March 23, 2012

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

Biblical readings: Beginning the Letter to the Hebrews

John F. FinkThe Office of Readings utilizes the Letter to the Hebrews for the two weeks leading to the Paschal Triduum. Next week, for the Fifth Week of Lent, it includes Chapters 1-8, but skips Chapters 4 and 5 because they are included in the biblical readings for Holy Week.

Other than by reading the Gospel accounts of Christ’s Passion—which, of course, are read at Mass—there is no better way to prepare for Holy Week than by reading the Letter to the Hebrews.

Before I began to read the Office of Readings, I read this book of the Bible during Holy Week.

I have to warn you, though, that Hebrews is not easy reading. This is partly because of its symbols, which were clearer to its first readers than they are to us. When reading it, therefore, it’s best to take advantage of the footnotes in your Bible.

Although it is called a letter, this book is really a sermon, or a written homily, and some biblical experts suggest that it be read aloud. It is directed toward Hebrews, or Jews who have become Christians. Hence, it helps to have a good knowledge of the Jewish Scriptures, our Old Testament.

We don’t know who wrote Hebrews. For a long time, it was thought to be one of St. Paul’s letters, but that seems unlikely. Not only is the vocabulary and style different from Paul’s letters, but why would the Apostle to the Gentiles be writing to the Hebrews?

It was probably written before the destruction of the Jewish Temple in 70 A.D. If so, it may pre-date the Gospels, which many believe to have been written after that cataclysmic event for the Jews.

The purpose of the letter, or sermon, is clear—it’s a message of encouragement. The author develops his main theme, the priesthood and sacrifice of Jesus, to strengthen his readers in their faith.

It starts with the assertion that God spoke in the past in partial ways, but now he spoke to us through his Son who is superior to the angels and who now sits at God’s right hand—clearly alluding to one of the psalms, “The Lord said to my Lord: ‘Sit at my right hand till I make your enemies your footstool’ ” (Ps 110:1).

Chapter 7 devotes a lot of space to Melchizedek, the king of Salem and priest of God who blessed Abraham after Abraham—actually, he was still called Abram at the time—defeated four kings in a battle. See Genesis 14. Hebrews calls Melchizedek a type of Christ, obviously greater than Abraham since the greater always blesses the lesser and Abram offered tithes to him.

Hebrews says that Melchizedek was an anticipation of the Son of God whose priesthood is eternally valid. Therefore, Jesus was a priest “according to the order [rank] of Melchizedek,” as it says in Psalm 110:4. Christ’s sacrifice occurred “when he offered himself” (Heb 7:27).

In Chapter 8, we are told that the old covenant is but a “shadow” of the new, pointing to but replaced by the Word of God in Jesus. Hebrews uses Jeremiah’s prophecy of a new covenant to show that the old covenant is obsolete. †

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