This blog contains a sermon written for Evensong on the 14th of January 2017, to accompany the reading from St Paul’s letter to the Hebrews, 6:17 – 7:10.
In the weeks preceding Christmas, we traditionally remember the different names for Jesus. Each different name calls to mind a different set of prophecies, and we understand a little more of his identity, and learn a little more about God’s purpose in the incarnation. And then Christmas passes, and we turn to Epiphany, and begin to think about the people to whom Jesus appears. We often talk about the representative role of the shepherds and magi, at this time of year, and use them to understand a little more about ourselves.
January is not always the easiest month. In the come-down after Christmas is over, we remember all the things left undone, all the goals for net year which are suddenly part of our present. Many people set goals and resolutions for the new year, and when we slip up, we are absorbed in self-criticism. In my head, January has always been the month when I get down to business: it’s the month I sent off my university applications, the month I started job hunting in earnest, the month I started exercising again after years of avoiding it! But as we reflect on where we are, at the start of this new year, it can also be an overwhelming time. A friend who is marrying in a few months met me for lunch a few days after Christmas, looking tired. All the wedding tasks that had been left until after Christmas were suddenly due. After the wonder and joy of celebrating the nativity, January can feel dark and empty.
As I wrote this, I wondered if, when we pack away our decorations and take down our Christmas cards, we also pack away the Christ we celebrate at Christmas. Advent draws us out of ourselves into the mystery of the incarnation. And as we seek to enter that mystery, we look at the many names by which we know God. Christ the King, Root of Jesse, Wonderful Councillor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace – and if you’re anything like me, you can hear that being sung as well! But when the carols fall quiet, the glory and splendour of God can feel like it has also fallen silent.
But here, in the letter to the Hebrews, is another name for Jesus: the High Priest, in the order of Melchizidek. And the more I think about that name, the more convinced I am that this name, this way of seeing Jesus, is a gift for those low times, for the seasons when the glory of God seems like a distant promise.
Melchizidek is interesting for a number of reasons, which the writer of Hebrews goes on to unpack over the next few chapters. But the one that interests me here is the duality of his role as King and High Priest. The two seem deeply connected; Melchizidek is King of Salem, which may or may not have become Jerusalem – scholars differ on this – but which means ‘peace’. His Kingship concerns peace and righteousness, the qualities of a servant of the Lord; his priesthood gives him the authority we would normally associate with a King. In one, he rules the secular world, with the authority given him by God; in another, he is entrusted with the spiritual welfare of the people. And so he gives us the key to Jesus’ role as High Priest: one who bridges the gap between the secular and spiritual, between Earth and Heaven.
The image of Jesus as High priest is encapsulated in the last words of chapter six. ‘We have this hope, a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul, a hope that enters the inner shrine behind the curtain, where Jesus, a forerunner on our behalf, has entered, having become a high priest forever according to the order of Melchizidek.’ So what is Jesus’ first action as High Priest? It is to tear the temple curtain, bringing down the divisions between the ordinary places in the temple, where ordinary people worshipped, and God’s holy place. But he does it in the way of the High Priest: with a blessing.
There’s a wonderful line in the film Chocolat, where the frustrated priest bursts out: ‘I don’t want to talk about His divinity. I’d rather talk about his humanity.’ But in Jesus the High Priest, we see God in motion between humanity and divinity. We’re pointed back to the God of glory in the inner sanctum, but also to the human Christ, weak and vulnerable, offering himself as the temple priest’s sacrifice. As I prepared this sermon, a friend pointed out to me that in this morning’s Gospel, Jesus tells Nathaniel that he ‘will see Heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man’. Jesus was invoking Jacob’s ladder, but in this image, he becomes the ladder, and through him the way is opened between Heaven and Earth.
The Aaronic High Priests were set apart from ordinary people. They would have been seen on festival days and holy days, and then packed away, like Christmas decorations. But Jesus is High Priest forever, and he makes us a priestly people. The way to God isn’t just for seasons of rejoicing, but for ordinary days, for the days when we feel left out in the temple courtyard. So remember this name for Jesus, and that in calling Jesus High Priest we have a constant hope in God, an anchor for the soul.