Therefore he had to become like his brothers and sisters in every respect, so that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make a sacrifice of atonement for the sins of the people.Hebrews 2:17
The high priest was essential to the religious life of the Israelite people. He alone could enter the Holy of Holies, the inner sanctum of the temple where God’s presence dwelt. Once a year—on the Day of Atonement—the high priest was allowed to enter this room and sprinkle the blood of the sacrifice as a way of atoning for the sins of the entire nation of Israel. To be the High Priest was to be the only person in the world who got to be in the presence of God.
Normally, for a broken and un-holy person (is there any other kind?), to enter God’s presence would be sure death, for no sin can stand in the presence of God. The High Priest was able to survive this ordeal because God, by God’s grace, made provisions for human sinfulness, including the sinfulness of the high priest. There was an elaborate week-long series of ritual bathing, sacrificing, reflecting on the Law, dressing and un-dressing that the high priest had to go through before he was sufficiently ‘purified’ to enter God’s presence. While we may deem such things silly superstitions, or empty ritual—outward actions that follow the letter of the law but do nothing to transform the inner heart where God is needed most—we should not lose sight of the fact that, by this ritual, God made it possible that humanity could have a representative who stood in God’s presence. Even though briefly, this man could do what needed to be done so that our sin would not destroy us. This ritual was part of God’s grace toward humanity.
That grace takes a new form in Mary’s baby. Rather than an elaborate religious ritual that enabled one person to stand, as a representative, in the presence of God, God used the most natural of events (childbirth) to come and stand in our presence. In Jesus, God lived among humans in regular everyday ways: no ritual washings and purifications, no special robes and ephods. God lived in the dirt and grime of real human living, becoming one of us.
God became totally human in every way—and that human now lives forever in God’s presence. He has sent that presence to dwell among God’s people in the person of the Holy Spirit, and promises that we will all live in God’s presence one day.
We will live in that presence, not by somehow rising up—through right religious rituals, doctrines, or beliefs—to God’s level, but when God comes down and dwells with us. We don’t need to do anything special to gain God’s presence—God has freely granted it to us, first in the baby we wait for this Advent season; again in the Spirit we celebrate at Pentecost; and finally in the return of the king that we wait for every hour of every day.
To live in the presence of God is the gift that we were all given on that first Christmas morn. On that day, a new High Priest was born, and he gives us a new access to the presence of God. This advent season, let us live and give out of the fullness of that presence, rejoicing in the gifts of God’s grace.