Dr. Andrew Minto, Professor of Scripture at Franciscan University, Steubenville, Ohio, has published Liturgy and Scripture: Catechism of the Catholic Church (Scholars' Press, 2020). The new textbook on the Scriptural references in the Catechism seeks to understand the teaching of the Catechism (CCC) in the voice of Scripture from which it draws. The book focuses on Part II, Section One on the Liturgy, "The Celebration of the Christian Mystery." The word "Liturgy" or "Leitourgos" appears in the Greek New Testament, such as Luke 1:23, Acts 13:2, Romans 15:16, Second Corinthians 9:12, Philippians 2:17, 2:25, and 2:30; as well as Hebrews 8:2 and 8:6, and is generally translated as "worship, service, or minister." The word "Liturgy" refers primarily to the celebration of divine worship, but also to the proclamation of the Gospel and to active charity.
Dr. Minto dedicated his book to his wife Pam; they were blessed with four children: Nathaniel, Caroline, Jonathan, and Michael.
For example, Paragraphs 1069 and 1070 of the Catechism read:
1069 The word "liturgy" originally meant a "public work" or a "service in the name of/on behalf of the people." In Christian tradition it means the participation of the People of God in "the work of God." Through the liturgy Christ, our redeemer and high priest, continues the work of our redemption in, with, and through his Church.
1070 In the New Testament the word "liturgy" refers not only to the celebration of divine worship but also to the proclamation of the Gospel and to active charity. In all of these situations it is a question of the service of God and neighbor. In a liturgical celebration the Church is servant in the image of her Lord, the one "leitourgos"; she shares in Christ's priesthood (worship), which is both prophetic (proclamation) and kingly (service of charity):
The liturgy then is rightly seen as an exercise of the priestly office of Jesus Christ. It involves the presentation of man's sanctification under the guise of signs perceptible by the senses and its accomplishment in ways appropriate to each of these signs. In it full public worship is performed by the Mystical Body of Jesus Christ, that is, by the Head and his members. From this it follows that every liturgical celebration, because it is an action of Christ the priest and of his Body which is the Church, is a sacred action surpassing all others. No other action of the Church can equal its efficacy by the same title and to the same degree.
The following selection from the new textbook discusses each reference on the above two paragraphs and includes an exegesis of the literal sense of the Scriptural passage as well as a Pastoral reflection from the Fathers of the Church. The following excerpt, reprinted by permission of the author, is from Chapter Two of his text, "The Celebration of the Christian Mystery: What does the word Liturgy mean?" The following Biblical references include three passages - Acts 13:1-3, Second Corinthians 9:10-15, and the Letter to the Hebrews 8:1-7.
"1 Now in the Church at Antioch there were prophets and teachers, Barnabas, Simeon who was called Niger,
Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen a member of the court of Herod the tetrarch, and Saul.
2 While they were worshipping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said,
'Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.'
3 Then after fasting and praying they laid their hands on them and sent them off."
Revised Standard Version
In the first twelve chapters of Acts our attention is preoccupied primarily with Peter. Saul is briefly introduced in Acts 8. He was involved in the stoning of Stephen and brutally persecuted believers in a messianic Jesus. His encounter with the risen Lord (8:1-3; 9:1-30) marks not only the dramatic change of mind that came upon Saul, introducing him to faith in Jesus, but also marks the shift in the narrative that focuses on his ministry. In Acts 13, Saul "who was also known as Paul" (13:9) becomes the lead character in the story that Luke tells in the remainder of the book (13:1 – 28:30). He is, among others, a prophet and teacher in the Church at Antioch (13:1).
Our key verse reads, "While they were worshipping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, 'Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work (Greek: ergon) to which I have called them'" (RSV; 13:2). This, then, is the event and the circumstances setting Paul’s first missionary journey (Acts 13:4 – 14:28) into motion. It indicates that the Church’s missionary activity emerges from and is supported by the faith community's mission to bring faith in and worship of Jesus to others. This action fulfills the Lukan commissioning statement that the risen Jesus articulates at the end of the gospel that "repentance and forgiveness of sins should be preached in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem" (RSV; Luke 24:45-48, esp. v. 47). Luke repeats the commissioning statement in the beginning of Acts, "You shall be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria and to the end of the earth" (RSV; 1:8; Cf - confer or compare Acts 9:15). Whereas Jesus' public ministry is centripetal, that is drawn toward a center, the city of destiny, Jerusalem, the mission of the apostles is generally centrifugal, compelled outward to the ends of the earth from Jerusalem. Paul witnesses to this tendency in his letter to the Romans, "From Jerusalem and as far round as Illyricum I have fully preached the gospel of Christ" (RSV: Romans 15:19). In Acts most of the journey accounts are both outward from Jerusalem, centrifugal, and drawn back again to the holy city, centripetal. The account provided in our passage is an exception since its beginning is in Antioch. However, the church at Antioch itself is the fruit of missionary outreach from the mother church in Jerusalem. Missions are as follows: Philip (Acts 8), Peter and John (Acts 8), Peter and some of the brethren (Acts 10), some unnamed persons (Acts 11), Barnabas (Acts 11), and Paul (Acts 13-28).
The "work" that Barnabas and Saul are to execute is that of the Holy Spirit, who works through them. We may apply the same principle to the Church as a whole. The Church’s role in proclaiming the Gospel and spreading the charity of Jesus, two of the marks of authentic liturgy, are internal as well as external initiatives. Internally, this activity nourishes the Church. When externally directed, these actions are meant to infuse the whole world through the work of the Holy Spirit and to fulfill Jesus' own mission and his commission of the disciples.
Luke's use of the noun "worshipping" (Greek: leitourgountōn), reflecting the LXX (Septuagint) usage (Cf. LXX Exodus 28:35, 43; 29:30; Numbers 18:2), favors the religious sense that we have discussed above with respect to the passages in John and Luke. The disciples are performing a religious service, although it is not a cultic service in the sense of offering sacrifice in a consecrated setting such as the Temple, as in the case of Zechariah. Their religious service involves offering prayer and worship to God. It is in this context that the prophetic gifts operate (Cf. First Corinthians 14:26-33) to designate Saul and Barnabas for missionary service (Acts 13:2).
They are commissioned by laying-on-of-hands. It is doubtful that Luke uses this language to indicate a rite of ordination in the strict sense. Some scholars have pointed out the similarity between this action and the commissioning of an emissary in the rabbinic tradition. It is most likely an expression of empowering and a form of commissioning in which the imparting of a blessing by the faith community is used (Cf. Acts 6:6; 8:17-19; 9:17). The action reinforces the community’s support of and vested interest in the evangelical mission as well as in Paul and Barnabas, two of its co-members. Only later in Christian tradition, perhaps as early as the document 1 Clement, about 98 AD, and probably by the date of the multiple letters of Ignatius of Antioch, about 115 AD, is the laying on of hands a symbol of ordination per se. Nevertheless, the symbolism does denote consecration, the setting apart and empowerment by the Holy Spirit to accomplish the mission of Jesus and these notions will eventually be concentrated in the ritual of ordination that will come later.
In summary, Luke’s use of the "liturgical" vocabulary emphasizes the notions of religious worship, the solidarity of the people of God as a whole, and its expression through those individuals set apart for specific evangelical missions or works, the latter denoting liturgy in works of charity through service to others. Insofar as the mission is called for by the Holy Spirit, the work of the community as a whole and Barnabas and Saul in particular is directed and empowered by the Holy Spirit's fulfillment of Jesus' continuing mission on earth. This portrayal of the Church is in keeping with the Pauline perspective that the Church is an evangelical sign to the world (Romans 1:8; 16:15-16; First Thessalonians 1:8).
In the pastoral reflection by St. John Chrysostom we find a portrayal of the minister of the Gospel as it is idealized in the apostles and other key Christian figures. As such Chrysostom's homily may be taken as a description of the kinds of virtues and traits that are endorsed by the Holy Spirit's discernment and consecration for mission that the early local churches came to associate with missionary service as narrated in our passage from Acts. Moreover, Chrysostom also describes the features of liturgy by virtue of such a portrait. Liturgy, a service toward God and one’s neighbor, is incarnated in the persons who attend to it rather than by mere signifying ritual alone. How each person incarnates and actualizes the ritualized meaning of divine worship is a matter of circumstance, vocation, and means. But as Chrysostom points out, these qualifications are never a reason not to practice the virtues.
John Chrysostom, Bishop of Constantinople
There is nothing colder than a Christian who does not seek to save others. You cannot plead poverty here; the widow putting in her two small coins will be your accuser. Peter said, “Silver and gold I have not” (Acts 3:6). Paul was so poor that he was often hungry and went without necessary food. You cannot plead humble birth, for they were humbly born, of humble stock. You cannot offer the excuse of lack of education, for they were uneducated. You cannot plead ill-health, for Timothy also had poor health, with frequent illnesses.
Each one can help his neighbor if only he is willing to do what is in his power. Look at the trees that do not bear fruit: have you not noticed how strong and fine they are, upstanding, smooth and tall? If we had a garden, we would much prefer trees with fruit – pomegranates and olives – to trees that are for pleasure, not for utility, and any utility these have is small.
Such are those men who think only of their own concerns. In fact, they are even worse: the trees are at least useful for building or protection, whereas the selfish are fit only for punishment. Such were those foolish virgins who were chaste, comely and self-controlled, but did nothing for anyone. So they are consumed in the fire. Such are those men who refused to give Christ food.
Notice that none of them is accused of personal sins. They are not accused of committing fornication or perjury or any such sin at all: only of not helping anybody else. The man who buried the talent was like this. His life was blameless, but he was of no service to others.
How can such a person be a Christian? Tell me, if yeast did not make the whole mass like itself, is it really yeast? Again, if perfume failed to pervade all around it with its fragrance, would we call it perfume?
Do not say: it is impossible for me to influence others. If you are a Christian, it is impossible for this not to happen. Things found in nature cannot be denied; so here, for it is a question of the nature of the Christian. It is easier for the sun not to give warmth or shine than for the Christian not to shed his light. It is easier for light to be darkness than for this to happen. If we have put our affairs in order, these things will certainly come to be, and will follow as a natural consequence. The light of a Christian cannot escape notice. So bright a lamp cannot be hidden. (Homily on the Acts of the Apostles; Homily 20, 4 PG 60, 162-164; Divine Office, Vol. 1, Common of Holy Men)
10 He who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will supply and multiply your resources
and increase the harvest of your righteousness.
11 You will be enriched in every way for great generosity, which through us will produce thanksgiving to God;
12 for the rendering of this service not only supplies the wants of the saints
but also overflows in many thanksgivings to God.
13 Under the test of this service, you will glorify God by your obedience
in acknowledging the Gospel of Christ, and by the generosity of your contribution for them and for all others;
14 while they long for you and pray for you, because of the surpassing grace of God in you.
15 Thanks be to God for his inexpressible gift!
Revised Standard Version
The historical circumstances that lie behind these words of Paul involve his recruitment of several of his communities, including those at Corinth, to contribute to a collection for the faithful suffering in Jerusalem. Hence, this passage echoes the situation depicted in Romans 15 above.
So prepared are the Corinthians to participate in the relief efforts that Paul boasts about them to the Macedonians (8:10-11). Paul refers to the Corinthian community by employing the provincial designation Achaia, of which Corinth was the capital (probably because of the provincial designation for the Macedonian community of local churches). Zealous in their initial response to the collection, the Corinthians were an example and occasion for Paul to boast to the Macedonians as they also prepared a similar collection (V. 2). The problem is that this initial zeal did not result in material realization. Hence, it becomes necessary for Paul to announce that he is sending a representative to Corinth to ensure the gift is collected and prepared for delivery (Vv. 3-5). Paul follows this announcement with an encouragement to trust in the bounty of God’s blessing and to give cheerfully and willingly (Vv. 6-11).
The generosity of the Corinthians will be outmatched by God's rich blessings in return as he supplies seed for sowing and ensures the abundance of the harvest (V. 11). But God’s blessings will extend far beyond material prosperity. Paul also has spiritual blessings in mind that contribute to our thinking about liturgy. The generous offering of the Corinthians will "produce thanksgiving (Greek: eucharistian) to God; for the rendering (Greek: diakonia) of this service (Greek: leitourgias) not only supplies the wants of the saints but also overflows in many thanksgivings to God" (RSV; vv. 11b-12). The vocabulary presents a redundancy through synonymous meanings that intensify Paul’s message.
Paul uses the noun "thanksgiving" (Greek: eucharistian) not in the sacramental sense (Eucharist) but in its common, literal meaning as it is a feature of prayer. The meaning of the noun diakonia is determined by how it is used in the sentence. The noun is concentrated in 2 Corinthians with a frequency (12 times) not found in other letters of the Pauline corpus. In most of its occurrences in this letter, the noun refers to the apostolic ministry or mission or its opposite (3:7, 8, 9; 4:1; 5:18; 6:3). In 8:4 and the three occurrences of the noun in chapter 9 (Vv. 1, 12-13), however, the noun refers to the material support supplied by Paul’s communities in behalf of the believers in Jerusalem. In Acts 6:1-7 a similar usage is found in the story of the seven charged with the "daily distribution (Greek: diakonia, v. 1) of food to the widows so that the Twelve may devote themselves to prayer and preaching the word and not "serve" (Greek: diakonein v. 2) tables.
In Second Corinthians 9:12 the Greek nouns diakonia and leitourgias are nearly synonymous. The Corinthians' "service" (Greek: diakonia) of material support is a "public service" (Greek: leitourgias). To avoid a redundancy, the RSV translates diakonia with the participle "rendering," which conveys the sense of the "administration" of the public service.
The Greek noun leitourgias used here does not reflect the cultic sense of priestly, ritual worship that we have seen in some other texts. Rather, its use in this passage is the same as that found in Classical Greek literature where it refers to an act of public service by a citizen for the common good. This meaning is reinforced by the phrase "supplies the wants of the saints." Yet there is a spiritual or liturgical result from this material action. The generosity of the Corinthians that provides material relief is a service that "overflows in many thanksgivings to God" by the beneficiaries of the gift and possibly by the gift givers themselves since Paul is silent with respect to who shall give thanks. Verse 13 makes the same claim but specifies the perspective of the Corinthians, the givers, instead of the recipients: "Under the test of this service (Greek: diakonias), you will glorify God by your obedience in acknowledging the Gospel of Christ, and by the generosity of your contribution for them and for all others" (RSV). Hence, Paul draws a direct connection between the act of charity and worship.
The point that Paul makes quite strongly in the real life situation of his communities is that liturgy is not a mere spiritual celebration between an individual believer and God. Rather, true liturgy must not only be vertically oriented, but horizontally oriented as well, reaching far beyond the moment of divine worship and outside of the local believing community. In an act of charity, the Corinthians' worship extends to those whom they do not personally know and to a place far removed from their own local situation and circumstances. The practice of divine charity through the works of mercy, especially the corporal but also the spiritual works of mercy, directs the act beyond the local Christian community. Charity is not reserved only for those of one’s local experience and circumstances. Rather, it extends outward to all and is thus aligned with the orientation of the mission of the Gospel itself.
As with Romans 15:27 that was treated above, the CCC's reference to this passage underscores the idea that acts of charity, solidarity with the poor, responsibility for the material needs of others, and the unity of the members of the Church are part and parcel of the believing community's spiritual worship. As the prophet Jeremiah might say (Jeremiah 7:1-15), worship without authentic justice and care for the poor is empty ritual and unacceptable to God (Cf. Psalm 50). This view is important in delineating the vertical and horizontal aspects of liturgy. Although the horizontal dimension may be inscribed in the ritual, symbolism, and demeanor of the liturgy, the vertical dimension retains an equal priority. Liturgy is about God, specifically by acknowledging what God has done in his Son Jesus through the Holy Spirit. In this sense, there is reserved for liturgical expression the heavenly gaze that takes the believing community beyond itself to the very presence of the inner mystery of God in the Trinity. The signs, symbols, and rituals of liturgy, which all may express its grandeur, glory, and splendor in the visible realm, nevertheless privilege the vertical dimension, the invisible and mystery of liturgy. This observation would seem to lead to the conclusion that the horizontal dimension of liturgy is not the focus. Liturgical expression is not a celebration of the fellowship and solidarity of the celebrants, nor of the koinōnia or community. Liturgy is not about the celebrants (Us). Rather, it remains focused on God. However, the mission of the Gospel, one of the three key features of authentic liturgy, propels the Church’s gaze and action outward, just as it is narratively demonstrated in Luke-Acts and in Paul’s letters. These passages from Romans and 2 Corinthians indicate that the horizontal dimension of liturgy demanded by the proclamation of the Gospel is accommodated by real acts of charity, caring for the poor and deprived, and attending to the responsibilities of solidarity instead of celebrating it. We might express this in words from James 2:16-17 that explains the relation between faith and charity: "If a brother or sister is ill-clad and in lack of daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, be warmed and filled,' without giving them the things needed for the body, what does it profit?" (RSV). Just as faith translates into charity according to the Epistle of James, when liturgy's goal is obtained, spiritual worship of God and sacrificial acts of charity towards those in need abound.
For Paul, the affirmation, validation, or edification of the community of believers is ensconced in his apostolic praise and encouragement as he boasts about and spreads the story of the Corinthian’s generosity to the Macedonians. These matters are not, however, the content of liturgical celebration. The utterances of thanksgiving are directed primarily toward God, not the Corinthians. What Paul envisions is a re-presentation of God's own generosity toward all humanity (And towards the cosmos according to Romans 8). The re-presentation centers not on the human expression itself, such as the means of the re-presentation, such as language, song, music, dance, or in this case the generosity of the Corinthians, but on what God has done that far surpasses what can be rearticulated, mimicked (As in the collection for the saints in need), and symbolized. It results in an outburst of thanksgiving to God, not a celebration of human accomplishment.
The reflection by St. Gregory underscores Paul's message of charitable giving as an expression of liturgy. The relation between the believer and material possessions parallels the relation between the believer and her or his orientation to God. This exhortation restates the dual dimensions of Christian existence, temporarily of this world, which is passing, but oriented in all things toward the world to come, toward the eternal. Temporal goods may and must be used to support one’s life while here, but they must not deter one from altering the fundamental goal of existence, which is communion with God. This ascetic detachment from worldly things is a fit description of Paul's exhortation to the Corinthians as they are expected to fulfill their "service" toward God and those in need.
Pope Gregory the Great
I would like to urge you to forsake everything, but that I do not presume to do. Yet, if you cannot give up everything of this world, at least keep what belongs to the world in such a way that you yourself are not kept prisoner by the world. Whatever you possess must not possess you; whatever you own must be under the power of your soul; for if your soul is overpowered by the love of this world’s goods, it will be totally at the mercy of its possessions.
In other words, we make use of temporal things, but our hearts are set on what is eternal. Temporal goods help us on our way, but our desire must be for those eternal realities which are our goal. We should give no more than a side glance at all that happens in the world, but the eyes of our soul are to be focused right ahead; for our whole attention must be fixed on those realities which constitute our goal.
Whatever is vicious must be utterly eradicated, wrenched away not merely from being put into act but even from being so much as thought of. No carnal pleasure, no worldly curiosity, no surge of ambition must keep us from the Lord’s Supper. But further, our minds should merely skirt even the good deeds we perform in this life; in this way, the physical things which give us pleasure will serve our bodily needs without hindering the soul’s progress. You see, my brothers, I dare not say to you, give up everything. Yet, if you will, you can give everything up even while keeping it, provided you handle temporal things in such a way that your whole mind is directed toward what is eternal. A man can use the world if he were not using it, if he makes all external needs minister to the support of his life without allowing them to dominate his soul. They remain external to him and under his control, serving him without halting the soul’s drive to higher things. For such men, everything in this world is there for their use, not to be desired. Nothing should interfere with your soul’s longing; no created pleasure in the world should ensnare you.
If the object of love is what is good, then the soul should take its delight in the higher good, the things of heaven. If the object of fear is what is evil, then we should keep before ourselves the things that are eternally evil. In this way, if the soul sees that we should have a greater love and a greater fear about what concerns the next life, it will never cling to this life.
To help us to achieve all this we have the help of the mediator between God and man. Through him we shall obtain this the more quickly, the more we burn with a great love for him, who lives and reigns with the Father and the Holy Spirit, for ever and ever, Amen. (Book 2; Homily on the Gospels 36, 11-13 PL 76, 1272-1274; Divine Office, Vol. 1, Common for Religious).
"1 Now the point in what we are saying is this: we have such a High Priest,
one who is seated at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in heaven,
2 a minister in the sanctuary and the true tent which is set up not by man but by the Lord.
3 For every high priest is appointed to offer gifts and sacrifices;
hence it is necessary for this priest also to have something to offer.
4 Now if he were on earth, he would not be a priest at all,
since there are priests who offer gifts according to the Law.
5 They serve a copy and shadow of the heavenly sanctuary;
for when Moses was about to erect the tent, he was instructed by God, saying,
'See that you make everything according to the pattern which was shown you on the mountain.'
6 But as it is, Christ has obtained a ministry which is as much more excellent than the old
as the covenant he mediates is better, since it is enacted on better promises.
7 For if that first covenant had been faultless, there would have been no occasion for a second."
Revised Standard Version
This passage in Hebrews offers a fitting conclusion to our reflection on the liturgical vocabulary for it brings us back to consider the unique liturgical role of Christ. What is portrayed by Zechariah, fulfilling his priestly duty as he ministers in the Temple, is now attributed to Christ, although Christ’s place of ministry is heavenly. Paul presents himself as a minister in his apostolic work. From Luke and Paul to Hebrews, therefore, we complete our examination of the earthly and the heavenly, the visible and the invisible, the human and the divine aspects of liturgy.
The CCC draws our attention to Christ the sole liturgist: "In a liturgical celebration the Church is servant in the image of her Lord, the one, "leitourgos." The Church shares in Christ’s priesthood, which is both prophetic by the act of proclamation and royal by the service of charity ( CCC § 1070). Hence, it is in Hebrews 8:2 that Christ is referred to as a "leitourgos" or "minister" whereas in 8:6 he is said to have a "ministry" (Greek: leitourgias), thus the language forms an inclusio, that frames our passage in 8:1-7.
Because this vocabulary is employed with other language that offers important cultic images and symbols, it will be helpful to consider each verse in which it is used. The respective verses quoted in their complete form are as follows. Verse 2 reads, "A minister (Greek: leitourgos) in the sanctuary and the true tent which is set up not by human hands but by the Lord." Verse 6 reads, "But as it is, Christ has obtained a ministry (Greek: leitourgias) which is as much more excellent than the old as the covenant he mediates is better, since it is enacted on better promises." The basic thrust of these two verses is exaltation, leading the gaze heavenward. Christ is an exalted liturgist or minister and serves as such in an exalted, heavenly sanctuary to mediate a greater covenant. The cultic language that occurs in these verses – references to the sanctuary and the true tent – embellishes the priestly overtones Christ's ministry as the sole liturgist. Such is reinforced by the title "High Priest" attributed to Christ in 8:1 (Cf. - confer or compare 4:14 – 5:10; 9:21; 10:11). Before we examine the particular features of this passage, let us look at the surrounding text that will help put these words and phrases into their proper context.
The Letter begins with an introduction of the incomparable Son, the heir of all things who reflects God’s glory and shares God’s very nature (1:2-3). Although Christ is superior to the angels (1:5-14), he is in solidarity with humanity, sharing humanity’s flesh and blood, even sharing in humanity’s suffering (2:5-18). It is in his humanity, particularly through his suffering, that Christ became "a merciful and faithful high Priest in the service of God, to make expiation for the sins of the people" (RSV; 2:17; Cf. 3:1). From 4:14 to 6:20 the ministry of Christ the high priest is drawn out and developed as an exhortation and source of encouragement to the audience. They are told to hold fast the faith that they have confessed.
Christ is qualified to be a high priest since he is both appointed by God and in solidarity with the people (Hebrews 5:1-10). Christ’s priesthood is aligned with that of Melchizedek (5:6, 10), which makes his priestly service greater than that of Levi (7:1-28). This portrayal comes to a climax in 8:1: "Now the point in what we are saying is this: we have such a High Priest, one who is seated at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in heaven" (RSV). This point in the letter marks a turn toward the Christological heart of the argument. The advent of the Son marks the passing of the old ministers and ministry and the emergence of the new priesthood and sacrificial offering, which in turn signals the ushering in of a new covenant.
In Hebrews 8:1-7 Christ’s priestly ministry is decidedly heavenly in setting, whereas in the preceding chapters of the letter we encounter a bi-dimensional view of this priesthood. Upon the first mention of Christ's priesthood in 2:17, the context offers us a view from below since Christ is presented as sharing in flesh and blood, partaking in the same nature of humanity that he might destroy death. It is precisely because he is human that he can die, and it is because he can die that he is able to destroy death. This view from below is also taken in 5:7-10, which describes Christ's high priestly service in terms of offering "prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears" (5:7), an allusion to the Gethsemane tradition in the Synoptic Gospels.
The picture of Christ's priesthood from above is introduced in 4:14: "Since we have a great High Priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God." This heavenly vision is reinforced by appealing to Christ's pedigree of Melchizedek introduced in 5:6, 10; 6:20 and explained in 7:1-28. This priestly pedigree is necessary for two reasons. First, since the Messiah is anticipated from a Davidic lineage, thus excluded from a priestly line of descent, an argument to establish his priestly pedigree is needed, one historically already associated with David in the Psalms (Psalms 2 and 110 employed in Hebrews 5:6, 10). However, although these traditions in the Psalms celebrate the connection between the Davidic dynasty and Melchizedek, there are only two narrative accounts of David making offerings and sacrifice to God but they are not within a cult setting such as the Temple or one of the high altars of the tribes of Israel. The first is on the occasion of the return of the ark of God (2 Samuel 6, esp. v. 13) after its capture by the Philistines (1 Samuel 4). The sacrificial action takes place along the route and not in a consecrated cultic setting. The second occasion takes place when David makes amends for having offended God by taking a census of the people whereupon the prophet Gad instructs him from God to acquire the threshing floor of Araunah the Jebusite to make sacrifice and offerings (2 Samuel 24:18-25) to atone for the offense. Again, the action is cultic but the setting is not. These decidedly non-cultic settings sharply restrict in what sense David was viewed as a cultic leader, much less a high priest. David does not usurp the established priesthood in favor of his own cultic actions of worship. Nor does he impose himself into decidedly priestly territory such as a sanctuary.
The second reason for the connection to Melchizedek is to explain how Christ's priesthood is greater than that of Levi. If Abraham, in whose loins Levi abides, offered sacrifice to God through Melchizedek, then Levi also was subordinate to a greater priest and priesthood than his own (Hebrews 7:1-17). The appeal to Melchizedek, a retelling of Genesis 14:17-20, satisfies both of requirements of a priestly pedigree that was associated with David and how the priesthood of Christ is greater than that of Levi. There is another benefit to employing the tradition of Melchizedek that intensifies the notion of exaltation of the high priestly identity of Christ in Hebrews, his identity as Son of God.
By the time of Hebrews' writing, the story of Melchizedek, related in several traditions, had already collected an aura of mystery regarding the origins of this famous priest-king. Melchizedek, the first priest mentioned in the Torah, is, according to Hebrews, "without father or mother or genealogy, and has neither beginning of days nor end of life, but resembling the Son of God he continues a priest forever" (RSV; 7:3). As such he was a Son of God, a title associated with David also by virtue of royal adoption. This allows for the conclusion that Jesus not only descends from a heavenly priesthood, he too is "exalted above the heavens" (7:26).
In Hebrews 8:1 the picture from above continues: "we have such a High Priest, one who is seated at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in heaven" (Cf. 12:2). This establishes the heavenly setting of Jesus' action. The language ("sitting" and "right hand") communicates images of authority and power (Cf. 10:12), attributes usually associated with Yahweh in the OT (Cf. Isaiah 6:1-9). The imagery is fairly well established in Synoptic literature by Jesus' declaration of his heavenly exaltation in vindication of himself, his ministry, and in view of his impending death (Matthew 26:64; Mark 14:62, 22:69). In Pauline literature, the image occurs in Colossians 3:1 as an indication of Christ's final repose as well as the Christian's destiny. As one would expect, the imagery is concentrated in the Book of Revelation bearing the same notions of exaltation and power, however, the imagery is used to describe God, Christ, the twenty four elders, and those deputed to pass final judgment (Revelation 4:2, 4, 9, 10; 5:1, 7; 6:16; [14:14?]; 19:4; 20:4).
The notion of exaltation is intensified by the phrase "Majesty in heaven," which is a euphemism for God (Cf. "Majesty on high" in 1:3). The setting, then, is the divine presence, which is clarified figuratively in v. 2. The phrase "in the sanctuary and the true tent" is best taken as synonymous. But how are we to understand this "sanctuary and the true tent" (See "the greater and more perfect tent" in 9:11)? It seems best to conclude that the language refers to Christ’s resurrected, glorious body. He is the locus of divine worship that unites God and humanity in himself, particularly in his resurrection.
The divine, heavenly nature of the setting is qualified further by other references in the text. The tent is not pitched by man but by the Lord. The heavenly setting of Christ's priestly ministry is implied also in verse 8:4: "Now if he were on earth…." The superiority of Christ’s ministry is also seen in the comparison between the earthly and heavenly setting of liturgical ministry since the earthly priests offer gifts according to the Law that serve "a copy and shadow of the heavenly sanctuary" (Vv. 4-5; Cf. 9:1-28; esp. v. 24), whereas Christ's priestly ministry spans the earthly and heavenly settings.
Although this passage clearly contrasts the difference in setting between the old and the new sanctuary, the heavenly and the earthly, the context of Hebrews indicates that Christ operates on both levels. Hence, it is a matter of focus and emphasis. Christ the eternal Son brings the divine nature into the earthly sphere and unites it with humanity. Conversely, sharing completely in humanity, he brings that share in flesh and blood into the heavenly realm to complete his high priestly ministry. In Christ we see the perfect unity of liturgical service that we have traced throughout our survey of the biblical vocabulary. In his person and his work he unites the earthly and heavenly dimensions of divine worship.
Hebrews 8:6 states that Christ's ministry is not only distinct by virtue of its heavenly setting, his high priestly office, and his divine status, but also by virtue of its foundational promises. He mediates a better covenant by his ministry, a covenant "enacted on better promises." The two additional motifs mentioned here help to flesh out the notion of Christ's divine worship. First, it describes Christ as a mediator (Greek: mesitēs, Cf. Hebrews 9:15; 12:24; 1 Timothy 2:5; and the verb mesiteuō in Hebrews 6:17), a term that generally referred to a "go-between" two parties. Clearly Hebrews uses the terminology as a covenantal concept. Yet the way the term is employed in this verse also suggests something of the mediating role of Christ's cultic, heavenly ministry. This has been indicated explicitly in 7:25: "Consequently he is able for all time to save those who draw near to God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them" (RSV; Cf. 4:14-16; 10:19-22).
The second motif introduced to the discussion is that of the better promises of God that underwrite the new covenant. The promises of God and God's faithfulness are mentioned as underwriting the relationship with Abraham (6:13-15). In the argument in Hebrews 8, the promises of God refer specifically to the prophecy of the new covenant in Jeremiah 31:31-34 quoted in vv. 8-12. As Hebrews 8:7 states the logic, if the first covenant had been faultless, there would have been no need for a second. The fault lies not with the covenant itself but with the people as verse 8 indicates: "For he finds fault with them when he says…." The new covenant announced by Jeremiah and appropriated in Hebrews indicates the superiority of its promises since it will deal with the inherent fault of the people. Moreover, if God's faithfulness and promises were shown to be sure in the days of the covenant with Moses, how much more so are the promises of the new covenant. On the basis of the promises of God, the new priesthood, and the new, priestly ministry instituted by Christ that encompasses the earthly and heavenly domains, the congregation is encouraged to hold fast the "confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful" (10:23; Cf. 4:14-16).
And what is the substance of this "ministry" (Greek: leitourgias)? Of what does it consist? Again, the context fills in the blanks. He took on flesh and blood, our human nature, that through death he might destroy the devil, him who has the power of death, and deliver those subject to bondage through the fear of death (2:14-15). His service to God is an expiation for the sins of the people (2:17; cf. Romans 3:25). Suffering and being tempted, he is able to help those who are tempted (2:18, Cf. 4:15; 5:7-9). Although he is a high priest, he offers himself as a sacrificial victim (7:27), thus fulfilling a double role that far outstrips the work of any previous high priest. What he offers is his own blood through the eternal Spirit (9:14; Cf. Romans 3:25). He enters heaven itself to offer himself as a sacrifice for sin (9:25,26, Cf. 10:5,10).
These passages from Hebrews draw upon the symbolic world described by Leviticus 16 (Cf. Exodus 30:10), which narrates the Yom Kippur or Day of Atonement sacrifice for the sins (Note the plural) of Israel. The sacrifice is made annually on a solemn holy day. There is also the sin-offering that an individual might offer through a priest for a single sin committed (See also Exodus 29:14, 26 for the consecration of priests; and Leviticus 5:6-12 for an individual). These verses express Christ as the one leitourgos, the solitary high priest, who alone enacts the one authentic liturgy (Greek: leitourgias) of divine worship, just as we find in the Yom Kippur sacrifice in Leviticus 16. As "our great High Priest," who occupies both a prophetic office through proclamation and royal office through the service of charity), the whole Church too is elevated to participate likewise. Like the letter to the Ephesians, liturgy is placed within a cosmic outlook, joining the heavenly and earthly realms in Christ and His sacrificial death. Unique to Hebrews is the covenantal motif, which is added to the other cultic attributes of liturgy.
Liturgy is a celebration of the covenant communion between God and his people, the Church.
What we encountered as implied in the ministry of Zechariah in Luke, reflected upon by Paul as he comes to grip with the impact of his own apostolic work in Romans, Second Corinthians and Philippians, and articulated by Jesus himself in his prayer that concludes the final discourse in John is confirmed by theological argumentation in Hebrews. From beginning to end, Jesus is the sole liturgist, the minister of God's plan of salvation, who in his exaltation in death and resurrection elevates the Church also to participate in the liturgy of God. When read with the whole canon of the bible, these passages underscore the decidedly multi-dimensional (earthly-heavenly and human-divine), religious , priestly, cultic, and salvation historical foundation of liturgy.
St. Fulgentius' reflection leads us to contemplate the instrumentality of Christ’s priestly ministry, which our liturgical expressions and prayerful attitudes both tap into and represent. Although our prayer is addressed to God, it is mediated by Christ. His priesthood is located specifically in his incarnation, thus making his public ministry, passion, death and resurrection the nexus of all Christian prayer and liturgy. In Christ we also find the key attitudes to acceptable priestly ministry; humility and obedience.
Fulgentius, Bishop of Ruspe, North Africa
Notice, at the conclusion of our prayer we never say, "through the Holy Spirit," but rather, "through Jesus Christ, your Son, our Lord." Through the mystery of the Incarnation, Jesus Christ "became man, the mediator of God and man" (1 Timothy 2:5). "He is a priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek," (Psalm 110:4; Hebrews 5:6; Cf. Hebrews 5:10; 6:20; 7:17). "By shedding his own blood he entered once and for all into the Holy Places. He did not enter a place made by human hands, a mere type of the true one" (a composite quotation taken from Hebrews 9:11-12, 24), but he entered into heaven itself, where he is at God’s right hand (Cf. Hebrews 4:14; 8:1; 9:20; Colossians 3:1-3) interceding for us. Quite correctly, the Church continues to reflect this mystery in her prayer.
This mystery of Jesus Christ the high priest is reflected in the Apostle Paul's statement, "Through him, then let us always offer the sacrifice of praise to God, the fruit of lips that profess belief in his name" (Hebrews 13:15). We were once enemies of the Father, but have been reconciled through the death of Christ. Through him then we offer our sacrifice of praise, our prayer to God. He became our offering to the Father, and through him our offering is now acceptable. It is for this reason that Peter the Apostle urges us to "be built up as living stones into a spiritual house, a holy priesthood to offer spiritual sacrifices pleasing to God through Jesus Christ" (1 Peter 2:5). This then is the reason why we offer prayer to God our Father, but through Jesus Christ our Lord.
When we speak of Christ's priesthood, what else do we mean than the Incarnation? Through this mystery, the Son of God, "though his state was divine … emptied himself to assume the condition of a slave" (Philippians 2:6-7). As a slave, "he humbled himself and in obedience he even accepted death" (Philippians 2:8). Even though he possessed equality with the Father, "he became a little less than the angels" (Psalms 8:5, 6; Hebrews 2:7). Always equal to the Father, the Son became a little less because he became a man. Christ lowered himself "when he emptied himself to assume the condition of a slave" (Philippians 2:7).
By this condition, Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, though himself ever remaining God, became a priest. To him along with the Father, we offer our sacrifice. Yet, through him the sacrifice we now offer is holy, living and pleasing to God. Indeed, if Christ had not sacrificed himself for us, we could not offer any sacrifice. For it is in him that our human nature becomes a redemptive offering. When we offer our prayers through him, our priest, we confess that Christ truly possesses the flesh of our race. Clearly the apostle refers to this when he says, "Every high priest is taken from among men. He is appointed to act on behalf of these same men in their relationship to God; he is to offer gifts and sacrifices to God [for sins]" (Hebrews 5:1).
We do not, however, only say "your Son" when we conclude our prayer. We also say, "who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit." In this way we commemorate the natural unity of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. It is clear, then that the Christ who exercises a priestly role on our behalf is the same Christ who enjoys a natural unity and equality with the Father and the Holy Spirit (Letter, Epistles 14, 3637; CCL 91, 429-431; Divine Office, Vol. 3, Thursday, Second Week of Ordinary Time).