THE LETTER TO THE HEBREWS - PART IX
THE WAY TO THE SANCTUARY OF HEAVEN
I. Chapter 9 begins with a brief description of the Tent of Dwelling, which was the basis for the Temple, in order to draw an analogy to how Jesus provides us the way to heaven.
A. The passage focuses on the Tent of Dwelling, which Moses was commanded to make as a house for the Ark of the Covenant.
- The Temple that Solomon
built, and then the Temple that was rebuilt in the 6th century
B.C. and then augmented by King Herod, were based upon that Tent, but
were more elaborate.
- By focusing on the
Tent (in Latin "tabernaculum"), rather than the more extensive Temple,
the letter is re-focusing attention back to the primordial covenant
with Moses, rather than on later additions. The idea is that the
earthly grandeur and beauty of the Temple was not the crucial element,
but rather the fact that it represented the old covenant, which would
lead the way to the new covenant of Christ.
B. The letter focuses especially on the fact that there were two sacred areas, the outer tent where the priests in general ministered, and the inner tent, called the Holy of Holies.
1. The letter
refers to the fact that the Ark of the Covenant contained the Ten Commandments,
Aaron's rod and an urn with some of the manna from the desert, reflecting
the laws, the power and the providence of the covenant, or wisdom, power,
and goodness, according to St. Thomas. See Ex. 16:33, 25:16; Num.
17:8, 25. (There is a reference in 1 Kings 8:9 to the Ark containing
only the Ten Commandments; St. Thomas Aquinas explains that the Ten
Commandments was the most important item in the Ark.) The letter
also speaks of the altar of incense, which was in front of the Holy
of Holies. The incense from that altar created a cloud that would
surround the Holy of Holies, setting it aside as sacred and utterly
mysterious. See Ex. 30:6, 40:29, Lev. 16:12-13..
3. This area
was God's special dwelling place one earth. The images of cherubim
above the Ark would, in a sense, be holding up a seat for the presence
of God. See, e.g., Ex, 25:22; Ps. 80:2. Moses would sometimes
enter it and come out transfigured into God's glory, with a face so
bright that he had to wear a veil.
4. After the death of Moses, the high priest alone could enter this place for sacrifice, even when the Ark was no longer there, on the Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur, to offer the holy sacrifice. See Lev. 16
- The high priest
sacrificed a young ram for his sins and those of the priests.
He then went into the Holy of Holies and sprinkled some of its blood
on the "propitiary" or mercy seat of the Ark, which the golden angels
were holding. See Ex. 25:7-22
- He then slaughtered a goat for the sins of the people, reentered the Holy of Holies, and sprinkled some of its blood on the Ark. Another goat was sent into the desert, reflecting the dismissal of the guilt of the people.
- There were a
number of other related ceremonies, such as the wearing of special vestments
and the burning of incense that set aside the ceremony so that the high
priest could enter the Holy of Holies.
5. If one entered
the Holy of Holies unbidden, one risked death, as occurred d with
Aaron's two oldest sons. See Lev. 10:1-5, 16:2; Num.
C. There was also
an outer tent that the priests in general ministered in. The letter
describes this place as the general place of worship, set off from the
full presence of God. Among other things, a priest would go into
the Holy Place to the altar of incense to keep the candles lit and renew
the incense in front of the Holy of Holies, reflecting the light of
truth and holiness that proceeds from the presence of God.
D. Having reminded the readers of all the elaborate regulations and the gold and fine cloth that surrounds this glorious Tent, the letter then speaks fo the Tent (and therefore, by implication of the Temple) as but an image of the age before Christ.
- The image seems
to be that even the Chosen People, sometimes described as a priestly
people, can only be in the shadows of God. No one, even the high
priest, can enter the presence of God on a regular basis. (The
further unstated implication is that the outer court of the Israelites
is like the more just Gentiles, who are further from God, but still
in some way, connected to Him.)
- There was an increasing
view among the Jews that the whole universe was, in a sense a large
Temple of God and that, somewhere in mystery, there was a Holy of Holies,
where God lives.
E. The Jews could hardly imagine being able to enter the Holy of Holies, the very presence of the glory of God. But, the letter points out, being able to do that is but a symbol of the ability to enter the presence of God that Jesus won for us.
- The letter points
out that, not only the Day of Atonement, but also all of the feasts
and ritual sacrifices of the Old Law, along with the regulations regarding
food and drink and cleansings were only images of the New Covenant.
II. The letter then describes the new Tent, or Tabernacle, that Jesus Christ entered as the high priest of the good things to come, or that have come, depending on the text.
A. The new Tent could be Jesus' humanity, which the Son took on, making His human nature the means through which we can approach God.. It could mean also heaven, the final place of God's presence, which no one could enter until the death of Jesus. (This letter does not use the analogy, but the Book of Revelation seems to describe the Blessed Virgin Mary as the new Ark of the Covenant, a symbol that commentators have since then continually used. See Rev. 11:19-12:6.)
- The prophets had
spoken of a new Tent or Temple that would never be destroyed.
See Is. Is. 33:17-24; Jer. 33:10-11; Ez. 40-45.
- The Psalms had also
spoken of the just who alone can enter the tent of the Lord. See
Ps. 15:1, 24:3. Jesus thus could enter into the Tabernacle of
heaven, and purifies His followers to do the same.
B. The letter then makes clear that the new sacrifice is Christ Himself, with His own blood being offered for our sins.
- The other offerings,
from the Day of Atonement and other sacrifices, could only keep the
people able to continue being God's Chosen People on earth, and allow
the priests to minister in the Temple. But it was only a temporary
cleansing and thus could not secure redemption beyond death, which for
a time at least cut one off from the worship of God. See, e.g.,
Ps. 30:10; 88:10; 119:175. The prophets had repeatedly said that
the mere offering of sacrifices alone cannot satisfy God. See,
e.g., Is. 1:13, Micah 6:7. Here, the letter says that it is the
holiness won by Christ that does so.
- The letter describes
this sacrifice as, at the same time, once for all, but also through
"the eternal Spirit," and obtaining an "eternal redemption,"
indicating also a certain timelessness.
C. The letter calls upon the people to reflect upon how much care went into the animal sacrifices so that the people could simply continue being near to the Temple, and the priest could continue ministering there for the time. He then brings them from that image to the image of the blood of Christ allowing us to enter into the presence of God forever.
- The letter as an
example refers to the purification by means of the sacrifice of a red
heifer for the sins of the people. The ashes of the heifer would
be sprinkled into water, which would then be used to cleanse a person
who has been in contact with a human corpse. See Num. 19.
D. The letter indicates that the sacrifice of Christ cleanses our consciences from "dead works" to serve the "living God."
- The dead works could be works in general that, even if good, are subject to death, or sins that lead to death. See, e.g, Gal. 2:16, 5:19.