Sunday, April 8, 2012

The Atonement of Our True High Priest

Χριστος ανεστι!  Christ is risen!  Indeed, Christ our High Priest has died so we may die to sin and risen that we may rise to eternal life.  He has redeemed us: He has atoned for our sins.  Under the Old Covenant, the Jewish High Priest prayed his hardest and tried all that he could to atone for the sins of himself, his house, and his people, Israel, yet he still had to try to make atonement year after year on Yom Kippur.  The true High Priest, Jesus Christ, had only to suffer once for our atonement, and He has attained all.

In reading the accounts of the Jewish High Priest's preparations for atonement, one can possibly see a type of our true atonement through the Son of God.  As it says in the Mishnah,

"He sanctified his hands and his feet and stripped off his clothes...He went down and immersed himself, came up and dried himself.  They brought him white garments; he put them on and sanctified his hands and his feet" (Yoma 3:6).

Do we not see a resemblance to the actions of Christ?  Though the old High Priest had to immerse himself five times and sanctify his limbs ten times, our Lord had only to do so once (vid. Yoma 3:3).  Let us see how our Lord fulfilled the High Priestly atonement:

"When the soldiers had crucified Jesus they took his garments" (Jn 19:23).  Thus the Scriptures proclaim His Crucifixion, when the nails for driven into His blessed hands and feet, prior to the mention of His stripped garments.  The Mishnah also recalls that Rabbi Meir says the stripping of garments comes prior to the Crucifixion, as is remembered in the Stations of the Cross (vid. Yoma 3:6).  Jesus Christ then immersed Himself in death, descending "into the lower parts of the earth,"
 that is, Hades, or Sheol (Eph 4:9).  Yet He did not stay immersed, but instead rose again, just as we do in Baptism, for "we were buried therefore with Him in baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we so might walk in newness of life" (Rom 6:4).  Upon His most glorious Resurrection, Christ's glorified body was full of splendor as it was at the Transfiguration, when "His face shone like the sun, and His garments became white as light" (Mt 17:2).  When He came to His disciples, it was His sanctified hands and feet that proclaimed to them His bodily nature: "See my hands and feet, that it is I myself; handle me, and see; for a spirit has not flesh and bones as you see that I have" (Lk 24:39).  Not only that, but He sanctifies the Church, who is His one body, that is, His hands and feet (cf. 1 Cor 12:12; Eph 4:15-16).

We can see, then, that Christ is our true High Priest, for He fulfilled our need for atonement.  What the High Priest of the Old Covenant could not achieve through his five-fold actions every year, the true High Priest achieved in one moment on the Cross: He atoned us, once and for all.

"Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession...For Christ has entered, not into a sanctuary made with hands, a copy of the true one, but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God on our behalf.  Nor was it to offer Himself repeatedly, as the high priest enters the Holy Place yearly with blood not his own; for then he would have had to suffer repeatedly since the foundation of the world.  But as it is, He has appeared once for all at the end of the age to put away sin by the sacrifice of Himself....We have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all" (Heb 4:14; 9:24-26; 10:10).

Let us therefore follow the command of St. Ephraim:

"Ye mortals, exalt and praise Him Who by His death emptied the dominion of death and promised all the mortal race life and resurrection."

Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowing life.

Lord Jesus Christ, risen from the dead, have mercy on us!

Novgorod School; dated 15th century; Church of the Dormition at Volotovo Pole, Russia

Nota Bene: This interpretation is my own: if it is in any way incorrect, I am the one to blame.  All Scripture quotations are from the NRSV-CE.  The quote from the Mishnah is from the translation by Herbert Danby, D.D., published by Oxford University Press.  The quote by St. Ephraim is from Psalm 150 of A Spiritual Psalter, or Reflections on God, excerpted by Bishop Theophan the Recluse, translated by Antonina Janda.

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