The Sacrifice of the Mass: XIV Pentecost (Proper 16C)
You have not come to something that can be touched, a blazing fire, and darkness, and gloom, and a tempest, and the sound of a trumpet, and a voice whose words made the hearers beg that not another word be spoken to them. (For they could not endure the order that was given, "If even an animal touches the mountain, it shall be stoned to death." Indeed, so terrifying was the sight that Moses said, "I tremble with fear.") But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.
See that you do not refuse the one who is speaking; for if they did not escape when they refused the one who warned them on earth, how much less will we escape if we reject the one who warns from heaven! At that time his voice shook the earth; but now he has promised, "Yet once more I will shake not only the earth but also the heaven." This phrase, "Yet once more," indicates the removal of what is shaken-- that is, created things-- so that what cannot be shaken may remain. Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us give thanks, by which we offer to God an acceptable worship with reverence and awe; for indeed our God is a consuming fire.
There is a painting I saw in a sacristy once that really captured my attention (Note: you can also find lots of these on Pinterest). It’s Christian art from the medieval and modern West.
It’s a painting of a large ornate (east-facing) altar in a gothic church. A priest standing in the middle with deacon and other servers beside him, lifting up the bread and the wine as the people say the Great Amen at the end of the Eucharistic Prayer.
And above their heads, there is something out of a science fiction or fantasy movie. Something like a portal opens up above the clergy and you can see a glimpse into the heavenly realm -- clouds and light fill the background; saints and angels float high all around singing, making music and glorifying God; the Holy Spirit, depicted as a dove, is rising from the Mass below; in some versions, you see Christ on the cross or the beautiful Lamb of God being slain for us at the center.
This artistic tradition is called simply “The Holy Mass” (see above for an example). It’s an icon of what we believe is really, spiritually happening when we gather for Holy Communion.
In the Eucharist, we are united to all creatures from all time and all places, even the “angels and archangels and all the company of heaven.” All of us join together to worship the “Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.”
I point to this sort of artwork because our passage from Hebrews this morning does a similar thing. This section paints a word-picture of what it is like to “offer to God an acceptable worship with reverence and awe” (12:28).
This part of Hebrews (and really the whole book) uses OT imagery to explain the mystery of the Eucharist. What are we doing when we approach the altar for Communion? How does this relate to what Jesus did? How does it relate to our future in the heavenly places?
It all begins with two mountains: Sinai and Zion.
Before we dive into these stories, it’s important to know that Mt. Sinai is a physical mountain somewhere on the Sinai Peninsula, which is part of the nation of Egypt today. And Mt. Zion is a physical mountain in the nation of Israel, at the center of the Old City of Jerusalem. It’s the mountain upon which Solomon built the Temple to God in biblical times.
“You have not come to something that can be touched, a blazing fire, and darkness, and gloom, and a tempest, and the sound of a trumpet, and a voice whose words made the hearers beg that not another word be spoken to them.” (12:18-19)
This is an allusion to the Israelites’ visit to Mt. Sinai during the Exodus story.
Exodus 19:12-22; 20:18-21; Deuteronomy 4:11-12; 5:22-27
Summarize Exodus narrative from slavery, through plagues, Passover sacrifice, escape, arrival at Mt. Sinai for the Law.
Wandering for 40 years was not the plan. It’s the result of unfaithfulness to God’s commands.
Reception of Law at Sinai is incredibly dramatic and awe-inspiring experience for the Israelites. God revealed Godself to the whole assembly in all kinds of signs and wonders, surrounding and encompassing an entire mountain.
There was fire and darkness, clouds and thunder, the sound of trumpet, and loud booming voices calling out the commandments to the people. And for the days before and after God spoke the 10 Commandments, no one was allowed to touch Mt. Sinai.
This kind of worship experience was beautiful and terrifying. It gave the people a sense of God’s power and even God’s wrath. Moses said, “God has come only to test you and to put the fear of him upon you so that you do not sin” (Exod 20:20).
Sinai was a pivotal moment for the Israelites. It was a transformative experience that helped shape their identity as YHWH’s people.
Nonetheless, the author of Hebrews makes the point that we are not on Sinai anymore. Because of Jesus Christ, our worship and our identity has changed. This altar of God is not so terrifying that anyone who touches it must be put to death (Exod 19:12-13).
Instead, we come to a different mountain. Mt. Zion, the heavenly Jerusalem is now our home with God.
“But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.” (Heb 12:22-24)
As we approach God’s throne and altar, we step into the heavenly places. We enter into God’s holy city, surrounded by all the angels who minister to God, and the firstborn of heaven -- the saints who have come before us. It’s that painting we were talking about earlier.
The angels gather for a feast with God, the judge of all. And what do we come to eat together in this heavenly feast? We come to Jesus, our great high priest, the mediator of the new covenant. Jesus is the priest who offers the sacrifice to God for the forgiveness of our sins. And Jesus is also the one who is sacrificed. Jesus is the Lamb of God.
In biblical times, priests in the Jerusalem Temple slaughtered sheep, goats, oxen, and other animals. They ritually offered the blood of those animals to God to ask for God’s forgiveness. They would sprinkle blood on the altar as they said prayers. After the sacrifice was over, they would roast and eat the rest of the animal. The sacrifices were both offerings to God, and something like a tithe to the priests. They got a lot of their meals from the people’s offerings since they didn’t farm like most folks did.
What the New Testament teaches us about Christ is that he is both High Priest and Lamb. He is the sacrificer and the sacrificed.
So in the Eucharist, we gather with all the residents of heaven God’s throne to feast on the Lamb of God. The Body which we receive is true food. The blood we drink is true drink.
We no longer need to shed the blood of goats or oxen, we don’t need to make sacrifices like Abel did. Even an unblemished lamb from the flock is ineffectual. Because Christ has made the once-for-all sacrifice on the cross.
The beauty of the Eucharist is that we receive forgiveness from God, offering our sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving to God, all without spilling more innocent blood. Instead Christ gives himself to us, without dying all over again. Christ mystically invites us into the moment of his death and offers us flesh and blood to heal and sustain us.
So as we continue the liturgy this morning, let us approach God’s altar with reverence and awe. The same God of Jesus did appear on Sinai, and “our God is a consuming fire” (12:29). But we don’t have to fear. God loved us enough to come among us and become our saving victim. That love continues to be poured out every time we gather as the people of God to receive these precious, holy gifts from God. Amen.
Edmund Walstein, "The Eucharist and the Letter to the Hebrews," 4 July 2015, Accessed 18 August 2016, https://sancrucensis.wordpress.com/2015/07/04/the-eucharist-and-the-letter-to-the-hebrews/.