A new reading of the Letter to the Hebrews

The Epistle to the Hebrews with regard to the Gospels

by Martin Pochon

Cerf, coll. “Divine reading”, 728 p., 29 €

The reader who has had the patience to read this volume to the end is at least convinced of one thing: it is a masterpiece which completely renews the interpretation of the Letter to the Hebrews. The question that preoccupies Martin Pochon is that of the real meaning of Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross, of his Passion and of his Resurrection. The Jesuit starts from a critical observation. Since at least the Council of Trent, it has long been affirmed, both in the teaching of the Magisterium, in the liturgy and in the homilies, “That during the Last Supper, Jesus offered his body and his blood to God the Father”, and even that the Father needed the blood of his Son to flow in atonement for the sins of men.

However, the Gospels do not allow to support such assertions which lead to «the reversal of the meaning of the Last Supper ” and hence the Passion. Indeed if we can consider the death of Christ «like the fruit of a double movement», namely as “Movement of offering to the Father» and like “Movement of offering to men to do the will of his Father», the Epistle to the Hebrews does not mention this second moment.

But is it for all that fair to accuse this text? To verify this, the biblical scholar embarks on a long and meticulous journey, which begins by exploring the figure of Melchizedek, king and priest, and of «the symbolism of blood in the First Covenant and in the Letter». There follows a long investigation of Psalm 39 (40) and its use in the Epistle to the Hebrews. The author then tries to understand why nothing is said in the Letter. «on the fact that Christ offered his life to men and especially to his enemies». Another chapter analyzes with precision the end of the epistle which seems to present a “Different sacrificial design» of the first chapters. Finally, the sixth and final chapter deals with the figure of the Father which finally emerges from the epistle.

In his long conclusion (over seventy pages), Martin Pochon recognizes a number of ambiguities and difficulties specific to the epistle he is studying, for example when this text «makes the Cross a contractual exchange between God and men, which is not at all the meaning that Christ gives of his death according to the evangelists Matthew and Mark». But what the author regrets the most is that, since Trento, «we took as a key to the interpretation of the Last Supper a text that does not speak of it» And it is to the New Testament accounts that speak of it — the Gospels and Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians — that he invites us to turn to this subject.

Should we then abandon the Epistle to the Hebrews? No, not at all, but the risk is «take as a completion of the intelligence of the faith», while «far from being a theological term, (it) turns out to be the deepening of a prerequisite. It emphasizes obedience, and obedience is first of all listening; it is at the beginning of all discernment, all education, all relationship, all alliance. But it is only the first phase of human action, it opens onto the field of knowledge of the other and of his will, and it is indeed this will that it is a question of knowing.».

Such an inversion or relativization of this biblical book in relation to others cannot fail to have important repercussions for theology or the liturgy. In this last domain, the author does not hesitate to make note of proposals, such as the abolition of the penitential rite at the beginning of the mass, the change of place of the gesture of peace after the communion, the «reorient(ation) » from “Numerous orations, prefaces and mementos”, finally, the «foot washing reminder» at the end of the celebration, just before sending. These reflections illustrate how exegetical and theological reflection on the meaning of the Passion leads to questioning our ecclesial and liturgical practices, including on the most sensitive points. And this is also where this book is worthy of interest.

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