WHEN THE ISRAELITES LEFT EGYPT under Moses, the Bible says that they “plundered the Egyptians” (Exodus 12:35), taking with them articles of silver and gold and precious fabrics. They also took with them something which would be at the center of their society for over one thousand years: the institution of a High Priest.
There were a number of gods revered in Egypt and each of them had a central sanctuary. Thebes, for example, was the center of the cult of Amun, the “king of gods.” The highest-ranking priest of Amun was called the High Priest. Several other prominent gods had similar sanctuaries and high priests.
The High Priest of Israel
During the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt Moses’ brother Aaron was chosen to be their first High Priest (see Exodus 28). The High Priest served, first, in the portable sanctuary which accompanied the Israelites in their travels. When Jerusalem became the center of Israel, its temple replaced the portable sanctuary. From then on, the High Priest was associated with the Jerusalem temple. When the Romans finally destroyed the temple in ad 70 and forbade the Jews from living around Jerusalem (ad 135), the office of High Priest ceased.
The most important role of the High Priest was to serve in the temple on the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur), the holiest day of the Jewish year. The High Priest first offered a bull in sacrifice for his own sins and those of his household. Then he entered the inner sanctuary of the temple alone. After offering incense, he sprinkled the blood of the sacrificed bull around the inner sanctuary. Then he would offer a goat to be sacrificed for the sins of the priests. Returning to the inner sanctuary, he would sprinkle it with the blood of the goat. In the Epistle to the Hebrews, Christ’s death would be both compared to and contrasted to this ritual.
Christ as High Priest
In this epistle, there are a number of times that Christ is compared to the High Priest of the Jewish temple. The first of these is that both are selected by God: “no one takes this honor to himself, but he who is called by God, just as Aaron was” (Hebrews 5:4). Two psalm verses are then cited as witnesses to Christ’s call, the first being Psalms 2:7 – “You are My Son, today I have begotten You.”
This verse does not seem to refer to priesthood until we recall that the Israelite high priesthood was held by the descendants of Aaron, passing from father to son. If Christ was to be considered High Priest, it was important to know who His Father was.
The second psalm verse cited in Hebrews is Psalms 110:4 – “You are a priest forever
according to the order of Melchizedek.” This verse refers to the priest-king of Salem who greeted Abram after his victory over the Elamites (Genesis 14). Later in the epistle, Melchizedek is described as “without father, without mother, without genealogy, having neither beginning of days nor end of life” (Hebrews 7:3), a very Semitic image of an unceasing priest and, therefore, “made like the Son of God.”
The epistle thus presents Christ as Son of God and eternal High Priest, without human genealogy or descendants. Yet, He is also described as a very human High Priest, one who can sympathize with our weaknesses because He “was in all points tempted as we are, yet without sin” (Hebrews 4:!5).
Priesthood and Sacrifice
A second point of comparison between the Lord Jesus and the High Priest of the Jewish temple is that both are appointed to offer sacrifices for sins. In the temple, sacrifices were offered each day, year after year, morning and evening, usually by the priests who were delegated to do so. Livestock, grain, meal, wine and incense were offered in sacrifice to God as qurban, or oblations.
The Epistle to the Hebrews contrasts the frequency of these oblations with the one sacrifice of Christ. While the temple oblations were offered daily, Christ offers but one sacrifice. He “who is holy, harmless, undefiled, separate from sinners, and has become higher than the heavens; who does not need daily, as those high priests, to offer up sacrifices, first for His own sins and then for the people’s, for this He did once for all when He offered up Himself” (Hebrews 7:26-28).
This contrast is also evidenced by what was sacrificed. It is “Not with the blood of goats and calves, but with His own blood [that] He entered the Most Holy Place once for all, having obtained eternal redemption” (Hebrews 9:12). Christ offered Himself, a gift of His whole being, sacrificed on the cross.
The Divine Liturgy and Christ’s Sacrifice
Many of the elements of sacrifice are found in our Divine Liturgy. As the bread – called the Lamb – is prepared, the priest recites these verses, which call to mind Christ’s sacrifice: “Like a sheep, He was led to the slaughter. Like a spotless lamb silent before its shearer, He opens not His mouth. ,,, The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world is immolated for the life and salvation of the world.”
St Nicholas Cabasilas describes this rite in his commentary on the Divine Liturgy: “Whatever was said and carried out on the Lamb to symbolize the Lord’s death, are simple descriptions and symbols. The Lamb remained bread, just that now it became a gift dedicated to God, and it symbolizes Christ’s body.”
The holy gifts do not remain a mere symbol, however. During the prayer called the Anaphora or Oblation, the priest retells the events of the Lord’s mystical supper, then, as the Gifts are raised up to God, he joins in offering the sacrifice of Christ to the Father, “Remembering, therefore, this precept of salvation … we offer You Your own, from what is Your own, in all and for the sake of all.”
Through this offering we are mystically united with the sacrifice offered by Christ on Calvary, and through the descent of the Holy Spirit we are joined to its eternal acceptance by God on our behalf. The first part of the sacrifice, the killing of the Victim, is past, because Christ died at a certain time and place. The second part, the offering to God, and the third part its acceptance by God, are accomplished in eternity, outside of human time. Because the Liturgy transcends time and space, we can be united to Christ in the Liturgy as He enters the heavenly sanctuary once, for all.
Hebrews summarizes its view of Christ as our eternal High Priest with this invitation to us to join in His sacrifice: “For if the blood of bulls and goats and the ashes of a heifer, sprinkling the unclean, sanctifies for the purifying of the flesh, how much more shall the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered Himself without spot to God, cleanse your conscience from dead works to serve the living God?” (Hebrews 9:13, 14)
Confusion about the nature of the Liturgy was common in the Middle Ages. Some, reading Hebrews’ description of Christ’s sacrifice as “once for all,” concluded that the Eucharist could not be another sacrifice. Western Catholics countered that the Mass was indeed a sacrifice, “For the victim is one and the same, the same now offering by the ministry of priests, who then offered Himself on the cross, the manner alone of offering being different” (Council of Trent). Sadly, this expression did not eliminate the objection that the Mass was another sacrifice, rather than our sharing in the one sacrifice presently being offered by Christ.