Friday, April 06, 2012

The Priestly Theme in the Good Friday Readings

In the readings for today's Liturgy of Good Friday there runs a priestly theme from beginning to end.  We begin with the famous suffering servant song in Isaiah 53.  Several times the song mentions the servant bearing guilt: "surely he has borne our griefs" (v. 4); "the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all" (v. 6); "he shall bear their iniquities" (v. 11). It's often remarked that this is sacrificial terminology: the servant is a sacrificial lamb that bears guilt.  And that's correct.  However, the servant is a human being, and the human being who bore guilt
was the high priest: for example, "Aaron shall take upon himself any guilt incurred in the holy offering which the sons of Israel hallow as their holy gifts; it shall always be upon his forehead, that they may be accepted before the LORD."  Isaiah 53 goes on to describe the servant as making a libation--a priestly act--only his libation is his own soul: "He poured out his soul to death ... he bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors."  These last are also priestly acts.  It is not an either-or; the servant in Isaiah 53 is both priest and sacrifice.

Our second reading makes this explicit.  The author of Hebrews describes Jesus as the High Priest who
also suffers sacrificially: "we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens ... he offered prayers and supplications with loud cries and tears ... he learned obedience from what he suffered."

Priestly themes run through the Gospel reading as well.  John 18 really presents a picture of conflict between Jesus the legitimate high priest and two imposters, Annas and Caiaphas.  In many ways, John shows how these two characters are in violation of Jewish law and custom.  Many of John's early readers would have been aware that Annas and Caiaphas did not have the right blood line to be high priests.  The high priesthood had become corrupted under the Maccabees, who arrogated themselves to this role although they did not have the proper pedigree from Zadok.  The Essenes at Qumran on the Dead Sea were well aware of this and would not recognize the legitimacy of the high priest in Jerusalem or of the Temple he oversaw.  John mentions "Caiaphas, who was high priest that year."  That's John's little jab, pointing out the corruption of the priesthood: the high priest was supposed to be appointed for life, but the Sadducees were cooperating with the Roman governor, who was appointing a new high priest every year.  This would be like the Italian government appointing a new pope yearly.  Annas, a former high-priest and father-in-law of Caiaphas, is shown breaking Jewish legal protocol.  Night trials were forbidden.  It was illegal to abuse defendants (18:22). Mark mentions the high priest tearing his clothes upon Jesus' confession to be the Messiah (Mk 14:63), which he was never supposed to do (Lev 21:10).

Later, at the crucifixion, John throws in details that point to Jesus as a new High Priest.  His tunic is seamless (19:23), which calls to mind perhaps the only seamless garment we know about from antiquity: “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 …” ( Josephus, Antiquities 3:159-161).  Jesus tunic is not torn, in keeping with Lev 21:10.  At his burial he is anointed with myrrh and other spices that recall the priestly ointment (Jn 19:39; cf. Exod 30:22-3); he is wrapped in linen (19:40), the only acceptable cloth for the garments of the priests (Lev 16:4).

He is the priestly, sacrificial "servant" Isaiah prophesied: "because he poured out his soul to death ... he shall take away the sins of many ..."

No comments: