Every year on Good Friday, we read St. John’s account of the Passion from John 18-19, together with Isaiah 52-53 and Psalm 31.
One of the themes that runs through these reading is the Priesthood of Christ.
1. There is priestly language already in the First Reading, from Isaiah 52 & 53, the famous “Suffering Servant” Song:
See, my servant shall prosper,
he shall be raised high and greatly exalted.
Even as many were amazed at him
so marred was his look beyond human semblance
and his appearance beyond that of the sons of man
so shall he startle many nations,
because of him kings shall stand speechless;
for those who have not been told shall see,
those who have not heard shall ponder it.
This poetic prophecy is remarkable for its abrupt juxtaposition of the exaltation and humiliation of the servant. First, the prophet says the servant shall “prosper, be raised high, and be greatly exalted;” but the next line speaks of him being “marred beyond human semblance.” What gives, Isaiah? How can you move between two such statements without any transition or explanation? This is one of many exegetical cruces in the Old Testament that only make sense in the light of the cross. The dynamic here of simultaneous exaltation and humiliation is taken up and developed throughout the Gospel of John, which is marked by the paradoxical irony that “the hour” of Jesus’ glorification (John 12:23) is actually the hour of his passion and crucifixion (John 17:1). Why is the cross a glorification? Because it is the extreme expression of love; only a God most truly worthy of love and worship would and could undergo such radical self-sacrifice for our sake.
Who would believe what we have heard?
To whom has the arm of the LORD been revealed?
He grew up like a sapling before him,
like a shoot from the parched earth;
there was in him no stately bearing to make us look at him,
nor appearance that would attract us to him.
He was spurned and avoided by people,
a man of suffering, accustomed to infirmity,
one of those from whom people hide their faces,
spurned, and we held him in no esteem.
These verses remind us that the Christ, when he walked on earth, did not succeed in winning everyone to his cause, even though he performed many and frequent miracles. Rather, he was “held in no esteem.” Surprisingly, he did not even convince all of his own disciples, the men he had in formation under him, that he was the Messiah and Son of God (think Judas). Sometimes we have a tendency to think that if we just had the right argument, the right evangelistic technique, or the power to perform miracles, we could convert all of society. Yet society disbelieves not because there are not enough arguments for the existence of God, or strong enough historical evidence for the life and ministry of Christ, nor for want of miracles: many have been documented. People disbelieve because they want to disbelieve. The message of Jesus is too challenging, requires too much of us. We would prefer it to be untrue.
Yet it was our infirmities that he bore,
our sufferings that he endured,
while we thought of him as stricken,
as one smitten by God and afflicted.
But he was pierced for our offenses,
crushed for our sins;
upon him was the chastisement that makes us whole,
by his stripes we were healed.
We had all gone astray like sheep,
each following his own way;
but the LORD laid upon him
the guilt of us all.
Here the servant is described like a sacrificial animal, who died vicariously for the sins of the worshiper. The “laying of guilt” upon the Servant reflects the sacrificial practice of laying hands on the head of the animal to transfer sin and guilt onto the victim. In the liturgical economy of the Old Testament, there was a strong correlation between the priests and the sacrifices. Both priests and sacrifices had hands laid on their heads. Both bore sins for the people. The priests ate the “sin” and “guilt” offerings of the people and thus “bore” their sins in themselves (Lev 6-7). So, this language in which the servant is assimilated to a sacrifice is in keeping with his priestly role.
Though he was harshly treated, he submitted
and opened not his mouth;
like a lamb led to the slaughter
or a sheep before the shearers,
he was silent and opened not his mouth.
Oppressed and condemned, he was taken away,
and who would have thought any more of his destiny?
When he was cut off from the land of the living,
and smitten for the sin of his people,
a grave was assigned him among the wicked
and a burial place with evildoers,
though he had done no wrong
nor spoken any falsehood.
But the LORD was pleased
to crush him in infirmity.
The English translation makes it sound as though it gave God pleasure that the Servant was crushed, but such is not the case. The Hebrew is an idiom often used for royal decrees or decisions, indicating that it was God’s will, but not necessarily that He found in enjoyment in it. It would be better to translate, “It was the will of the LORD to crush him in infirmity.”
If he gives his life as an offering for sin,
he shall see his descendants in a long life,
and the will of the LORD shall be accomplished through him.
Because of his affliction
he shall see the light in fullness of days;
through his suffering, my servant shall justify many,
and their guilt he shall bear.
Therefore I will give him his portion among the great,
and he shall divide the spoils with the mighty,
because he surrendered himself to death
and was counted among the wicked;
and he shall take away the sins of many,
and win pardon for their offenses.
Isaiah speaks of the servant “making himself an offering for sin,” “justifying many,” “bearing their guilt,” “taking away the sins of many,” and “winning pardon for offenses.” These were primarily priestly roles in the Old Testament, because the priesthood bore the guilt of Israel and took away their sins through the sacrificial liturgy (Lev. 4:30,36,32 et passim; 5:5; 22:16). The Servant is simultaneously priest and sacrifice.
P. Our Responsorial Psalm is Psalm 31:
R. (Lk 23:46) Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.
In you, O LORD, I take refuge;
let me never be put to shame.
In your justice rescue me.
Into your hands I commend my spirit;
you will redeem me, O LORD, O faithful God.
R. Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.
For all my foes I am an object of reproach,
a laughingstock to my neighbors, and a dread to my friends;
they who see me abroad flee from me.
I am forgotten like the unremembered dead;
I am like a dish that is broken.
R. Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.
But my trust is in you, O LORD;
I say, “You are my God.
In your hands is my destiny; rescue me
from the clutches of my enemies and my persecutors.”
R. Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.
Let your face shine upon your servant;
save me in your kindness.
Take courage and be stouthearted,
all you who hope in the LORD.
R. Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.
This is yet another todah or Thanksgiving psalm, and one that Our Lord famously quotes from the cross. The Psalm actually appears to be two psalms fused together: 31:1-8 plus 31:9-24. Both sections of the psalm progress from complaint to trust to thanksgiving.
The Psalmist here sounds very much like the Servant of Isaiah 53. This is not accidental. Traditionally, the psalmist of Ps 31 and most of the psalms in Book 1 (Pss. 1-41) is David, and I and others have argued that the “Servant” of Isaiah is a royal figure, the Davidic king (see esp. Isaiah 42:1-7, where the Servant is described in terms strongly reminiscent of the Davidic king in Psalm 89, Ps. 72, 1 Sam 16, and elsewhere). So, in addition to the Servant’s role as priest and sacrifice from our first reading, we can say he is a king in the model of David the suffering monarch.
2. Our Second Reading comes from Hebrews 4:14-16 and 5:7-9:
Brothers and sisters:
Since we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens,
Jesus, the Son of God,
let us hold fast to our confession.
For we do not have a high priest
who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses,
but one who has similarly been tested in every way,
yet without sin.
So let us confidently approach the throne of grace
to receive mercy and to find grace for timely help.
In the days when Christ was in the flesh,
he offered prayers and supplications with loud cries and tears
to the one who was able to save him from death,
and he was heard because of his reverence.
Son though he was, he learned obedience from what he suffered;
and when he was made perfect,
he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him.
Having seen the priestly and royal roles of Jesus in our First Reading and Psalm, we now turn to the Book of Hebrews, which delights in comparing Jesus to Melchizedek, that famous priest-king from Genesis 14. Our Reading stresses Jesus as the “High Priest” who can empathize with us, so that we may approach his “throne of Grace”—a royal image.
Hebrews stresses the human nature of Christ in a way that can be theologically uncomfortable. How could Jesus “learn obedience” and become “perfect”? Wasn’t he perfectly obedient? Didn’t he already know all things? How can God learn?
We might speculate that God has all positive knowledge, knowledge of all that exists. But sin and evil is a privation, a “lack,” and it is not in the nature of God to experience privation, but rather blessedness. In his human nature, Christ experienced things that are not natural to the experience of the divine person, so perhaps in this sense we can speak of Christ “learning.” And with regard to “being made perfect,” I believe we should interpret this in a sacrificial sense, as the Old Testament sacrificial animals needed to be tammim, “perfect” (Exod 12:5). The process of “being made perfect,” then, is not an increase of moral perfection (which Christ had already), but the process of his self-offering, of becoming the tammim lamb of God.
This Second Reading reminds us that Christianity alone, of all world religions or philosophies, holds that God—the one necessary being and the source of all that exists—is personal and not a force or formula. Furthermore, this personal being who is the source of all, has also come down and shared the human condition and “learned” what it is like to suffer with us. Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism, and other faiths do not claim this: in fact, to most of them it seems almost blasphemous to claim that this is true. But Christianity alone claims it is not impossible for God to take to himself a human nature, because, having been made in the image of God, a human nature is not contradictory to the divine nature, even if it is incomparable to it. And so the Christian God is uniquely different from all other conceptions of God. The Christian God understands our experience and so is uniquely compassionate, uniquely willing to grant “mercy” to those who approach his “throne of grace” or “gracious throne.”
3. Turning to the Gospel Reading in context, we note that priestly themes precede the passage we read in Mass (Jn 18-19), beginning already in the Last Supper complex (Jn 13-17). For example, the discourse on the Holy Spirit in John 16:4-15 contains priestly concepts. Holy Spirit is sent to empower judgment of guilt vs. innocence, which reminds us of the tribunal of confession (cf. Jn 16:7 with Jn 20:22-23). The Holy Spirit is upon Jesus, and will be given to the apostles, for the purpose of forgiving sin and making moral judgment, which in the Old Testament was the prerogative of the priests (see Lev 4:20; Deut 17:9).
The Holy Spirit, furthermore, is sent to the Apostles to lead them into truth—the charism of truth shared by the successors of the apostles.
When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come (16:13).
However, it is important to note that this promise is given, in the first place, to the college of Apostles as a group, not to each Christian operating as an individual. John 16:13 does not mean every Christian can just pray and become infallible.
Jesus is shown to be a High Priest in the so-called “High Priestly Prayer” of John 17.
The High Priesthood of Christ is foreshadowed earlier in the Gospel of John. John 2:21 says, “But He spoke of the Temple of his Body.” When we ask, where in Judaism is there precedent for a man’s body being the Temple?—we find the precedent is given by the High Priest:
Wisdom of Solomon 18:24: For upon [the High Priest’s] long robe the whole world was depicted, and the glories of the fathers were engraved on the four rows of stones, and your majesty on the diadem upon his head.
Philo, Life of Moses 2:143: Then [Moses] gave [the priests] their sacred vestments, giving to his brother [Aaron, the High Priest] the robe which reached down to his feet, and the mantle which covered his shoulders, as a sort of breast-plate, being an embroidered robe, adorned with all kinds of figures, and a representation of the universe.
Philo, Life of Moses 2:135: The High Priest “represents the world” and is a “microcosm” (brachys kosmos).
Josephus, Jewish Antiquities 3:180: for if anyone do but consider the fabric of the tabernacle, and take a view of the garments of the high priest, and of those vessels which we make use of in our sacred ministration, he will find … they were every one made in way of imitation and representation of the universe.
In other words, the garments of the High Priest marked him as the “cosmic man,” a man whose body represented the universe. And in Jewish thought, the whole universe was the cosmic Temple.
This theme is picked up later in John in this throw-away line: “His tunic was without seem, woven from top to bottom.” (John 19:23). The only known seamless garment in ancient Judaism was worn by the High Priest:
Josephus, Antiquities 3:159-161: “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 …”
Returning to John 17, “The High Priestly Prayer,” we note that it is Parallel in Structure to the Day of Atonement ritual, as we see in Leviticus:
Lev. 16:17: “There shall be no man in the tent of meeting when he enters to make atonement in the holy place until he comes out and has made atonement (1) for himself and (2) for his house and (3) for all the assembly of Israel.”
This is also Jesus’ pattern in John 17, as he prays first for himself, then for the Apostles (his household), and lastly for “all those who will believe through them,” i.e. the whole Church, the new Israel.
In an important theme in John 17 is the revelation of the divine name from Jesus to the Apostles: “I have manifested thy name to the men whom thou gavest me out of the world.” (John 17:6)
The divine name (YHWH) was not spoken in Judaism (Mishnah, Sanhedrin 11:1: “Whoever speaks distinctly will have no share in the world to come.”) But on the Day of Atonement, the High Priest pronounced it three times (Mishnah Yoma 3:8, 4:2 and Sirach 50:20; Num 6:22-27).
In John 17:17–19, Jesus requests that God the Father “sanctify” or “consecrate” the Apostles. In the Old Testament, what kind of men did you sanctify/consecrate (hagiazo)? Almost exclusively the priests. See Ex 19:22; 28:41; 29:1,33,44; 30:30; 40:13; Lev 8:11-12; 21:8.
But what kind of High Priest was Jesus, to pass on this priesthood to the disciples? The Book of Hebrews identifies him as a priest after the order of Melchizedek (Heb 5:10; Ps 110:4). Jewish tradition considered Melchizedek as Shem, son of Noah, who inherited the primordial priesthood from Adam in succession from father to firstborn son through the generations. David later entered this Melchizedekian succession when he became king of Melchizedek’s city, Jerusalem (called “Salem” in Genesis 14; see 2 Sam 5 for David’s conquest of Jeru-Salem).
In the view of Hebrews, Jesus’ “Priesthood of the Firstborn” is original and superior to the Levitical/Aaronic Priesthood, which was the result of the sin of Israel (see Exod 32). Thus it is so appropriate that our Second Reading is a passage from Hebrews 4 describing the nature of Jesus’ priesthood.
Finally, moving to Good Friday’s Gospel, in John 18 we see a contrast between Jesus the High Priest vs. Annas the “High Priest.” John points out the problems with the legitimacy of Annas and Caiaphas as High Priests. In John 18:13: “High Priest that year,”—pointedly showing the Sadducees collusion with Roman oppressors, allowing the Roman governor to appoint the High Priest on a yearly basis even though it was a lifelong office. In Jewish law, it was illegal to have two high priests. But in John 18:24, we see that both Annas and Caiaphas are sharing the role.
Neither follows the Jewish law faithfully. A night trial is extremely dubious (see John 18:19-27). Jewish law never condoned abuse of defendants (Jn 18:22).
Not to mention Annas/Caiaphas had the wrong lineage, as neither was true descendant of Zadok, through whom, according to Ezekiel, the High Priestly line should come (Ezek 40:46). The Maccabean King Jonathan Apphus usurped the high priesthood in c. 152 BC. This was the controversy that divided the Qumran Essenes from participation in the Jerusalem Temple. A popular hypothesis is that the ousted high priest went into internal exile at Qumran and became the “Teacher of Righteousness” known from the Dead Sea Scrolls.
No clear charge is made against Jesus during his trial (Jn 18:30). Thus, John 18 is showing that the priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas is a sham. You have to switch to the priesthood of Jesus to find real authority.
The culmination of the priestly imagery comes at the cross in John 19. John 19:23-24 says that Jesus’ tunic was not torn:
But the tunic was without seam, woven from top to bottom; so they said to one another, “Let us not tear it, but cast lots for it to see whose it shall be.
We note this is in keeping with Jewish law for the High Priest: Lev 21:10: “The priest who is chief among his brethren .. shall not … tear his clothes …” Caiaphas violates this command during Jesus’ trial (Mark 14:63).
In John 19:39, we read of the perfumed body of the Lord being taken from the cross:
Nicodemus also, who had at first come to him by night, came bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about a hundred pounds’ weight.
This recalls the practice of anointing the High Priest with precious perfumed oils: Exod 30:22-33 “Take the finest spices: of liquid myrrh … and you shall anoint Aaron and his sons …”
In John 19:40, we see Jesus wrapped entirely in linen:
They took the body of Jesus, and bound it in linen cloths with the spices, as is the burial custom of the Jews.
Linen was the only licit fabric for the High Priest to wear:
Lev 16:4: “He shall put on the holy linen coat, and shall have the linen breeches on his body, be girded with the linen girdle, and wear the linen turban; these are the holy garments.”
Jesus is then laid in a virginal tomb:
John 19:41-42: Now in the place where he was crucified there was a garden, and in the garden a new tomb where no one had ever been laid. So because of the Jewish day of Preparation, as the tomb was close at hand, they laid Jesus there.
Mosaic Law specified the High Priest only to give himself to a virgin:
Lev 21:13-14 “He shall take a wife in her virginity … a virgin of his own people.”
The virginal tomb of Christ represents the virginal womb of the Blessed Virgin and of the Church she embodies. In the Hebrew Scriptures, there is a mystical relationship between the womb and the earth (see Psalm 139:13,15!).
John is showing us Jesus as both High Priest and Sacrifice. We close with this remark of the author of Hebrews:
Heb. 9:11-12: But when Christ appeared as a high priest of the good things that have come, then through the greater and more perfect tent (not made with hands, that is, not of this creation) he entered once for all into the Holy Place, taking not the blood of goats and calves but his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption.