In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Sacrifices and offerings and whole burnt offerings don’t cut it. Otherwise, why would they have to be offered over and over again? But the entire Old Testament, once Israel gets into the wilderness, is built around the offering of sacrifices, first in the Tabernacle, and then in the Temple. True, at times the prophets speak against sacrifices because the people take the system for granted and offer the sacrifices without faith; but the prophets are not against the sacrifices themselves, only against the faithless use of them. Even Psalm 51, which says to God: “You will not delight in sacrifice, or I would give it; you will not be pleased with a burnt offering. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise” (51:16-17). But the psalm concludes by saying that when God builds up the walls of Jerusalem, “then will you delight in righteous sacrifices, in burnt offering and whole burnt offering; then bulls will be offered on your altar” (18-19). The problem, as always, is taking the shadows for the realities themselves. No one would ever say that your shadow is you. It’s generally your shape and size if the sun is at the right angle, but it’s not you. The sacrifices of the old Testament are the shadow, not the reality.
This is why the entire Old Testament is about Jesus: the Son of God in human flesh casts a long shadow. His shadow falls over the creation, fall, and curse of Adam and Eve. It falls over each of the patriarchs and the promises made to them. It falls over the matriarchs and the conceptions and births of their children. It falls over the Exodus and the return to the Land of Promise. And it falls over the sacrifices commanded of Israel. In more ways than we can probably even identify, the shadow of Jesus is cast over the Scriptures by His own light. Parallels to Jesus’ life are everywhere, and the Church Year itself strengthens the connections that the Scriptures make.
For example, today, right in the middle of Lent, we get a little Christmas. Today is March 25 (in case you forgot to look at the calendar), and all of you who are better at math than I am can figure out what happens nine months from today. Right: roughly 270 shopping days until Christmas. In other words, today is nine months away from our next celebration of Jesus’ birth. The Church celebrates it under the name of the Annunciation; that is, the announcement of the angel Gabriel to Mary that she would conceive and give birth to a Son, whose name would be Jesus, who would be called also the Son of the Most High. It is considered the date of our Lord’s conception for two reasons: Jesus is the Word made flesh, so it makes all kinds of theological sense that He would be conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit at the word of the messenger of God, perhaps at the moment of Mary’s faithful Amen to the angel’s word. But that begs the question of the date itself, March 25. There are hints that some Jews and Christians around the first century considered it reasonable that the prophets of God, particularly Moses, would live a complete and whole life. This means that they died on the same date that they had been conceived or born. Whether that’s true or not is irrelevant: they set the date of the celebration of Jesus’ conception on the day on which they believed He had been crucified. So we always celebrate the Annunciation relatively close to Holy Week.
All of that to say that Jesus’ conception—His creation in the womb of the Virgin—is tied inseparably to His death. No one knows without a doubt the dates of Jesus’ conception and birth, but the Church has always known without a doubt that Jesus was conceived and born in order to die. He is the reality, the true image, which casts every shadow in the Old Testament. The sacrifices, in particular, which served as a yearly reminder of sin and death, could not in themselves take away the sin to which they pointed. They were not, in themselves, the will and desire of God for His people. God does not desire or will them for their own sake, but His will is for the Coming One to do. Behold, I have come to do Your will, O God, the Son speaks through the psalmist. Your will is not in the bodies of bulls and goats, but in the Body You have prepared for Me. In the womb of Mary, God prepared a Body for His Son, in which He would do the will of His Father. It is that Body, and no other, that is offered as the sacrifice for sin, once and for all. It is that Body, and no other, that becomes the whole burnt offering for sinners like you and me. It is the offering of that Body on the cross that God desires, and in that sacrifice He takes eternal pleasure. In that singular, Divine will, we find our only holiness, and the righteous sacrifice in which God delights. In that singular, Divine love, Christ loved us and gave Himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God (Ephesians 5:2). This Body and this Sacrifice, and no other, is your salvation and life. For by a single offering, God has perfected for all time those who are being made holy—that’s you. From the cross, the Holy Spirit declares: “I will remember their sins and their lawless deeds no more. Where there is forgiveness of these, there is no longer any offering for sin (Hebrews 10:14-18).
No more offering for sin, because the the eternal Son was given the Body prepared for Him from the flesh of Mary, and it was that Body that He offered on the cross for the sins of the whole world. He appeared, once for all at the end of the ages, to put away sin by the sacrifice of Himself (Hebrews 9:27). And now we have an altar from which we eat our Sacrifice, who suffered outside the gate in order to sanctify us through His own blood. Through the end of Lent, and Holy Week, and the celebration of our Lord’s Resurrection, which continues into eternity, let us go to Him outside the camp of this world, and await with Him the eternal city, while we offer Him the true sacrifice of praise: faith in His every Word.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7, ESV). Amen.
– Pr. Timothy Winterstein, 3/24/15