Yesterday I came across an article by Msgr. Charles Pope, who is a priest of the Archdiocese of Washington, DC. In it, he gives a summary of the Letter to the Hebrews, which we have been reading over the past week or so at Mass. The Letter to the Hebrews, as its name indicates, was addressed to Jewish converts to Christianity and was probably written around the year 60 A.D. We’re not sure who the author was, but many speculate it was St. Paul or someone close to him. Msgr. Pope explains that the community of Jewish Christians at the time of the letter were going through a particularly difficult time. Conflict between the Jewish people in Jerusalem and the Romans had increased immensely, and war was in the air. This conflict culminated with the eventual destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. For the Jewish people, it would be difficult to imagine a greater tragedy. That’s because the Temple was the house of the Lord and the center of worship. It was the only place in the world where the sacrifices prescribed by the Law could be offered to God. According to Msgr. Pope, the Letter to the Hebrews is thus addressed to an anxious community in the last years in which the Temple sacrifices were being offered. The Letter exhorts its audience to remember the unique significance of Christ’s sacrifice. While the sacrifices of the priests of the Temple had to be offered over and over, the sacrifice of Christ the High Priest, was offered for our sake once and for all. Thus, Msgr. Pope explains, the Temple sacrifices no longer held any significance. Their time had passed. They were just a shadow of and a preparation for the one sacrifice of Jesus offered for the reconciliation of God and humanity. The author of the Letter to the Hebrews wanted to remind the people of this truth so that they would not give into the temptation to be anxious about what the Romans would do to the people and their Temple. He reminds them of all the sacrifices they had made for the faith and all their sufferings for the sake of their love for Christ, and encourages them not to lose heart: “Do not throw away your confidence; it will have great recompense. You need endurance to do the will of God and receive what he has promised…. We are not among those who draw back and perish, but among those who have faith and will possess life” (Heb 10:35-36, 39).
It is important for us to hear these words from the Letter to the Hebrews, especially when we come to Mass. At the Mass the one, perfect sacrifice of Christ is made present again on the altar through the priest, and the faithful are able to unite themselves to His sacrifice. All of the cares and sorrows of our hearts, as well as the gratitude and joys of life, we bring with us to the Mass and make those part of what Jesus offers to the Father.
When Jesus speaks today in the gospel (Mk 4:26-34) of the Kingdom of Heaven, and how it is like a tiny mustard seed that grows into the largest of plants, that “puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the sky can dwell in its shade,” we are reminded of what the Church is. It is the Mystical Body of Christ, of which we are a part, and in which we seek refuge. We may be concerned about what is happening in the world and in the Church, perhaps with very good reason. But the Temple of Our Lord’s body will endure forever, and He loves His Bride, the Church with all His heart. As members of His Mystical Body, the Church, we must pray for endurance, faithfully entrusting ourselves to His care as a sacrificial offering united to His, which He lovingly accepts and makes perfect.