Sermon on Passion Sunday

by a Dominican friar

“Neither by the blood of goats or of calves, but by his own blood he entered once into the holies, having obtained eternal redemption.”

Today’s Mass is the first Mass of Passiontide, the two-week period at the end of Lent in which we prepare with greater intensity than before to commemorate Our Lord’s death and resurrection. This Mass of Passion Sunday speaks to us powerfully about the Blood of Christ, the precious blood by which we have all been redeemed.  

St Paul, writing to the Hebrews, that is to the converted Jews, explains the power of Christ’s blood with a comparison that was familiar to them, but which is less familiar to us, nearly two thousand years later. He draws a contrast between Our Lord, whom he calls our High Priest, and the Jewish high-priests who succeeded each other from the days of Aaron, the brother of Moses, onwards, until the year 70, when the Jewish temple was finally destroyed by the Romans. He reminds the Jews about the ritual which the high priest carried out each year, on one of the most sacred days of the year, the day which the bible calls “the Day of Atonement”, or Yom Kippur. As perhaps you know, the Jewish temple in Jerusalem, like the portable temple or tabernacle which they carried with them for forty years in the wilderness, had two main parts. There was the first chamber, called the holy place, into which priests on their appointed days would go to burn incense on the golden altar. This is where Zechariah, the father of St John the Baptist, was ministering when the angel Gabriel spoke to him. Beyond the holy place was a second chamber, called the holy of holies, into which only the high priest could go, and only once in the year, on the Day of Atonement. As St Paul reminds the Hebrews, the Jewish high priest would take with him into the holy of holies the blood of goats and calves; he would sprinkle the ark of the covenant with the blood, or the place where the ark should have been, and in this way he would pray and make atonement for the sins committed by the Jewish people during the previous year.

It is a moving ceremony; but as St Paul points out elsewhere in this epistle, there was a serious problem with it. It was not efficacious. The blood of goats and bulls could not really take away the sins of the people. Why then did God command the Jews to perform this rite every year? He wanted them in this way to keep their faith and hope alive, and to symbolise the redemption that He would send them in the end.  

This is one of the reasons why Our Lord came into the world. He came to be that true high priest, bringing with Him the true redemption, which the Jews had been able only to symbolise. What does St Paul say? 

“Christ being come, a high priest of the good things to come, by a greater and more perfect tabernacle, not made with hand, that is, not of this creation: neither by the blood of goats and of calves, but by his own blood, entered once into the holies, having obtained an eternal redemption.”

As of old the high priests used to enter the temple or tabernacle and so pass from the holy place to the holy of holies, so our high priest, Jesus, entered a more perfect tabernacle, the Blessed Virgin, and so was able to pass from this world to heaven, taking with Him the blood which He had shed upon the Cross. And just as the old high priests in the holy of holies used to offer to God the blood of bulls and goats, Our Lord offers Himself in heaven to His eternal Father. But – and this is the great point of St Paul’s letter – Christ’s offering, unlike theirs, is efficacious. It takes away, says the apostle, “those transgressions which were under the former covenant”, that is, it takes away all the sins which the Jews had committed during the time of the Old Testament (remember that he is writing for converted Jews), and in fact it takes away also the sins committed before that, and all those committed by the Gentiles outside the Law, all the way back to the very first sin, that of Adam and Eve, which in a way had been the worst sin of all, since it was not only their personal sin but the original sin which weakened the whole human race. Such is the power of the blood of Jesus Christ.

Now, if someone were to ask us, “why is the blood of Christ so powerful?”, what would we say? It seems to me that Our Lord in the gospel suggests to us two reasons. First, at the start of the gospel, He says to the Jews: “Which of you shall convince me of sin?” – that is, “which of you will find me guilty of having sinned?” Notice, in the ensuing dialogue, that they ignore the question. None of them can think of a sin which He has committed. They had been watching Him closely for a long time, and there were certainly legal experts among them; their wits were sharpened by their hostility, and yet none of them dares to accuse Him of a sin. Jesus is the innocent Lamb of God. This is the first reason why His blood is so precious in the eyes of His Father.

But there is a second reason, one that is even more stupendous. This reason is suggested at the end of the gospel. After Our Lord has told His hearers that Abraham rejoiced, perhaps while on earth, at the prospect of seeing His day, and that Abraham also rejoiced, perhaps in the Limbo of the fathers, because the day had arrived, they say to Him, in mockery or in bewilderment: “Thou art not yet fifty years old, and hast thou seen Abraham?” It is as if they are asking, “How do you know so much about someone who lived twenty centuries ago?” His answer is both simple and solemn, both majestic and humble: “Amen, amen, I say to you, before Abraham was, I am.” Our Lord is the second Person of the Blessed Trinity, made man, true God and true man. And this is above all why His blood is so powerful: able to take away all the sins committed from the beginning of creation until the moment of His death. For if, as the psalmist says, the death even of His saints is precious in the eyes of God, how much more precious must be the death of His only Son?

But finally, what of the sins that would be committed under the new covenant? For, alas, even Christians, who have been baptised in Christ’s death, still commit faults, and some of us commit grave faults. Christ’s death took away the sins committed under the old covenant, but He has now risen from the dead, and will never die again. Is there then no hope for those who have sinned in the new covenant, after baptism? Listen again to St Paul, this time in the Communion-verse: “This chalice, says the Lord, is the new covenant in my blood. This do ye, as often as you shall drink, for the commemoration of me.” This verse is speaking of the Mass. In the holy Mass, as on the Cross, Christ offers His precious blood to His Father. He offers it above all for the sins of the baptised, for our sins, cleansing our conscience, says St Paul, from dead works to serve the living God. So let us ask Him, as our good high priest, to cleanse whatever in us may need cleansing, so we may celebrate His triumph this Easter with sincerity and joy.