Summary: When something new and striking happens, we immediately focus on it. When someone appears unexpectedly and begins to do unusual things, he or she garners our attention. Jesus Christ is such a person.
Monday of the First Week in Course 2021
About a half-century ago a hit movie was in the theaters called “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.” Robert Redford and Paul Newman played outlaws that were constantly eluding law enforcement. But after one train holdup a different posse began chasing them, constantly outwitting them. And in three successive scenes Butch and Sundance kept asking each other, “who are those guys.” It’s one of the classic movie lines: “who are those guys?”
When something new and striking happens, we immediately focus on it. When someone appears unexpectedly and begins to do unusual things, he or she garners our attention. In history, we read about such people–Julius Caesar, Constantine the Great, Pope John Paul II, and more recently, Donald Trump. John the Baptist was such a person for the Romans and Jews of first-century Palestine. But, as he himself said, he didn’t even deserve to clean the footwear of the most unexpected and unusual human being in history–Jesus Christ. John said “someone is coming who will do awesome things.” And then He came, Our Lord, and He said something very different: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand.” No more waiting. And He did awesome things.
Much of the next four centuries, and even two millennia, have been spent trying to answer the question about Jesus, “who is this guy?” You see, last Sunday we heard what happened when John baptized Jesus: the heavens were ripped open, the Spirit descended like a dove, and the Father claimed Jesus as His Son. So Jesus was clearly a human being–people kept asking how He became so powerful and persuasive without a lot of education–but somehow He was also God’s Son. The author of this Letter to the Hebrews which we’ll be reading together all week was trying to answer the big question in ways that would satisfy Jewish proselytes about the identity of Jesus. How could He be both somehow human but also God’s Son? What does it mean?
So the first thing to get out of the way is Jesus’s relationship to angels, who were called “elohim” and therefore way different from human. Was Jesus some kind of super-angel? After all, that’s what the Jehovah’s Witnesses claim today. That was what the heretic Arius claimed 300 years later. The letter to the Hebrews refutes that right away. Jesus is called God’s Son, right enough, and has the “character” (literally) of the divine, but the angels are also pure spirits with great power, weren’t they? Ah, but Hebrews tells us, so much more. And he goes back into the OT to find his proof texts to show that Jesus is as much superior to angels as his name is stronger than theirs. We know that Jesus was called “Kyrios” or Lord early on in Christian history, and that is the very name of YHWH in Greek. So that explains why there are three Scriptures from different parts of the Bible to say that Jesus is way different from and superior to the angels.
The Council of Nicaea, confronted with Arius’s version of the “not quite God” word about Jesus, gave us the word homoousios, which in Latin became consubstantialem, or “consubstantial” with the Father, to describe how it is that Jesus has the “character” of God. So we know that the Word of self-understanding uttered in eternity by the Father is not only perfect, but is Divine, and a person, the second person of the Trinity, and true God from true God. The Holy Spirit is the perfect love between Father and Son, also personal, also God. But there is only one God, with three persons. If you don’t believe that, you are not a Christian.
All this is important because of the one line in Hebrews, the one we are tempted to ignore: “When he had made purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high.” If Jesus was not divine, He couldn’t offer the perfect sacrifice of His human nature on the cross. Mere humans don’t get to do perfect acts of devotion. If Jesus were not truly human, He could not draw all humanity to Himself through incorporation into His Church, His Mystical Body. And we’d still be lost in sin. But He was both–a divine person with both divine and human natures. And that, for us sinners, is the good news we celebrate each time we gather for Eucharist.
There’s one more thing to say about these short readings. The call to Simon and Andrew and James and John is not to them alone, or even to their successors, exclusively. The call to evangelize belongs to all of us. We all are commanded by Jesus to “fish humans” so that they can be saved, adopted sons and daughters of the Father.