Holy Father's Homily at Corpus Christi Mass
"In What Sense Is Jesus a Priest?"
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VATICAN CITY, JUNE 4, 2010 (Zenit.org).- Here is a translation of the homily Benedict XVI delivered Thursday at the Mass preceding the Eucharistic procession held on the solemnity of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ.
The Pope presided at the Mass in the courtyard of the Basilica of St. John Lateran, and the procession that followed via Merulana and ended at the Basilica of St. Mary Major.
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Dear Brothers and Sisters!
The priesthood of the New Testament is closely bound to the Eucharist. Because of this, today, on the solemnity of Corpus Domini and almost at the end of the Year for Priests, we are invited to meditate on the relationship between the Eucharist and the priesthood of Christ. Oriented in this direction also are the first reading and the responsorial psalm, which present the figure of Melchizedek.
The brief passage from the Book of Genesis (cf. 14:18-20) states that Melchizedek, king of Salem, was "priest of God Most High," and because of this "offered bread and wine" and "blessed Abram," returning from a victory in battle; Abram himself gave him a tenth of everything. The Psalm, in turn, contains in the last verse a solemn expression, an oath of God himself, who declares to the King Messiah: "You are a priest for ever after the order of Melchizedek" (Psalm 110:4); thus the Messiah is not only proclaimed king, but also priest.
From this passage the author of the Letter to the Hebrews takes the cue for his ample and articulated exposition. And we re-echoed it in the refrain: "You are a priest for ever, Lord Christ": virtually a profession of faith, which acquires a particular meaning in today's feast. It is the joy of the community, the joy of the whole Church that, contemplating and adoring the Most Blessed Sacrament, recognizes in it the real and permanent presence of Jesus as High and Eternal Priest.
The second reading and the Gospel, instead, draw attention to the Eucharistic mystery. The First Letter to the Corinthians (cf. 11:23-26) treats the fundamental passage in which St. Paul recalls to that community the meaning and value of the "Lord's Supper," which the Apostle had transmitted and taught, but which risked being lost. The Gospel is the account of the miracle of the loaves and fishes, according to St. Luke: a sign attested by all the Evangelists, which announces beforehand the gift that Christ will make of himself, to give humanity eternal life.
Both of these texts highlight Christ's prayer, in the act of breaking the bread. Of course there is a clear difference between the two moments: When he multiplies the loaves and fishes for the crowd, Jesus thanks the heavenly Father for his Providence, confident that he will not have food lacking for all those people. In the Last Supper, instead, Jesus transforms the bread and wine into his own Body and Blood, so that the disciples can nourish themselves from him and live in profound and real communion with him.
The first thing that one must remember is that Jesus was not a priest according to the Jewish tradition. His was not a priestly family. He did not belong to the lineage of Aaron, but rather to that of Judah; hence, legally, he was precluded from the way of the priesthood. The person and activity of Jesus of Nazareth were not placed in the line of the ancient priests, but rather in that of the prophets.
And in this line, Jesus distanced himself from a ritual conception of religion, criticizing the approach that valued human precepts linked to ritual purity rather than the observance of God's Commandments, that is, love of God and of one's neighbor, which, as the Gospel says, "is worth more than all burnt offerings and sacrifices" (Mark 12:33). Even inside the Temple of Jerusalem, sacred place par excellence, Jesus carries out an exquisitely prophetic gesture, when he chases the moneychangers and animal vendors, all things that served for the offering of traditional sacrifices. Hence, Jesus was not recognized as a priestly Messiah, but as prophetic and royal. Also his death, which we Christians rightly call "sacrifice," had nothing of the ancient sacrifices; rather, it was completely the opposite: the execution of a death penalty by crucifixion, the most infamous, which took place outside the walls of Jerusalem.
Now, in what sense is Jesus a priest? The Eucharist itself says it. We can begin from those simple words that describe Melchizedek: he "offered bread and wine" (Genesis 14:18). It is what Jesus did in the Last Supper: He offered bread and wine, and in that gesture he summarized all of himself and all of his mission. In that act, in the prayer that preceded it and in the words that accompanied it, is all the sense of the mystery of Christ, as it is expressed in the Letter to the Hebrews in a decisive passage, which it is necessary to quote. "In the days of his flesh," wrote the author referring to Jesus, "Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to him who was able to save him from death, and he was heard for his godly fear. Although he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered; and being made perfect he became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him, being designated by God a high priest after the order of Melchizedek" (5:8-10).
In this text, which clearly alludes to the spiritual agony of Gethsemane, Christ's passion is presented as a prayer and an offering. Jesus faces his "hour," which leads him to death on a cross, immersed in a profound prayer, which consists in the union of his own will with that of the Father. This twofold and unique will is a will of love. Lived in this prayer, the tragic trial that Jesus faces is transformed into offering, into living sacrifice.
The Letter to the Hebrews says that Jesus "was heard." In what sense? In the sense that God the Father delivered him from death and resurrected him. He was heard precisely because of his full abandonment to the will of the Father: God's plan of love was able to be fulfilled perfectly in Jesus, who, having obeyed to the extreme point of death on the cross, became "cause of salvation" for all those who obey him. He became, that is, High Priest for having taken on himself all the sin of the world, as "Lamb of God." It is the Father who confers this priesthood on him at the very moment in which Jesus goes through the passage from his death and resurrection. It is not a priesthood according to the order of the Mosaic Law (cf. Leviticus 8-9), but "according to the order of Melchizedek," according to a prophetic order, depending only on his singular relationship with God.
Let us return to the expression of the Letter to the Hebrews that says: "Although he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered." Christ's priesthood entails suffering. Jesus really suffered, and he did so for us. He was the Son and had no need to learn obedience to God, but we do, we had and always have need. Because of this, the Son assumed our humanity and for us let himself be "educated" in the crucible of suffering, he let himself be transformed by it, as the grain of corn which to bear fruit must die in the earth.
Through this process Jesus was "made perfect," in Greek "teleiotheis." We must reflect on this term because it is very significant. It indicates the fulfillment of a journey, that is, precisely the journey of education and transformation of the Son of God through suffering, through the painful Passion. And thanks to this transformation Jesus Christ became "High Priest" and can save all those who entrust themselves to him.
The term "teleiotheis," translated correctly as "made perfect," belongs to a verbal root that, in the Greek version of the Pentateuch, namely the first five books of the Bible, is always used to indicate the consecration of the ancient priests. This discovery is quite precious, because it tells us that the Passion was for Jesus as a priestly consecration. He was not a priest according to the Law, but he became so essentially in his Passion, Death and Resurrection: He offered himself in expiation and the Father, exalting him above every creature, constituted him universal Mediator of salvation.
We return, in our meditation, to the Eucharist, which in a while will be the center of our liturgical assembly and of the subsequent solemn procession. In it Jesus anticipated his sacrifice, not a ritual sacrifice but a personal one. In the Last Supper he acted moved by that "Eternal Spirit" with which he will offer himself later on the Cross (cf. Hebrews 9:14). Giving thanks and with a blessing, Jesus transformed the bread and wine. It is divine love that transforms: the love with which Jesus accepts in advance to give himself completely for us. This love is none other than the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of the Father and of the Son, which consecrates the bread and wine and changes their substance into the Body and the Blood of the Lord, rendering present in the Sacrament the same sacrifice that is made later in a bloody manner on the cross.
We can conclude that Christ was a true and effective priest because he was full of the power of the Holy Spirit, he was the culmination of all the fullness of the love of God "on the night he was betrayed," precisely in the "hour of darkness" (cf. Luke 22:53). It is this divine power, the same that brought about the Incarnation of the Word, which transformed the extreme violence and the extreme injustice [of his death] into a supreme act of love and justice.
This is the work of the priesthood of Christ, which the Church has inherited and continues to perpetuate, in the twofold form of ordinary priesthood of the baptized and that of the ordained ministers, to transform the world with the love of God. All, priests and faithful, are nourished by the same Eucharist, all of us prostrate ourselves to adore it, because present in it is our Teacher and Lord, present is the real Body of Jesus, Victim and Priest, salvation of the world. Come, let us exult with hymns of joy. Come, let us adore! Amen.
[Translation by ZENIT]