Friday, March 29, 2013

Some Thoughts on the Good Friday Gospel Reading

Every year on Good Friday, we read St. John’s account of the Passion from John 18-19.

One of the themes that runs through this reading is the Priesthood of Christ.  In this post, I would like to trace that theme.

There is priestly language already in the First Reading, from Isaiah 52 & 53, the famous “Suffering Servant” Song.  It speaks of the servant “making himself an offering for sin,” “justifying many,” and “bearing their guilt.”  These were priestly roles in the Old Testament, not the duties of prophets or kings. 

Turning to the Gospel Reading in context, we note that priestly themes precede the passage we read in Mass (Jn 18-19), beginning already in the Last Supper complex (Jn 13-17).  For example, the discourse on the Holy Spirit in John 16:4-15 contains priestly concepts.  Holy Spirit is sent to empower judgment of guilt vs. innocence, which reminds us of the tribunal of confession (cf. Jn 16:7 with Jn 20:22-23).  The Holy Spirit is upon Jesus, and will be given to the apostles, for the purpose of forgiving sin and making moral judgment, which in the Old Testament was the prerogative of the priests (see Lev 4:20; Deut 17:9).

The Holy Spirit, furthermore, is sent to the Apostles to lead them into truth—the charism of truth shared by the successors of the apostles:

When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come (John 16:13).

 However, it is important to note that this promise is given, in the first place, to the college of Apostles as a group, not to each Christian operating as an individual.  John 16:13 does not mean every Christian can just pray and become infallible. 

Jesus is shown to be a High Priest in the so-called “High Priestly Prayer” of John 17.

This High Priesthood of Christ is foreshadowed earlier in the Gospel of John.  John 2:21 says, “But He spoke of the Temple of his Body.”  When we ask, where in Judaism is there precedent for a man’s body being the Temple?—we find the precedent is given by the High Priest:

Wisdom of Solomon 18:24: For upon [the High Priest’s] long robe the whole world was depicted,
and the glories of the fathers were engraved on the four rows of stones, and your majesty on the diadem upon his head.

Philo, Life of Moses 2:143: Then [Moses] gave [the priests] their sacred vestments, giving to his brother [Aaron, the High Priest] the robe which reached down to his feet, and the mantle which covered his shoulders, as a sort of breast-plate, being an embroidered robe, adorned with all kinds of figures, and a representation of the universe.

Philo, Life of Moses 2:135: The High Priest “represents the world” and is a “microcosm” (brachys kosmos).

Josephus, Jewish Antiquities 3:180: for if anyone do but consider the fabric of the tabernacle, and take a view of the garments of the high priest, and of those vessels which we make use of in our sacred ministration, he will find … they were every one made in way of imitation and representation of the universe.

In other words, the garments of the High Priest marked him as the “cosmic man,” a man whose body represented the universe.  And in Jewish thought, the whole universe was the cosmic Temple.

This theme is picked up later in John in this throw-away line: “His tunic was without seem, woven from top to bottom.” (John 19:23).  The only known seamless garment in ancient Judaism was worn by the High Priest:

Josephus, Antiquities 3:159-161: “The high priest is indeed adorned with … a vestment of a blue color. This also is a long robe, reaching to his feet …  Now this vesture was not composed of two pieces, nor was it sewed together upon the shoulders and the sides, but it was one long vestment so woven as to have an aperture for the neck …”

Returning to John 17, “The High Priestly Prayer,” we note that it is Parallel in Structure to the Day of Atonement ritual, as we see in Leviticus:

Lev. 16:17: “There shall be no man in the tent of meeting when he enters to make atonement in the holy place until he comes out and has made atonement (1) for himself and (2) for his house and (3) for all the assembly of Israel.”
This is also Jesus’ pattern in John 17, as he prays first for himself, then for the Apostles (his household), and lastly for “all those who will believe through them,” i.e. the whole Church, the new Israel.

In an important theme in John 17 is the revelation of the divine name from Jesus to the Apostles: “I have manifested thy name to the men whom thou gavest me out of the world.” (John 17:6)

The divine name (YHWH) was not spoken in Judaism (Mishnah, Sanhedrin 11:1: “Whoever speaks distinctly will have no share in the world to come.”)  But on the Day of Atonement, the High Priest pronounced it three times (Mishnah Yoma 3:8, 4:2 and Sirach 50:20; Num 6:22-27).

In John 17:17–19, Jesus requests that God the Father “sanctify” or “consecrate” the Apostles.  In the Old Testament, what kind of men did you sanctify/consecrate (hagiazo)?  Almost exclusively the priests.  See Ex 19:22; 28:41; 29:1,33,44; 30:30; 40:13; Lev 8:11-12; 21:8.

But what kind of High Priest was Jesus, to pass on this priesthood to the disciples?  The Book of Hebrews identifies him as a priest after the order of Melchizedek (Heb 5:10; Ps 110:4). Jewish tradition considered Melchizedek as Shem, son of Noah, who inherited the primordial priesthood from Adam in succession from father to firstborn son through the generations.  David later entered this Melchizedekian succession when he became king of Melchizedek’s city, Jerusalem (called “Salem” in Genesis 14; see 2 Sam 5 for David’s conquest of Jeru-Salem).

In the view of Hebrews, Jesus’ “Priesthood of the Firstborn” is original and superior to the Levitical/Aaronic Priesthood, which was the result of the sin of Israel (see Exod 32).

Finally moving to today’s Gospel, in John 18 we see a contrast between Jesus the High Priest vs. Annas the “High Priest.”  John points out the problems with the legitimacy of Annas and Caiaphas as High Priests.  In John 18:13: “High Priest that year,”—pointedly showing the Sadducees collusion with Roman oppressors, allowing the Roman governor to appoint the High Priest on a yearly basis even though it was a lifelong office.  In Jewish law, it was illegal to have two high priests. But in John 18:24, we see that both Annas and Caiaphas are sharing the role.

Neither follows the Jewish law faithfully.  A night trial is extremely dubious (see John 18:19-27).  Jewish law never condoned abuse of defendants (Jn 18:22).

Not to mention Annas/Caiaphas had the wrong lineage, as neither was true descendant of Zadok, through whom, according to Ezekiel, the High Priestly line should come (Ezek 40:46).  This was the controversy that divided the Qumran Essenes from participation in the Jerusalem Temple.

No clear charge is made against Jesus during his trial (Jn 18:30).  Thus, John 18 is showing that the priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas is a sham.  You have to switch to the priesthood of Jesus to find real authority.

The culmination of the priestly imagery comes at the cross in John 19.  John 19:23-24 says that Jesus tunic was not torn:
But the tunic was without seam, woven from top to bottom;  so they said to one another,  “Let us not tear it, but cast lots for it to see whose it shall be.

We note this is in keeping with Jewish law for the High Priest: Lev 21:10: “The priest who is chief among his brethren .. shall not … tear his clothes …”

In John 19:39, we read of the perfumed body of the Lord being taken from the cross:
Nicodemus also, who had at first come to him by night, came bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about a hundred pounds’ weight.

This recalls the practice of anointing the High Priest with precious perfumed oils: Exod 30:22-33 “Take the finest spices: of liquid myrrh … and you shall anoint Aaron and his sons …”

In John 19:40, we see Jesus wrapped entirely in linen:

They took the body of Jesus, and bound it in linen cloths with the spices, as is the burial custom of the Jews.

Linen was the only licit fabric for the High Priest to wear: Lev 16:4: “He shall put on the holy linen coat, and shall have the linen breeches on his body, be girded with the linen girdle, and wear the linen turban; these are the holy garments.”

Jesus is then laid in a virginal tomb:

John 19:41-42: Now in the place where he was crucified there was a garden, and in the garden a new tomb where no one had ever been laid.  So because of the Jewish day of Preparation, as the tomb was close at hand, they laid Jesus there.

Mosaic Law specified the High Priest only to lay with a virgin: Lev 21:13-14: “He shall take a wife in her virginity … a virgin of his own people.”

The virginal tomb of Christ represents the virginal womb of the Blessed Virgin and of the Church she embodies.  In the Hebrew Scriptures, there is a mystical relationship between the womb and the earth (see Psalm 139:13,15!).

John is showing us Jesus as both High Priest and Sacrifice.

We close with this remark of the author of Hebrews:

Heb. 9:11-12: But when Christ appeared as a high priest of the good things that have come, then through the greater and more perfect tent (not made with hands, that is, not of this creation)  he entered once for all into the Holy Place, taking not the blood of goats and calves but his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption.


It is still possible to join me and Fr. Denny Gang, TOR, for a pilgrimage to the Holy Land this summer, as we walk in the footsteps of Jesus from Nazareth to Jerusalem. Our pilgrimage to the Holy Land lasts from June 26-July 5. If you are interested in coming with us, click here or here or here for more information, or call Select International Tours at 1-800-842-4842.
The Garden of Gethsemane

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