We acknowledge Jesus Christ as our great high priest. We get the most detailed discussion of that in the letter to the Hebrews, the second reading on Good Friday. But what do priests do? We can think of priests as religious leaders who teach the congregation, lead worship, lend an ear to people who need to talk. An interesting aspect of human culture is that, over millennia, there have been and are now thousands of religions. Most of them have priests and what priests do most often is offer sacrifice. In Israelite and Christian religion, sacrifice is offered in atonement for sin, in supplication for God’s help, or in thanksgiving for God’s gifts.
Certainly, the greatest gift we need from God is forgiveness for sins. We know from Genesis 2 that God created humanity in right relationship with Him. A relationship of love and trust. Our first parents turned away from God and broke the relationship. Strife entered the world. The shock waves from that event undermined authentic relationships between human beings.
God formed the people of Israel from Jacob, the grandson of Abraham. Priesthood and animal sacrifice were central to Israelite worship. Not, as in other Near Eastern religions, for appeasement, but to try to maintain love and trust. However, there was still division between people and with God. “It can never, by the same sacrifices which are continually offered year after year, make perfect those who draw near.” (Hebrews 10:1). Real reconciliation between God and people needed the perfect sacrifice given to God by the Great High Priest.
Jesus Christ came into the world to make the perfect sacrifice as Great High Priest. His altar is the cross. This is not a break with Israelite tradition, this is its perfection. The soldiers wanted to make sure that the men on the cross were dead and came to break their legs. When they came to Jesus and saw that he was dead, they left Him alone. St. John writes, “These things occurred so that the scripture might be fulfilled, ‘None of his bones shall be broken.’” Quoting the ritual preparation of the Passover lamb, “It shall be eaten in one house; you shall not take any of the animal outside the house, and you shall not break any of its bones.” (Exodus 12:46)
As Great High Priest, Christ offers Himself as the Lamb of God so that we are offered forgiveness of sins and reconciliation with God. The religion of ancient Israel included animal sacrifice because livestock were highly valuable. In a world without government assistance, cows, goats and lambs could be the difference between starvation and life. Giving up an animal to God was an act of trust in God’s care. God gave up His Son to restore us to His family. We need to respond to this with our own sacrifice. Perhaps we can rethink our lives’ center of gravity. Do I focus on my relationship with God, praying, going to Mass, Confession, or am I focused on my material well-being? The greatest gift God has given us is being part of His family. We need to use that gift.