Today, parishioner Bill Thornton talks about where we are in Lent as seen through the Letter to Hebrews.
Many of the readings in the Liturgy of the Hours (The Holy Office) for this week are from the Letter to the Hebrews. Maybe this is just the luck of the draw, but I prefer to think that this shows an intent of the Church to remind us of the messages of Hebrews that are so consistent with where we are in Lent.
Hebrews is a unique book in the New Testament and an important one. We do not know its author (we used to think that it was an epistle of Paul, but today’s scholars don’t think so); we do not know the circumstances of its composition; we do not even know whether it started out as a letter or not. What does seem to be true is that it was written before the destruction of the Temple and that it was meant for Christians of Jewish background who were having second thoughts about choosing Christ over Judaism. Maybe they were being shunned by family and friends, kicked out of the synagogues, and generally becoming estranged from their former way of life.
It is not right to fault the Jewish Christians if they had these feelings. They may have had strong family ties as well as ties to the community and the faith that they had practiced all their lives. The Jewish faith worshiped the same God based on Revelation that even Jesus followed and respected. The Hebrew scriptures and religion came from angels, patriarchs and prophets, who spoke what God had told them to speak, and priests who made offerings to God for sin. Why was it time to put aside all of this sacred tradition and turn away from the Temple to Jesus?
I said above that I thought that Hebrews was suitable for the time of Lent that we are now in. What I meant was that – if we are doing it right – our Lenten practices should be leading us away from our “old religion” to a new sense of closeness to Jesus. Just as the people that Hebrews was addressed to, we may be reluctant to turn from the former religious guides that we have been following (our own version of “angels, patriarchs, prophets and priests”) to the new paths that the Lord may be leading us to.
The author of Hebrews begins by using the Hebrew Scriptures to show that Jesus is better at announcing God’s word than angels and prophets and a better guide to God than the patriarchs. He does this in a very respectful way, not only using their own words to accomplish this, but also praising them for their faith and holding them out as models of faith for the early Christians and for us. Similarly, some of our early teachers of the faith may have been wonderful for us at some earlier stage of spiritual development, and will always be strong models of Christian behaviour. But, the Lord may be calling us to move on to more a more mature faith and prayer life. “Therefore, let us leave the elementary doctrine of Christ and go on to maturity …” Heb 6:1. God is always calling us to move up higher.
Hebrews goes on to establish that Jesus has a priesthood that is far beyond the priesthood of the Old Testament. This is because he has no need to offer sacrifice for his own sins and because the sacrifice that he offers is his own body. This is the marvel of the acts that we will soon experience in a ritual way during Holy Week and – praise God – Easter. Therefore, there is no turning back, no shirking from the calling to a closer relationship with God. Is it too tough? Does God ask too much from us? Hebrews says, “In your struggle against sin, you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood.” Heb 12:4. No Jesus did that for us. Are our daily hardships too much? “It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons [and daughters] for what son [or daughter] is there whom his [or her] father does not discipline‘.” Heb 12:7.
If God has been using this Lent to call you to a higher place nearer to Him, and especially if this calling is hard for you to accept, you should read Hebrews thoughtfully and prayerfully to see if the authors words will provide the encouragement that you need right now.
And to end with one of the most quoted passages from Hebrews, “…Let us also lay aside every weight and sin which clings so closely, and let us rtun with perserverence the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.” Heb 12:1-2.