[Homily. Live-Streamed Mass, First Friday, Feb. 5, 2021. Based on the Letter to the Hebrews.]
Once again, on this First Friday, we come together to renew ourselves in our devotion to the Sacred Heart. This may really mean, we come together to renew ourselves in appreciating God’s love for us that we experience in Jesus Christ.
Again today we listen to God’s Word in the Letter to the Hebrews. We have been hearing excerpts from this book, which reads like a magnificently written homily, since January 11. Today is the 20th time we read from it in our daily Masses; and for this year, tomorrow will be the last time. It is an invitation for you to take up the Letter to the Hebrews and read it from beginning to end.
On this First Friday, I believe we can say the entire message of this book renews us in our appreciation of God’s love. For God is love. The central concern in Hebrews is the addressed Christians, most probably converted Jews, who had heard the message of salvation in Jesus Christ, embraced the faith, but who were flagging in their faith. They were growing cold in their faith, like many of us who in our younger years were inspired by the devotion to the Sacred Heart, but have over time grown lukewarm in this devotion. It may even be more serious: like some of us who were once ardent believers in God or in Jesus, but whose ardor has cooled and turned into distanced indifference, if not hostility, to our faith.
The letter to the Hebrews concerns itself primarily with such Christians. They are not persecuted Christians, threatened externally by death or imprisonment, as many Christians in the early Church were. They are rather Christians threatened interiorly, imprisoned by their own sense of self-sufficiency, blinded in pride, and dying in their self-justifying rationalizations and cynicism. It is to this Christian that Hebrews addresses itself. More precisely, in Hebrews, it is to this Christian that God wishes to talk.
To you, Hebrews says, God spoke to you in times past through prophets, through created messengers who were angels or men. More recently, God is speaking to you in Jesus Christ. If you pause and truly grasp that, you grasp the substance of the letter to the Hebrews. In language that was meaningful to the Jews and to Christians converted from Judaism, Hebrews further explains: in times past there were priests who would offer sacrifices of the flesh and blood of animals to atone for your sins. But clearly these sacrifices of atonement failed to atone fully for your sins, since year after year you offer the same sacrifices for the same sins.
To you, however, in your flagging faith, he speaks. You should not be wavering in your faith. God speaks to you in Jesus Christ, his Word of Compassion, his Word of Love, the full reflection of the Father’s glory, the full expression of the Father’s love, who is the High Priest sui generis, that is, of the order of Melchisedek. For you and for your purification from your sins, this High Priest offers his own Body and his own Blood; having offered his Body and Blood for you on the Cross, he took his seat at the right hand of the Majesty on high in the Heavenly Sanctuary. There his Sacrifice, offered once and for all time, is offered beyond time eternally in the Heavenly Sanctuary by the High Priest for you. Through this Sacrifice a new covenant is established. “I will put my laws in their hearts,” God says, “I will write them upon their minds.” Is that not God’s Law of Love to be written in our hearts and minds? In this love he says, “Their sins and their evildoing I will remember no more” (Heb. 10:16-17).
Because of this Word spoken to you, because of this High Priest offering His Sacrifice in the Heavenly Sanctuary eternally, because of this New Covenant, because in him your sins are forgiven, the urgent message of loving concern in Hebrews is: do not grow cold in your faith, persevere in your faith, do not waver. “Let us approach [the Heavenly Sanctuary] with a clean heart and in absolute trust…” (Heb. 10:22). Let us through our baptism participate even while here on earth in the Eternal Sacrifice, the Mass, which spans the travails of earth and with the glories of heaven, the earthiness of man with the sanctity of God, the groanings of humanity with the benevolence of God, the yearnings of man’s loving with the absolute Love of God. and allow the High Priest to lead us in pilgrimage through the veil of death to the Heavenly Sanctuary. “Let us hold unwaveringly in our confession which gives us hope, for he [Jesus] who made the promise is trustworthy” (Heb. 10:23). Let us not lose faith. For with loss of faith is sin. With sin, we reject the only source of forgiveness:
“If we sin deliberately after receiving knowledge of truth, there no longer remains sacrifice for sins but a fearful prospect of judgement… Anyone who rejects the law of Moses is put to death without pity on the testimony of two or three witnesses. Do you not think that a much worse punishment is due to the one who has contempt for the Son of God, considers unclean the covenant-blood by which he was consecrated, and insults the spirit of grace?” (Heb. 10:26). This too is spoken to us in love.
We are not to waver in faith, instead we should “encourage each other to good works,” (Heb. 10:24) to a life appropriate to the faith we hold.
The reading from Hebrews today makes some practical suggestions for our life in faith (cf. Heb 13:1-5):
“Let mutual love continue.” Love one another. Christians are recognized in their love for one another. But as God, let us love even persons who are not Christian. For through their faith we can recognize the weakness of ours; through our faith, we can invite them to fidelity in theirs.
“Do not neglect hospitality.” In near eastern culture, giving shelter to the traveler, making the stranger welcome was a strict imperative. Through hospitality “many have unknowingly helped angels,” Hebrews says. Indeed in our Christian tradition, he who welcomes the stranger, welcomes Christ.
“Be mindful of prisoners as if sharing their imprisonment.” The prisoner continues to be human as you are human. In visiting the imprisoned one visits Christ.
“Let marriage be honored among all. The marriage bed is not to be defiled.” For the bond between man and woman is the sacrament, the sign, of the bond between Jesus and his Church.
“Let your life be free from the love of money.” The first of the commandments is, “I am the Lord, Thy God. Thou shall not have strange Gods before me.” You shall not worship money. Instead, with your money, “Love your neighbor as yourself.”
In Hebrews, God talks to you, as you now are on this First Friday, in your weakness in journeying through this world, your fickleness, your history of infidelities and sin, doubts and fears. Jesus Christ who took up your human flesh and blood talks to you, and at this Mass offers up his body and blood for you in love. You may be inconsistent and unsteady, but Hebrews says of him who approaches you today to speak to you intimately, “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, now and forever” (Heb. 13:8) offering himself up in love for you.