The feast of Our Lord Jesus Christ, Eternal High Priest, which we celebrate today, is relatively new in the Church. The Holy See first gave approval for the feast in 1987 and then in 2012 offered episcopal conferences the possibility of including it in their national liturgical calendars. Little by little, therefore, the feast is spreading throughout the world and one can now find it in such countries as Australia, Spain, the Netherlands, the Czech Republic, and England and Wales.
Celebrated annually on the first Thursday after Pentecost, the feast focuses on the priestly aspect of Christ’s mission to earth. The New Testament Letter to the Hebrews points particularly to this. Jesus is “a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make expiation for the sins of the people”. He is “the apostle and high priest of our confession”, the “high priest who has passed through the heavens”.
In the Old Testament the Jewish High Priest, and he alone, went once a year (only) into the Holy of Holies of the Jerusalem Temple to offer a sacrifice for the sins of the people, including his own. But the new and greater High Priest, Jesus, has penetrated into the heavenly Holy of Holies, the very presence of the Father, “made” not by human hands but by God himself. And he, the sinless one, “always lives to make intercession for us”.
Today’s readings stress the expiatory side of Jesus’ priesthood, that is, how he makes up for and takes away our sins. He does not offer animal blood, as the Jewish priests did, which is “useless for taking away sins”. He offers his own blood, his very self, in a perfect sacrifice of obedience. We see him living out this obedience when he struggles, successfully, in his agony in the garden to unite his human will, which naturally feared suffering, to the divine will of his Father: “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will.”
At a time when priestly vocations in the West are in decline, we need to beg God for the grace of many more priests for his Church who will be ready to make of themselves a sacrifice to God for the sake of souls. We must pray for many humble and obedient priests who are ready to drink the chalice which God holds out to them. Mostly this will be a cup of joy, as we read in the famous psalm 23: “You have prepared a table before me in the presence of my foes; you anoint my head with oil, my cup overflows.” But on occasions that cup will be one of suffering. With the prayers and love of the faithful, priests will rejoice in the cup’s sweet wine and stay faithful when the chalice is more difficult to drink.