For the next two weeks, the Church will proclaims select passages from the New Testament letter to the Hebrews at weekday Masses. The Letter to the Hebrews is a curious text. It is not so much a letter as it is a theological essay or what appears to be the written text of a sermon. Attributed to St. Paul, scholars have racked their brains from even the time of the Church Fathers wondering if the text might provide evidence that the author was not the Apostle Paul. Further, the time in which the Letter to the Hebrews was written is also a point of contention. Some have speculated that the text was written after the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in 70 AD. Others hold the view that evidence in the text suggests an earlier date-- around the time the Roman Emperor, Claudius, expelled the Jews from Rome (which was around the year 49 AD).
What we do know for certain as pertains all these issues is that much ink has been spilled to support very strong opinions.
Yesterday, the Church presented the prologue to the Letter to the Hebrews as a kind of poetic display of the essentials of Gospel. In this passage there is a description of the great revelation of Christ the Lord as he is foreshadowed and prefigured in ages past, particularly the events and circumstances described in the Old Testament. The prologue made some interesting assertions about the identity and mission of the Lord Jesus insisting that the relationship of Christ to God is utterly unique, that he was sent into this world with a particular mission, and that he is, in terms of his identity and his divine nature, “higher” than the angels. Today, the text continues with an excursus on Christ’s identity, elaborating on yesterday’s assertion.
This might sound like an esoteric concern to us, but in the ancient world, the context in which the Letter to the Hebrews was written, was permeated with all sorts of beliefs about spiritual powers. Angels, gods, goddesses, and all manner of creatures were part of a vast chain of being that extended from the earth to the heavens and included creatures and realms both natural and supernatural.
The Letter to the Hebrews is testifying that Christ is not just one of many kinds of similar spiritual creatures, an angel alongside other angels or a god alongside other gods. Christ is unique. He is not only above all these other realities (note how all these other powers are presented as being subject to him) but more than this, Christ represents in his person a relationship to God that no other creature can claim. The Church would, a few centuries later, express this startling revelation in the nuanced language of the hypostatic union, the communion of a divine and human nature in the one person of Christ, a communion which is without “confusion or separation.”
Today’s scripture from the Letter to the Hebrews is telling us that Christ is God, but he is God who has done something extraordinary and shocking- he has united his divine life to our human life, his divine nature to a human nature. In doing this, God has united himself to us in such a way that he becomes our brother and our friend, and yet he is still God. He has lowered himself to our level, in accord with his human nature, to a status lower than the angels, so as to raise us up higher than the limits of a merely human nature. Christ has done this for us.
It is also a reminder to us that when we Christians acclaim Christ to be the Lord, what we are saying is not just that he is an important historical figure whom the Church honors above all other great persons of history. Nor are we saying that Christ is some kind of mythological being or even a creature, like an angel, that has a higher degree of intelligence and power than we do. We are saying he is much more than this. We are saying Christ is God.
We live in an age where there is a great deal of confusion surrounding the identity and mission of Christ. It might be good for us all to be particularly attentive to what the Letter to the Hebrews has to tell us about who precisely Christ is and why it matters. The lesson for us? Getting Christ’s identity and mission right has a profound positive effect on our own understanding of the identity and mission of the Church and our identity and mission as disciples. But there is a flip side to this: getting Christ’s identity and mission wrong, thinking that he is less than who he presents himself to be, has negative consequences for the Church in general and Christ’s disciples in particular as well!
Father Steve Grunow is the Assistant Director of Word on Fire Catholic Ministries.