Sunday, March 20, 2016

Between Two Resurrections

Palm Sunday

“Lazarus! Come out!” So Jesus calls to his friend who has died, over whom he has wept, and who has lain four days in the tomb. Cyril of Jerusalem points out, “One day had passed, and a second, and a third: his sinews were decayed, and corruption was preying already upon his body.”[1] And yet Lazarus does come out, still wearing his grave clothes, but as alive and well as you or me.

Resurrection of Lazarus. Private coll., Athens. 12-13 c.
When the One Who, in the beginning, speaks life into being tells one of us, his creatures, to live, though we lie in a tomb, we will live. Whether we have been dead four days, like Lazarus, or four thousand years, we will heed this command of our master. When the one who made us out of dust tells us to arise, though our bodies have turned to dust, we will arise. Dust cannot resist the divine word at resurrection time. 

The resurrection of Lazarus was yesterday and the resurrection of Jesus is next Sunday. Between these two resurrections is today and Holy Week. Today, Palm Sunday, is inextricably linked to yesterday, Lazarus Saturday. Liturgically, they form a unit all their own, between the Great Fast and Holy Week. So, though we rightly call today Palm Sunday in commemoration of Christ’s triumphant entry into Jerusalem as King and Messiah, let’s not forget the place of Lazarus in all of this, who appears at the beginning, the middle, and the end of today’s gospel.

The gospel begins with Lazarus, who had been dead, eating supper with Jesus and his disciples. This is one of the signs of the resurrection of the body. Only a truly embodied person eats food. Jesus will repeat this sign after his own resurrection, when he will eat broiled fish with his disciples in Jerusalem (Luke 24:42). By this sign, we know that Lazarus and Jesus are truly risen in the body and not merely ghosts or visions.  

And then, in the middle of the gospel, we learn of a further connection between Jesus and Lazarus. Not only are the chief priests now plotting to put Jesus to death, but also Lazarus, “because, on account of him many of the Jews were going away and believing in Jesus.”

According to tradition, Lazarus, unlike Jesus, escapes their plot and lives on another thirty years. When he dies a second time, they lay him in a sarcophagus on which they write, “Lazarus of the four days and the friend of Christ.” For four days, Lazarus knew death, which no one else among the living has ever known. The Synaxarion says he never spoke of it and some say he never laughed again until he saw a man stealing a clay pot. And then he laughed, saying, “One earth steals another” (cf. Sanidopoulos).

And then at the end of today’s gospel, after Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem, we learn why the great crowd is so exultant and why they hail Jesus as their king: because he has raised Lazarus. This miracle more than all the others convinces multitudes that Jesus is the Christ. By raising Lazarus, Jesus shows that he can raise us all and that he will save us – even from the last enemy, even from death. This divine triumph even over death is the sign that brought so many to belief in Jesus.

And this belief of the people is what motivates the Pharisees and chief priests to take action against Jesus. They see that, due to this great sign, many are believing in Jesus and they fear that this will provoke the Romans to come and destroy them. The high priest Caiaphas, though motivated by cowardice, unintentionally prophesies, saying, “It is expedient for you that one man should die for the people, and that the whole nation should not perish” (John 11:50). And so, in the gospel of John, they plot to put Jesus to death as a direct result of his resurrection of Lazarus. 

Jesus’ resurrection of Lazarus leads today to his triumphant entry into Jerusalem – but it will soon lead also to his death. Quite directly, Jesus lays down his own life in exchange for giving life to his friend Lazarus. There is no greater love. Ultimately, Jesus lays down his life to give life to us all. It is good to be a friend of Christ Jesus. Even though you die, he will give you life.

Today, we sing again the Troparion of Lazarus from yesterday:
Christ our God, before your passion you confirmed our common resurrection when you raised Lazarus from the dead. Therefore, like the children, we carry the symbols of victory and cry out to you, the Victor over death: Hosanna in the highest! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.

I believe that, through Lazarus, Jesus has something to teach us about death. When Lazarus dies, Jesus weeps. And then, he raises Lazarus from the dead. This is our perfect model for how to approach death.

First, death is an occasion for weeping. It is a sorrowful thing. It is a terrible thing. It is an unnatural thing. It is the last enemy. It is not a natural part of life. It is not “going to a better place.” It is a thing to be lamented. It is a thing to put an end to.

Nevertheless, for each of us there is a time to die (Eccl. 3). For Lazarus, there are two times to die. And for Jesus, there is a time to die. The death of Jesus is like no other, because he alone is Life. And so death cannot keep him in his clutches. When life enters into death, it is death that dies at last.

 Loretta Lynn sings, “Everybody wants to go to heaven, but nobody wants to die.” And that’s mostly right, and for good reason. Jesus did not want to die. And he wept again when his time for death drew near to him in Gethsemane. “In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to him who was able to save him from death, and he was heard for his godly fear.” (Heb 5:7).  

So in the face of death, first we weep, as Jesus weeps, and then, after our weeping, we accept death. We embrace the cross, as Jesus does. We learn to love our enemy. And then, on the other side of that gaping chasm of Hades, there is hope, because Jesus, the way and the life, has gone there first. In him, there will be a restoration of all things to right. After death, there comes a better life with the resurrection. It is not better for us to be dead. It is not better for our souls to be “freed” from our bodies. It is better for us to rise in Christ and live again in bodies freed from mortality. So, yes, we grieve in the face of death, but we do

not grieve as others do who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep…. For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the archangel's call, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first… and so we shall always be with the Lord. Therefore comfort one another with these words (1Th 4:13-18).

Bottom of Form

[1] Cyril of Jerusalem, “Lecture V - Of Faith,” in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers (Series 2): The Catechetical Lectures of St. Cyril, ed. Alexander Roberts et al., vol. 7, Cyril of Jerusalem, Gregory Nazianzen (Grand Rapids, MI: Hendrickson Pub, 1996), 31

Sunday, March 6, 2016

The Order of Melchizedek

“Jesus has become a high priest forever after the order of Melchizedek.” This verse should be familiar to us, but it is also mysterious. And this mysterious figure of Melchizedek is surprisingly important to us and to our salvation.

Speculum Humanae Salvationis, Westfalen oder Köln,
circa 1360. ULB Darmstadt, Hs 2505, fol. 29r

He appears briefly in Genesis and then once again in the Psalms and that is all we have about him in the Old Testament.

From Genesis:
And Melchizedek king of Salem brought out bread and wine; he was priest of God Most High. And he blessed [Abram] and said, "Blessed be Abram by God Most High, maker of heaven and earth; and blessed be God Most High, who has delivered your enemies into your hand!" And Abram gave him a tenth of everything. (Gen 14:18-20)

And from the Psalms:
The LORD has sworn and will not change his mind, "You are a priest for ever after the order of Melchizedek." (Psa 110:4)

Even though these references are brief, the author of Hebrews, who today we again hear speaking in the Church, reflects deeply upon these passages and, inspired by the Holy Spirit, finds in Melchizedek an image of the Son of God, our Lord Jesus Christ. He writes of Melchizedek, “He is without father or mother or genealogy” – because, you see, no genealogy is provided for him in Genesis – “and he has neither beginning of days nor end of life” – because, again, neither of these are recounted in the narrative.

Melchizedek simply appears and disappears again from the story, rather like Tom Bombadil.[1]  As Nahum Sarna writes, he “suddenly emerges from the shadows and as suddenly retreats into oblivion.”[2]  In having no beginning or end, the author of Hebrews finds that Melchizedek “resembl[es] the Son of God [and] he continues a priest forever” (7:3).

Melchizedek challenges the notion of priesthood prevalent in Jesus’ day, and he challenges some of our notions of priesthood as well. At the time of Christ, and really throughout most of scripture, when someone is talking about a priest, they are probably talking about the priesthood of Aaron and his descendants – the Levites. [3]  Being a priest of God meant having the proper heredity and it came with certain ritual obligations and privileges. By the time of Jesus, priests were primarily ministers of the altar in the temple.[4]

Significantly, the Gospels never refer to Jesus or his apostles as priests. Jesus, as Hebrews points out, was “descended from Judah, and in connection with that tribe Moses said nothing about priests” (Heb 7:14). In the Gospels and Acts, the priesthood of God continues to be the Levitical priesthood.

Interestingly, the majority of the New Testament does not mention priests at all. The word “priest” is totally absent from all the epistles except for Hebrews.[5] Half of the New Testament’s entire discussion of priesthood takes place in Hebrews. And it is Hebrews that reveals to us the priesthood of Jesus Christ. So if we want to know anything about Christian priesthood, we have to study Hebrews, which clearly teaches that the priesthood of Jesus Christ is not akin to Aaron’s Levitical priesthood, but is something both newer and older than that. It is the eternal priesthood of the order of Melchizedek.

Melchizedek, “the priest of God Most High” (Gen 14:18), is the first priest mentioned in the Bible, and he is no Levite. He is not even a descendant of Abraham, let alone of Levi or Aaron. In fact, he blesses Abraham, and receives tithes from him. So, Hebrews says, his priesthood is superior to that of the Levites, because Levi, within his ancestor Abraham, is blessed by and pays tithes to Melchizedek, not the other way around (7:7-10).

So, Biblically, there is from the very beginning a kind of priesthood outside the line of Levi and Aaron, despite the fact that the Bible, Old and New Testaments, more commonly understands priesthood as Levitical.

St. Justin Martyr writes,
Melchizedek was described by Moses as the priest of the Most High, and he was a priest of those who were in uncircumcision, and blessed the circumcised Abraham who brought him tithes, so God has shown that His everlasting Priest, called also by the Holy Spirit Lord, would be Priest of those in uncircumcision. Those too in circumcision who approach Him, that is, believing Him and seeking blessings from Him, He will both receive and bless.[6]

This commentary underscores the importance of Melchizedek’s priesthood for the universal calling to Christ. Christ, and the “covenant he mediates” (Heb 8:6) as high priest, is available to all, circumcised and uncircumcised, and not only to those descended from Abraham.

To better understand the order of Melchizedek, I think we have to look at two figures: one you’ve probably heard of: David the king, and one you may not have: Zadok, the first high priest.

Melchizedek is both king and priest of Salem. Now, Salem, which means “peace,” is another name for Jerusalem – Jeru-Salem (cf. Psalm 76:2). And Melchizedek’s two roles in Salem – priest and king – would later be more distinct. Zadok represents the priests of Jerusalem and David the kings. Even Melchizedek’s name points to these two roles. Melek means “king” and “Tsadowq” is the name of the first high priest. Melek Tsadowq together form “Melchizedek.”

Zadok is one of the descendants of Aaron, a priest at the time of David, who became the first high priest of the temple built by Solomon. The high priests descended thereafter descend from Zadok. I think it may be partly for this reason that Hebrews usually calls Jesus “high priest” rather than simply “priest.” Zadok means “righteous” and so the name Melchizedek means “righteous king” as Hebrews states (7:2).

David, as I hope we all know, is the great king of Jerusalem. And so he shares this with Melchizedek. He is a successor to the kingship of Melchizedek. It makes sense, then, when Psalm 110 includes David and his successors among the priesthood, stating, “The LORD says to my lord…, ‘You are a priest for ever after the order of Melchizedek’” (Ps 110:1,4).
And who is the true Son of David? Who is the true king of Peace? Jesus Christ! He is the true king forever and ever! He is the king of peace, the king of Salem, the king of Jerusalem, the successor of Melchizedek, a priest forever, according to the order of Melchizedek.

Biblical priesthood of God ends rather as it begins. Melchizedek’s priesthood “of God Most High” in Genesis becomes the priesthood “of God and of Christ” in Revelation (Rev 20:6). Fittingly, according to Hebrews, Jesus Christ, in whom the last priests mentioned in Scripture have their priesthood, is after the order of the first priest mentioned in Scripture. Melchizedek and Christ begin and end the biblical discussion of priesthood. Their priesthoods are extraordinary. They are not Levites. Their sacrifices are not the sacrifices of animals. Melchizedek offers bread and wine (Gen 14:18), prefiguring Christ’s offering of his own body and blood (cf. Heb 9:11-12, 10:10). They are both called king as well as priest (Gen 14:18; Rev 19:16). The priesthood of each is forever (Ps 110:4; Heb 6:20). Extended once for all the sons of Aaron (Ex 28:43-29:1), priesthood is now extended to all those whom the blood of Jesus Christ has freed from sin (Rev. 1:5-6).

[2]  Nahum Sarna. The JPS Torah Commentary: Genesis. Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society, 1989, 109
[3] In fact, the word כֹּהֵן kohen appears in 153 verses in Leviticus - more than in any other book in the Bible. Blue Letter Bible. "Dictionary and Word Search for kohen (Strong's 3548)"
[4] TDNT, 262
[5] Exegetical Dictionary of the New Testament. Ed. Hort Balz, Gerhard Schneider. Vol. 2. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1991. 174.
[6] Justin Martyr. “Dialogue with Trypho.” Ante-Nicene Fathers. Ed. Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson. Vol. 1. Grand Rapids: Wm B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1885, 211

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