Thursday, April 21, 2011

Understanding the significance of Christ's passion and death

Bishop Michael J. Sheridan
Most Rev. Michael J. Sheridan, S.Th.D.

It is in Jesus’ words to his apostles at the Last Supper, as recorded by St. John, that the Lord reveals the meaning of his imminent death. Those words, which make up chapter 17 of St. John’s Gospel and the conclusion of his account of the Last Supper, have come to be known as Jesus’ “High-Priestly Prayer.” Here the Holy Father invites us to recall the Jewish Feast of Atonement (Yom Kippur). It is only against the background of that liturgical feast that Jesus’ prayer can be understood, and thus the significance of his death.

Each year on the Day of Atonement the high priest is required to offer two male goats and one ram to make atonement first for himself, then for “his house” (i.e., the priestly clan of Israel), and finally for all the people (cf. Lev. 16). Jesus’ high-priestly Prayer at his Last Supper “realizes” this ritual. As the pope points out, “the rite is translated into the reality that it signifies. What has been represented in ritual acts now takes place in reality, and it takes place definitively” (Jesus of Nazareth: Holy Week, p. 77). Jesus prays first for himself, then for his Apostles, and finally for “all who will believe in him through their word” (Jn. 17:20) (i.e. the Church).

Jesus is the new sacrifice, replacing the animals of the Old Testament. Jesus is himself the new Temple. He is the new High Priest. He makes atonement for the sins of the world perfectly and definitively. “Jesus’ high-priestly prayer is the consummation of the Day of Atonement, the eternally accessible feast, as it were, of God’s reconciliation with men” (Jesus of Nazareth: Holy Week, p. 79). In his death on the Cross, Christ established the new and everlasting covenant between God and man.

And so we arrive once again at the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, the sacrifice of our salvation. Together with Baptism, this is the Easter sacrament par excellence – the source and summit of the whole Christian life (cf. Lumen Gentium, 11). The Eucharist will always be our greatest treasure!

Bishop Sheridan, of the Diocese of Colorado Springs, Colo., has a Doctorate in Sacred Theology from the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas. He serves on the Boards of Trustees of St. John Vianney Seminary in Denver and Kenrick-Glennon Seminary in St. Louis.

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