Catholic Culture Liturgical Living
Catholic Culture Liturgical Living

Merry Christmas, according to the Letter to the Hebrews

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Dec 20, 2022

It is hard to reread the Letter to the Hebrews without thinking of St. Paul, because the themes are clearly Pauline even though the style of writing is not. While there have always been disputes over this letter’s authorship, the preponderance of evidence more strongly suggests it was written by a co-worker or disciple of St. Paul. The writer recapitulates several Pauline themes (as seen in the earlier letters known to have been written by Paul), and he is clearly a Jew writing to demonstrate that the the New Covenant is superior to the Old in exactly the same sense as Christ is superior to Moses.

The Old Covenant is based on priestly sacrifices for sin which must be endlessly repeated; the New is based on God’s acceptance of the once-for-all offering of His eternal Son, Jesus Christ, God made man. Regardless of authorship, this makes the Letter to the Hebrews a Christmas letter. It bears a message about God’s direct entry into human history through One whose being, authority and power exceeds not only the Jewish priests but the angels themselves:

For to which of the angels did God ever say, “You are my Son, today I have begotten you”? Or again, “I will be to him a father, and he shall be to me a son”? And again, when he brings the firstborn into the world, he says, “Let all God’s angels worship him.” [Heb 1:5-6]

“Therefore,” the writer concludes, “we must pay much closer attention to what we have heard, lest we drift away from it” (2:1). There is scarcely a better reason than this to celebrate Christmas joyfully, as if we owed our very lives to it, which we do.

No backsliding

The danger addressed by the Letter is the danger faced by Jewish Christians who over time found it difficult not to slip back into a reliance on the traditional Jewish laws and practices, as if salvation can be found in them now that God has sent His Only-Begotten Son. Making points very similar to those emphasized by St. Paul, the Letter explains that under the Law the Jewish high priest each served for a time and had to make offerings not only for the sins of the people but for their own sins, and had to make these offerings again and again—whereas God says of Christ: “You are my Son, today I have begotten you” and “You are a priest forever, after the order of Melchizedek” (5:5-6).

For this reason, the writer wishes those he addresses to “go on to maturity”. What worries him is that “those who have once been enlightened…and then have fallen away” may not be restored to repentance “since they are crucifying once again the Son of God to their own harm and holding him up to contempt” (6:4-6). In fact the writer very much fears that their salvation will become impossible.

Therefore, he emphasizes again that Christ is of the priestly order of Melchizedek, a priest forever, presiding over a new covenant, for God said “I will put my laws into their minds, and write them on their hearts.” Therefore, “In speaking of a new covenant, he makes the first one obsolete. And what is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to vanish away” (cf. ch. 8; Jer 31:33).

The Letter goes on to compare the repetitive, imperfect and never-completed priestly offerings under the Old Covenant with the perfect sacrifice of Christ once for all, as Christ himself testified:

“Sacrifices and offerings you have not desired,
  but a body have you prepared for me;
In burnt offerings and sin offerings you have taken no pleasure.
Then I said, ‘Behold, I have come to do your will, O God,
  as it is written of me in the scroll of the book.’” [10:5-7]

As a result of this new covenant, God said: “I will remember their sins and their lawless deeds no more” (10:17; Jer 31:34). In other words, “Where there is forgiveness of these, there is no longer any offering for sin” (10:18).

Full trust, full commitment

The point of all these reminders—and the writer spells this out specifically—is simply this:

if we go on sinning deliberately after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a fearful expectation of judgment, and a fury of fire that will consume the adversaries. Anyone who has set aside the law of Moses dies without mercy on the evidence of two or three witnesses. How much worse punishment, do you think, will be deserved by the one who has trampled underfoot the Son of God, and has profaned the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified, and has outraged the Spirit of grace? [10:26-29]

A great many Christians today are not worried about losing their salvation, because they have been raised in the “I’m OK, you’re OK” culture of therapeutic, secularized Christianity. Granted, they have not fallen back to reliance on the Old Covenant. Instead, they rely on the pieties of their own pre or post-Christian culture, which include the certainties that there is no God or that we are all simply too nice to be damned—and who would want want to be with a God who would damn anybody anyway? But this is to look at the whole problem upside down and backwards. God has redeemed all of us through Jesus Christ. The question is simply: Who wants to take advantage of that, and who does not?

The Letter to the Hebrews goes on to stress to its Jewish audience that salvation comes from faith—“the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (11:1). The whole of chapter 11 illustrates that the key to God’s promises has always been faith, even throughout the entire Old Testament, from Abel through Abraham, through Moses, through countless Old Covenant heroes and heroines, on up until the coming of Christ, who is far greater than Moses. But because this is a conviction of things not seen by merely human eyes, this conviction depends on our openness to the grace to see as God sees, which means it depends to a very large extent on our caring about these unseen things, and indeed about God Himself. These must be things that we value, things that we want for ourselves.

The Message of Christmas

In our time, I think, we need to recognize that this is the fundamental message of Christmas. We either recognize our need for a Savior or we do not. We either yearn for the fulfillment of God’s will or we do not. We either accept the gift of Christ wholeheartedly or we do not. As hinted in the citation above, the word “faith” as used throughout the New Testament means belief in Christ’s teachings, trust in Christ’s promises, and obedience to Christ’s commands. If we really don’t care, then we reject this faith. Yet its acceptance—indeed, its very life within us—is the key, amid all the fluctuations and catastrophes of this world, to what the author of Hebrews calls our inclusion in a “kingdom that cannot be shaken”, for which we must “offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire” (12:28-29).

In the final chapter, the writer enumerates what this means in practice:

  • “Let brotherly love continue.”
  • “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.”
  • “Remember those who are in prison, as though in prison with them, and those mistreated, since you also are in the body.”
  • “Let marriage be held in honor among all, and let the marriage bed be undefiled, for God will judge the sexually immoral and adulterous.”
  • “Keep your life free from love of money, and be content with what you have, for he has said, ‘I will never leave you nor forsake you.’”
  • “Remember those who spoke to you the word of God. Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith, for Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.”
  • “Do not be led away by diverse and strange teachings, for it is good for the heart to be strengthened by grace.”
  • “Jesus also suffered outside the gate in order to sanctify the people through his own blood. Therefore let us go to him outside the camp and bear the reproach he endured.”
  • “For here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city that is to come. Through him then let us continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that acknowledge his name.”
  • “Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God.”

“For here,” the writer concludes, “we have no lasting city, but we seek the city that is to come. Through him then let us continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that acknowledge his name.”

Should not all of this begin with prayers and carols of thanksgiving and wonder at Christmas? Was it not at Christ’s birth that our salvation was first made manifest? So we and all our families ought to know what we are doing, and we ought to know why, and we ought to know all that is at stake. Christmas has changed everything. We should rejoice in it only if we find that it has also changed us—or that it can change us now.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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  • Posted by: Northern Digger - Dec. 21, 2022 11:48 AM ET USA

    THANK You, Dr. Mirus, for this commentary that underwrites your Christmas message with so many glowing embers! Please accept this afterglow as proceeding from the deep Joy of the Incarnation that we celebrate in the this coming Feast and every Joyful mystery that we offer. These embers embolden the request from us living within the aegis of your lifelong evangelism: please pray for us as we shall for you this Christmas Night. Gratefully, Mary Carver

  • Posted by: Randal Mandock - Dec. 20, 2022 9:14 PM ET USA

    A theme runs through modern Catholicism that I find curious. This theme is an adjective that modifies "Christian" in an uncommon way. Sometimes we hear the term "Catholic Christian", which is a redundancy. In public addresses we often hear "Jewish Christian", but never "Muslim Christian", "Buddhist Christian, "Hindu Christian", etc. applied to converts to Christianity. When the New Testament writers wrote Scripture, were they Christians or Jews? See the distinction your quotes above emphasize.

  • Posted by: marianjohn7861 - Dec. 20, 2022 7:24 PM ET USA

    This year I have come to view the coming of Christ as God's reset of our world. Come again soon King Jesus!