I just finished filming (with Jeff Cavins) Ascension’s newest Bible study on the letter to the Hebrews (Hebrews: The New and Eternal Covenant). As I was researching and writing the companion book to the study and preparing for the presentations, I was struck by how incredibly timely Hebrews has become for our day.
Hebrews is truly like entering the holy of holies of biblical theology; it’s a tour through the mindset of the first generation of Christians—beautifully distilling how Jesus fulfills the Old Covenant, how in Christ heaven and earth are reconciled, and how we enter this heavenly life even now by sharing in the risen and glorified Christ.
For these earliest Christians, the notion that we would enter this glorified life in merely spiritual ways (“spiritual, not religious”) would strike them as incredibly odd because it betrays a gnostic, anti-body ethos. In other words, while, of course, I can engage the Risen Lord Jesus—for example—in prayer (“where two or three are gathered, there I am in their midst,” Matthew 18:20), nonetheless, the way I enter into Christ—the way I enter into his death and resurrection—is through baptism.
Extension of the Incarnation
Although Martin Luther famously interpreted St. Paul as teaching sola fide (salvation by faith alone), St. Paul is unequivocal on the saving necessity of baptism as the means by which one enters into Christ’s death and even now shares in his resurrection:
“Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.”Romans 6:3-4; see also Colossians 2:12
In fact, it’s not hard to see the sentiment of being “spiritual, not religious” as really a secularized extension of the aforementioned Protestant principle of sola fide: after all, if it’s just about me and my private spiritual connection to Jesus, why would I need an institution? (as a side note, I have immense respect for my Protestant brothers and sisters and have learned much from them, especially after having done a graduate degree at one of their major institutions).
We can fuss about how Jesus established a Church with the authority to “bind and loose” (that is, to teach and govern authoritatively—which he certainly did, see Matthew 16:18-19; 18:15-18); but even at a more basic level, once the centrality and necessity of the sacraments is understood as the ordinary and privileged means of entering the life of Christ, then an institutional Church is presupposed. At the end of the day, the sacraments imply liturgy, priesthood, and even authority as the Church safeguards the sacredness of these heavenly realities.
Thus, when asked why the Church is visible (and not merely an invisible spiritual reality), the answer is precisely because of the sacraments as the extension of the Incarnation.
Hebrews and Liturgy
What the letter to the Hebrews so exquisitely brings out is that the New Covenant is not merely a document (as in the New Testament); rather, the New Covenant is a living liturgical reality. In fact, the letter to the Hebrews actually seems to be an ancient homily, given in the context of a Eucharistic celebration! This can be seen in a couple of ways, such as from the fact that there is no epistolary (letter) introduction, naming its author and recipients, as is typical for example in other Pauline letters (see 1 Corinthians 1:1; Galatians 1:2). Rather, the author simply dives right in—which would make sense if this is an ancient written homily, since the original audience could see their homilist. This also explains Hebrews’ numerous references to “speaking,” which once again implies this homiletic context (see Hebrews 2:5).
This setting only heightens the liturgical meaning of the letter—for the liturgy is the principal means by which one enters life of the Risen Son. The liturgy, in fact, is an entrance into heaven on earth!
In the Old Covenant, liturgical worship was understood as an imitation of the worship and liturgy of heaven. There was a lively sense that the earthly sanctuary was a copy and type of the heavenly Temple. This begins with Moses receiving the instructions for the Tabernacle on top of Mt. Sinai in the presence of God. The top of Sinai is like going into heaven itself where God dwells, and Moses is told to make the Tabernacle according to the “pattern” being shown to him on the mountain (see Exodus 25:9). That is, the heavenly pattern—the heavenly sanctuary—is the prototype after which the earthly sanctuaries and earthly liturgies are fashioned.
What’s different about the New Covenant is that in Christ, who has reconciled heaven and earth, we no longer imitate the worship of heaven. Rather, in Christ, we now participate in the worship of heaven.
Consider the Catechism here, which draws extensively from Hebrews:
“Jesus Christ, the one priest of the new and eternal Covenant, entered, not into a sanctuary made by human hands … but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God on our behalf. There Christ permanently exercises his priesthood, for he always lives to make intercession for those who draw near to God through him. As high priest of the good things to come he is the center and the principal actor of the liturgy that honors the Father in heaven” (CCC 662, emphasis added).
Entering the Heavenly Temple—through the Eucharist
We say Jesus’ sacrifice is “perpetual” and also that he offered himself “once and for all” (see Hebrews 7:27). How are both of these true? Hebrews insists that Jesus continues to have something to offer in heaven, besides his self-offering on the Cross on earth:
“For every high priest is appointed to offer gifts and sacrifices; hence it is necessary for this priest also to have something to offer.”Hebrews 8:3; see also 8:1-2
What does Jesus continue to offer?
Jesus indeed offered himself once and for all: his sacrifice begins in the Upper Room at the Last Supper and it is consummated on the Cross. But this is not the end of our redemption—after all, St. Paul says that Jesus “was raised for our justification” (Romans 4:25). The work of our salvation is not complete on the Cross, for the Cross is only part of the Paschal Mystery. In the Cross, Jesus atones for our sin; in the Resurrection, he infuses our humanity with his divinity (see CCC 654). And in the Ascension, he enters into the inner throne room of God himself as head of a glorified and risen humanity—where he continues to present his self-offering to the Father on our behalf in his glorified and risen humanity.
Jesus offers himself in a bloody way on the Cross; at the Last Supper, it is unbloody and sacramental; and then in his Ascension, Jesus presents this same self-offering in his glorified humanity to the Father—this is the glorified self-offering of Jesus that is made present in every Mass. The Mass is truly heaven on earth for those with the eyes of faith to see it. It is one and the same sacrifice with the Cross, only differing in its “mode,” since Jesus is of course no longer suffering.
Ushering in the New
Jesus continues to present his self-offering in his glorified humanity to the Father in heaven, and we enter into this glorified offering at every Mass—again, the Mass is truly entering heaven on earth!
Through Jesus, we enter into the heavenly holy of holies, something far superior to what the high priest of old had access to. In the Old Covenant, only the high priest could enter the holy of holies—where God’s presence was manifest in the most singular and majestic of ways—and only once a year, on the Day of Atonement.
A veil separated the holy of holies from the holy place, through which the high priest would pass on this most sacred of days. This very veil was torn at Jesus’ death (see Matthew 27:51; Mark 15:38; Luke 23:44), the tearing of which points in two directions:
1. the imminent demise of the Temple in AD 70 when the Romans destroyed it—manifesting the definitive giving way of the Old Covenant and ushering in of the New
2. the unleashing of God’s presence into the world, no longer to be sequestered in the holy of holies and only accessible once a year.
In this light, the Catechism points to the link between the Cross and the fall of the Temple, as a manifestation of the giving way of the old and ushering in of the new:
“[H]is being put to bodily death presaged the destruction of the Temple, which would manifest the dawning of a new age in the history of salvation.”CCC 586
Temple of Flesh
Jesus is the new and living Temple; the earthly Temple of stone in the Old Covenant gives way to the heavenly Temple of Christ’s risen and glorified body in the New Covenant.
But how do we access this heavenly holy of holies? How do we access God’s presence in this new and living way—how do we access heaven on earth?
Hebrews answers with reference to the “veil” (or curtain) mentioned above. The new veil of the new and heavenly Temple is the flesh of Jesus—that is, the Eucharistic flesh of Jesus. The Eucharist is the “veil” through which we enter the heavenly holy of holies—heaven itself on earth:
“Therefore, brethren, since we have confidence to enter the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way which he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh.Hebrews 10:19-20
Answering Two Sets of Questions
Hebrews here answers the question of being “spiritual” and not “religious,” whether coming from a Protestant or secular angle. Once we realize the centrality of our sacramental incorporation into Christ as the ordinary and privileged means by which we enter into the divine and glorified life of Christ, then simply being spiritual and not religious doesn’t square with the apostolic witness. The sacraments are encounters with the Risen Jesus; they are not “add-ons”—they are heavenly gifts by which the life of Christ is communicated to us. In this way, the divine work of salvation is ever-present to us in every generation.
Christ is Immanuel, God with us. And he remains with us in many ways. He is with us in the poor (see Matthew 25:35-45). He is with us where two or three are gathered in his name (Matthew 18:20). He is with us in holy Scripture.
In all the sacraments, Christ acts by his power.
But in the Eucharist, we have Christ himself.
When he comes again at the end of time, he won’t have any more glory than he does right now in the Blessed Sacrament—the only difference will be in our ability to see.
Hebrews and the Divine Life
While Hebrews shows us the liturgical life of the New Covenant—a liturgical entering into Christ’s life—it also points to the truly heavenly reality of the New Covenant. Many who have fallen away from the Christian or Catholic faith have often not encountered this heavenly dimension. Often, the Christian faith is presented as simply a moral code (be a nice person), or as a transactional agreement (Jesus received the punishment I deserved so I could have what I don’t deserve). But in reality, it’s about sharing in the divine life. The Eternal Son became man, so that we may share in his divinity (see CCC 460).
The question is not “What’s the least I have to do to avoid hell?”, but rather, “How much of the divine life do I want?”
And in this sense, salvation is not just about the future—it’s happening now. It’s about receiving the divine life, allowing the Lord not only to forgive us but to heal and transform us.
All these lessons come through the letter to the Hebrews in truly astounding ways.
My hope is that through our study of Hebrews, we will never experience the Mass the same way again. Perhaps having been separated from the Eucharist for so long will make us better appreciate this august treasure before us. For in the Eucharist, we truly have Christ himself—body, blood, soul, and divinity. In the Eucharist, our entire redemption lies before us.
Do we truly appreciate this gift?
Check out Dr. Swafford’s latest Bible study, Hebrews: The New and Eternal Covenant, arriving in late August.
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Dr. Andrew Swafford is associate professor of theology at Benedictine College. He is general editor and contributor to The Great Adventure Catholic Bible published by Ascension, presenter of the Bible study Romans: The Gospel of Salvation (and author of the companion book), also by Ascension, and presenter of Hebrews: The New and Eternal Covenant Bible study . Andrew is author of Nature and Grace, John Paul II to Aristotle and Back Again, and Spiritual Survival in the Modern World. He holds a doctorate in sacred theology from the University of St. Mary of the Lake and a master’s degree in Old Testament & Semitic Languages from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. He is member of the Society of Biblical Literature, Academy of Catholic Theology, and a senior fellow at the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology. He lives with his wife Sarah and their five children in Atchison, Kansas. Follow him on Twitter: @andrew_swafford.
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