Since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us give thanks,by which we offer to God an acceptable worship with reverence and awe (Heb. 12:28).
Imagine yourself as an early Christian, at the time when the differences between Judaism and Christianity were not clear cut. You live in the imperial city of Rome. There have been persecutions, but not all of them have been lethal; there have been struggles, but the various Church communities have managed to overcome them so far. You know that more persecutions are on the horizon, and you fear that the next time the authorities will not be lenient.
What’s more you hear of wars far away. The group of Christians from Jewish origins are in turmoil because something catastrophic has happened. You learnt from them about a homeland for the Christian faith. They have shared with you their inheritance and traditions about the Sacred Scriptures; and thanks to them you now believe in the Messiah named Jesus.
Unfortunately, now all these things seem to have lost their meaning. The great city of prophets, Jerusalem, lies in ruins in a distant land; its temple has been destroyed (and maybe this time for ever, who knows?). You have seen with your own eyes people coming from Palestine as slaves. You have seen the sacred vessels, the lamps, the ornaments of the temple being carried in triumph as spoils of war through the streets of Rome. Jerusalem is no more. The land that brought Christianity is devastated. It seems that every material thing that sustained your faith has crumbled away in a few moments leaving you stuck between a past that is no more and a future that inspires only fear. Now consider your Christian commitment in these circumstances. All of a sudden you realise that it would be easy, very easy, to turn away from the Christian faith and seek a pain free existence. You are you stuck between a past that is no more and a future that inspires only fear. It would be easy to escape whatever is coming, all too easy.
This is the broad context in which our second reading comes in. The Letter to the Hebrews is in fact a sermon delivered to early Christians who were well versed with Jewish practices and would have readily understood all the different layers of meaning. In the midst of the chaos caused by persecutions and by the destruction of the temple the author delivers a word of exhortation, a word of encouragement to lay aside the past taking heart about the future, because even though things may appear incredibly gloomy now the Church is receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken (12:28). Everything else, every material prop of the faith, anything that can be touched is going to pass, but God has prepared something else and they faithful are in the process of receiving it.
But there is more. In this exhortation to have confidence about the future and to hold fast to the word spoken by God through Jesus, the author introduces for us another element. We are called to meditate on that tension between the present moment and the future realities which should be at the heart of our way of life. We are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken but we also have already come to a place where we can experience what the future will be like. So we read that we already have access to something which is better than all those things that have been destroyed; better than Jerusalem and better than the temple.
At the celebration of the Mass, at the Eucharist, we come to all the future realities listed in our reading; or rather all these things come to us in our worship. At our celebrations, however more or less elaborate they may be, the tension between the present and the future breaks down and, as if a veil were removed from the eyes of faith, we see Mount Zion […], the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, [… the] innumerable angels in festal gathering […], the assembly of the firstborn, [… and] God the judge of all, and the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and Jesus, [… and] the sprinkled blood (12:22-24). These realities are part of that kingdom that cannot be shaken, and yet they come to us, we receive them, as we offer an acceptable worship, that is by associating ourselves to the self-offering of Christ in the Eucharistic celebration – which in itself means giving thanks.
So at a time when many dioceses across our Church are tempted to put aside the celebration of the Eucharist in order to cut corners and to save money on staff, as it were, let us remember that in this corporate thanksgiving celebration we have the unequalled opportunity to experience in the present time the power of the kingdom that cannot be shaken.