Written by Anna Petrin, a Professor at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, DC.
“Since, then, 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 we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” – Hebrews 4:14-16
This beautiful passage from the Letter to the Hebrews is one of the most well-known parts of the Bible. It conjures up an unforgettable image of Christ as our High Priest – and quite a High Priest at that! A High Priest who has “passed through the heavens,” who is “tested” and yet is “without sin.” A High Priest who is somewhat like Aaron and his descendants in the Old Testament (Exodus 28-29), but who is also not like those high priests – because those men were sinners, and they offered daily sacrifices not only for other people’s sins, but for their own as well (Leviticus 9:7). Christ is therefore the perfect High Priest: a High Priest who offered himself “once for all” as a perfect sacrifice not for his own sins, but for ours (Hebrews 7:27).
As a teacher of worship at a seminary, I am lucky enough to work with students across all age ranges and denominations as they develop their own patterns of daily prayer and learn the history of Christian worship. And in reading journals, personal meetings, and assignments for the past decade now (from clergy and laity alike), I have heard again and again two similar refrains: “I’m worried that I pray the wrong way, so I just don’t pray,” and, “I can’t really pray because I’m too busy leading worship.” These honest moments offer us, as a church, a critical insight into our need for Christ in both our personal prayer and our communal prayer. They teach us that sometimes our desire to make our prayer “perfect” (as some of my students put it) ends up sidelining our great High Priest and places us in a role that we can never hope to fill.
As Hebrews teaches us, nobody else’s prayer can compare to Christ’s – not even that of a high priest in the Temple. What, then, are we called to as Christians? We are called to “hold fast to our confession” and to “approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” The point here is not that we are supposed to say certain words (like the “confession of faith” in the United Methodist liturgy). Instead, the point is that we are supposed to open our hearts to receive the mercy and grace that Christ, our great High Priest, has already offered us once for all time.
Ultimately, Hebrews exhorts the followers of Christ to abandon self-sufficiency and to rest – to rest in the trust and knowledge of God’s goodness and provision. It reminds us of the words of Psalm 95 (“Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts…”), and it calls us to become people of faith who are open to “the promise of entering his rest” (Hebrews 4:1).
In short, to name Jesus as our great High Priest is to situate our own prayers – the prayers we pray in our hearts and the prayers we offer as congregations – inside the prayer of Christ. Our lives of worship are united not only to one another but to the great and unending prayer of Christ who comes to us, enlivens us, intercedes for us, and resurrects us, so that we can escape from our own prisons of achieving and performing, and instead live and move and have our being in the great and wide mercy of the God who made us.
This idea of resting in the Lord may seem obvious and even easy. And yet I suspect it is one of the most difficult steps that we have to take in a genuine life of prayer. It is hard to embrace the land of divine rest and to stop wandering in the wilderness of self-sufficiency. But the Bible calls us back to a relationship with our great High Priest, calls us back to rest in the knowledge that Christ’s mercy and grace are waiting to soothe and heal our every need.
The Lenten season can easily become a season of work: a season in which we try to haul ourselves up by our own spiritual bootstraps with the tool of fasting. But the Lenten period is not only a period of fasting; it is a period of fasting, prayer, and almsgiving. A time in which our needs both as individuals and as communities are set within the proper perspective. A time in which we are called to set aside the work of human gaining and striving in order to enter more deeply into the rest of prayer and love of neighbor. I invite you to ask yourself this Lenten season: What could I give up that might allow me to rest more deeply in the mercy and grace of the great High Priest who will never let me down?