Drawing Near to Mount Zion
Thursday February 6, 2003 Homily by Fr. Robert Altier Fourth Week in Ordinary Time
Reading (Hebrews 12:18-19, 21-24) Gospel (St. Mark 6:7-13)
In the first reading today from Saint Paul’s Letter to the Hebrews, we hear Saint Paul comparing and contrasting the two covenants. The Old Covenant was made on Mount Sinai, and we recall that when the people were gathered at the mountain, God told Moses to bring all the people near to the mountain but forbade them to touch the mountain. If anyone touched the mountain, or even if an animal went up and touched the mountain, they had to be put to death. God came down in the cloud with trumpet blasts and thunder and so on. It was a terrifying spectacle, as Saint Paul himself reminds us. Moses himself was terrified. The people then begged Moses (in a passage which is always a bit troubling) to beg God never to speak to them again: “If God wants to say something to us, have Him tell you and then you tell us. And then we’ll do what God wants us to do, but we don’t want to hear God’s voice anymore.” A rather tragic verse, even though it was done out of piety and God said, “This is well-spoken,” nonetheless, what a sad thing that the people would not want to hear the voice of God. And so we have that as the foundation of the first covenant.
Then, on the other hand, we have the New Covenant, and Saint Paul contrasting this tells us that now we have drawn near to Mount Zion. We have to keep in mind that Mount Zion has shifted throughout the years as to exactly which mountain right around Jerusalem is Mount Zion. The mountain which is called “Zion” today is not the same mountain that was called “Zion” in the time of Jesus, and it is not the same mountain that was called “Zion” at the time of Moses. So it keeps moving around a little bit as to which one has the name. They are all in the same vicinity. Traditionally, of course, Mount Zion would be the place where the temple was, but at the same time what Saint Paul is getting at is that this is also where Jesus was when He was crucified: up on top of this mountain of Zion, which is the mountain of God. It is the “temple of God”, it is the “mountain that the people would come to for instruction”, and all these references from the Old Testament about Mount Zion, so he is taking all of these things and saying, “This is where the New Covenant is inaugurated: on Mount Zion. This is where Jesus went to make this covenant for us – to be the covenant for us – and we are drawn near to Mount Zion.”
Rather than being drawn near to a mountain that we cannot touch, to a mountain that we would be stoned to death if we went near to it, to a mountain where there are terrifying things and where we would not want to hear the voice of God, instead he says that we have drawn near to the city of the living God, to the heavenly Jerusalem, to countless angels in festal gathering, and the assembly of the firstborn enrolled in Heaven, to God the judge of all, and to the spirits of the just made perfect, to Jesus, the mediator of the new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks more eloquently than that of Abel. In other words, this new covenant is something which is entirely inviting and it is beyond anything of this world. In the first covenant, God came down to the mountain and the people were terrified. In the New Covenant, the mountain is what is lifting us up to God, to the heavenly Jerusalem – not God coming down to us, but God lifting us up to Him – to the firstborn enrolled in Heaven, to the angels in festal gathering, all these beautiful things that are part of this new covenant, and we are drawn to it.
We are not told to stay away from this mountain, but rather we are told to climb the mountain to the house of the God of Jacob that He may give us instruction and we can learn from the Lord. He is calling us to be enveloped into the cloud. God allowed the cloud to come down on Mount Sinai but the people could not go near it. When Moses went up the mountain, the cloud covered him, but now we are called to enter into this covenant and so to enter into the cloud, to enter in also into the very Person of Jesus, Who is the mediator of this new covenant. We are called, then, to be one with Him. So it is no longer a covenant that is at an arm’s distance from us; it is not a covenant which is according to a set of laws that we can look at on the outside; but rather, it is a covenant of love and it is on the inside – it is in the heart. That is what we are drawn to. And we are drawn, not only to look, but we are drawn to enter in, to be enveloped in this covenant, and indeed to take the covenant into our own selves, that covenant Who is Jesus Christ.
We are called then to something which is not merely something from Heaven coming down to earth, but rather it is something which lifts us up to Heaven so that the eternal life that we are called to has already begun to live within each one of us through faith, that we are already seated at God’s right hand in Jesus Christ, as Saint Paul tells us elsewhere – all of these beautiful things to recognize that this is our covenant. It is entirely unlike the Old Covenant – building on it, yes – but entirely different and something which is so extraordinarily beautiful that we do not even recognize it most of the time. But he wants us to understand this so that we can understand our dignity and our vocation as Christian people, and to be able to lift our hearts and minds so that we will be united with Jesus Christ in this new and eternal covenant, and to live this now – even in this world – with our hearts set on the next because what this covenant does is to lead us beyond this world and draw us into the next world where we will not only be enveloped in Christ, but rather, we will be one with Christ and that inheritance of the new Jerusalem – of the angels, of God, of Jesus – all of that will be ours, not only just internally where the Trinity dwells, but completely. And we will be enveloped in it for all eternity as we enter into God Himself and we are united with Christ and we give glory to God with all the firstborn enrolled in Heaven, with all of the angels, and through the sprinkled blood of Jesus Christ which speaks eternally more eloquently than the blood of Abel.
* This text was transcribed from the audio recording of a homily by Father Robert Altier with minimal editing.