (which we always hear tomorrow, Good Friday) is of the Cross as a triumph, a great victory.
If you joined in the live-stream this morning you also heard a non-biblical reading after the Hebrews extract, part of a homily by an early Church bishop and theologian, Melito of Sardis. This takes the Jewish sacrificial motif further, identifying (like St Paul) Jesus with the lamb sacrificed on the feast of Passover. Just as the Passover feast (which for Jews this year coincides with the western Holy Week and Easter) is linked to the liberation of the people of Israel from slavery in Egypt, so Melito sees Jesus in his sacrifice on the Cross as the source of our liberation: ‘He has brought us from slavery to freedom, from darkness to light, from death to life, from tyranny to an eternal freedom.’
This language of liberation may seem rather difficult for us this Holy Week, when most of us (and an increasing number of people all over the world) are somewhat lacking in personal freedoms such as the ability to go out to where we please with others. Liberation from lockdown and self-isolation, and all that goes with it, might seem a long way off: in this country the Triduum is probably coinciding with a continuing increase in daily death from the virus. But the triumphant sacrifice which we mark this week, which we seek to enter into even though most of us can’t physically join in Church’s liturgies, is still the source for true liberation for us, perhaps in new ways.
May God bless you in the sacred Triduum which are about to begin, and take care.