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“The High Priest”

Hebrews 4:14 - 5:10
Bob DeGray
November 4, 2001


I. The Chief Druid
II. The Encounter
III. The High Priest


I. The Chief Druid

        Hafgan strode up the hill. The boy, Taliesin followed almost at a trot. The high place was still far above them when they came to the oak grove where the Brotherhood of druids met. Hafgan stepped into the circle of elders, while Taliesin hung back.

        The mighty oak trees, yellow now with autumn chill, surrounded a grassy grove perhaps 80 feet across. At the center of this space stood the bier, a single stone with a perfectly flat top, on which the body of Cormach lay, dressed in the white robes of his High Priesthood. His rowan staff lay by his side.

        The Brotherhood gathered in a circle around the bier and began a chant in the ancient druid tongue. A hushed stillness seemed to envelop the grove. The eldest druid spoke first. “Brothers, before we send our Chief on his journey, we must choose anew, one to bear the rowan staff and offer sacrifice for the people.” He looked around the circle. “Before his death, Cormach named Hafgan to be his successor. I am witness to this.”

        “I too,” murmured another. “I as well,” said a third.

        “Is it then the will of the Brotherhood that Hafgan take the staff” asked the eldest?

        “It is the will of the Brotherhood” the circle replied in unison.

        Hafgan stepped toward the bier, as the chanting resumed. He hesitated as he reached the body, a moment of uncertainty. Perhaps Hafgan felt the weight of the office he would now assume - and of the deeds he must now do on behalf of his brothers. The chant hushed until he reached out, taking the rowan staff in both hands.

        Hafgan stepped back and raised the staff high, speaking at length in the secret tongue. Then, lowering his hands, he said “Brothers, our Chief has begun his journey to the Otherworld.” One by one the druids stepped forth and place branches on the bier. Soon the pile of branches grew high. Taliesin expected Hafgan to set the bier aflame, as was the custom among the Cymri, but instead the new High Priest stepped forward toward the dense enclosure over the body. Hafgan raise his hands, uttered something in the secret tongue, and then said “Farewell, friend of our brother, you are free to go your way.” He knelt and put his palms against the dirt. “Great Mother, we give you back your son. Treat him not unkindly.” So saying, he rose, turned his back and left the grove. Taliesin presumed that instead of being burned, the body would be left to decay naturally, this grove left unused for some years.

        Hafgan went into the woods. When Taliesin found him at twilight, Hafgan asked him to light a small fire and then sit quietly. Around them he could hear the other druids moving about and apparently making preparations. Darkness came quickly, and still Hafgan sat. Only as midnight approached did he stir himself. “Come, Taliesin, the hour is upon us. Tonight is the eve of Samhain, and it is my fate on my first day as Chief Druid to offer the yearly sacrifice. I feel myself ill prepared, yet what choice do I have? The gods must be appeased, and one among us must do it”

        Hafgan clapped, and two of the Brotherhood appeared from the woods with ceremonial robes of purest white. So dressed, Hafgan led the Brotherhood up the hill. Several of the eldest, also dressed in white, led a massive bullock, a fine specimen, arrayed with flowers. Soon Taliesin could see the circle of standing stones that crowned the hill. Within the circle six bonfires had been lit, but the largest of all, at the center of the circle had only been stacked, not ignited.

        The Brotherhood formed their circle within the circle of stones, and waited. Hafgan stood slightly forward of the rest, while three of the white-robed ones stood with the bullock just behind him. Quietly Hafgan began a chant, a call and response which sounded around the circle of druids and rose plaintively into the dark sky.

        “Blood calls for blood. Death for death. Life for life.”

        “Why do the ancient ones drink the blood of men?”

        “They mourn his dishonor. They hate his sin. They are furious at his disrespect.”

        “The Otherworld is stained by the acts of men and must be cleansed.”

        Taliesin knew the chant, though as a disciple he was forbidden to join it. The Chief Druid, high priest of his people, called out their sins, and they confessed them. Then the Brotherhood named the sins of the high priest, and Hafgan admitted to them. Though couched in formal language, Taliesin could see that the litany of murder, lies, dishonor and disgrace, that grieved the gods of the Otherworld also grieved Hafgan. He felt unworthy to stand in the gate of the Otherworld for the Cymry.

        Finally the chant returned to it’s starting point. “Blood calls for blood. Death for death.”

        “What shall we give the ancient ones to purchase their pardon?”

        “Blood calls for blood. Death for death.”

        “But what man shall die for the sins of the Cymri? Who shall we offer for the sins of our people?”

        “Only the sinless may suffer for the sinful. Only the blood of a victim will suffice. Only the life of a spotless sacrifice will purchase our lives.”

        Taliesin knew that not long ago the sacrifice offered would have been human. A volunteer, someone infused with a vison of the Otherworld would have offered himself. But the coming of the Romans to Britain had gradually put an end to such sacrifices. The druids of Cormach’s early days had made the change. Now the blood shed was that of a pure and spotless animal, a bull or a ram. But Taliesin did not see the gain. Surely the blood of one sinful man could not pay for sins of many. Neither could the blood of one innocent animal take away the sins of men. He saw the sacrifices as evidence of his people’s despair and ignorance -but he didn’t know of what.

        The bullock was brought forward. Hafgan took up a sharp stone knife and clasped it point upward in both hands. He placed his hands on the forehead of the docile animal and entreated the Otherworld to accept this offering on behalf of his sins and those of his people. He asked that the blood shed would turn aside the anger of the Ancient Ones, and he named the gods of the Other world by their ancient secret names.

        Hafgan stepped a half step back from the big animal and laid the stone knife across it’s throat. Two of the Druids held a large heavy stone bowl beneath. With a cry and a sudden stroke Hafgan slit the throat of the beast, which was too dumb even to know it was dead. It stood for several seconds, unmoving, while blood poured into the stone bowl. Then it collapsed at the knees and fell.

        Quickly the animal was bound and lifted to the altar. The wood was arranged under and around it. Oil and blood and frankincense were poured over it. Hafgan took a flaming brand from one of the circling fires and stepped to the altar. With loud cries and tears he offered the life of the bullock to the gods of the Other world, and pled for their forgiveness and favor. Then he thrust the torch into the waiting wood. It burst quickly into flame and consumed the body of the bullock, while the druid brotherhood raised their voices in one last chant to the gods they had appeased.

II. The Encounter

        Taliesin walked through summer woods, reveling in the evening sun as it descended through the trees. Ahead he saw the camp that he knew belonged to the holy men Dayfd and Collen, emissaries of the Roman religion who had come to Britain to build a shrine to their gods and enlist worshipers.

        “Hail, Taliesin!” called Dafyd, coming to meet him. Collen stood up from the pot he was stiring at the fire, smiled, and waved his welcome.

        “Greetings, holy men,” said Taliesin. He turned to observe the small, shrine on the hill top above them. “This is where the god you call ‘good’ is worshiped?”

        “Here, yes, and everywhere else his name is known,” Dafyd answered.

        “All creation is his – ah... his temple,” offered Collen. The young man blush and asked, “Did I say it right?”

        “Most excellently said!” laughed Dafyd. “All creation his temple, yes” he gestured toward the shrine. “But this – this is a special place.”

        “How so?” asked Taliesin. “Is the hill sacred? Or the spring that runs below it?”

        Dafyd shook his head. “Neither spring nor hill, Taliesin. If this place is sacred, it is because it was here that the name of Jesu was first honored in this land.”

        Taliesin gazed around him. “A curious place. Why here?”

        “Come, sit down. We were about to have our meal. Share it with us and we will tell you about this place.” He noticed Taliesin’s quick glance at the pot. “Do not worry; there is enough. And Collen is a fine cook.”

        Taliesin sat down and accepted an earthenware bowl and wooden spoon. After a short prayer by Dafyd, the three began to eat. Following the stew there was mulled wine in beakers. They watched and listened as twilight deepened over the land. The first stars were glowing in the sky before Dafyd spoke. “There was a tribe that lived in this region a long time ago. They lived in houses built on pilings in the lake. They had a chief and a druid, and they fished in the lakes round about, and raised sheep.”

        “On this hill they had raised an idol of stone - a headless one – they kept its head in a little cave by the spring and brought it out now and then to watch their sacrifices.” Taliesin stifled a groan. There it was again, the almost comic nature of his people’s practices. He wondered if the god of these holy men was as absurd as that headless idol had been.

        Dayfy continued “One day there came men from the East, Jews whose leader was a man named Joseph –the same man of whom it is written that he took pity on our Lord in death and gave his new cut tomb for Jesu’s burial. Now Joseph was a wealthy man, deriving his wealth from the tin trade, the business of his father. As a boy Joseph accompanied his father on his journeys to the various mines around the world. Once, or perhaps more often, they came here to trade with the Britons.”

        “Joseph must have remembered and thought well of this land, because after our Lord was taken up into heaven, Joseph returned to this place, bringing with him others who were followers of the Christ. He and his family and the men with him lived on here for a space of years, consecrating this place with their prayers, living in peace with all, and winning many friends and believers to the Eternal Kingdom. Eventually, however, Joseph and his people died and the land remembered them no more.”

        “But the – er, shrine... remained,” offered Collen.

        “Oh yes, the shrine remained. And from time to time others have come and rebuilt it.”

        “Is that why you have come?” asked Taliesin.

        Dafyd nodded. “And to revive the worship of the True God among the people of this place. Indeed there are many of my brothers likewise employed. Our Lord is moving in the world and making himself known among men. He goes before us to point out the way, and we follow.” The priest shrugged diffidently. “We are privileged to share in this work.”

        Taliesin considered this. “As you know,” he said, “I am a druid, and we honor many gods among our people. Nonetheless, I have often felt my heart drawn to the one that has no name, but who is known to us only as the Good God. My heart tells me that this one is the True God.”

        Taliesin then told of a vision he had had during one of Hafgan’s sacrifices. “It was in his ninth year as Chief Druid - two years ago. I saw a shining one, standing in Hafgan’s place before the altar. He seem to say to me ‘find the one whose sacrifice pays the price once and for all.’ I think your coming is my opportunity to seek him. Are you not the instruments through which I am to come to the true light?”

        Dafyd looked at him in wonder. “I pray that it is true. But it might be more fitting for me to receive instruction from you, who have seen such a vision of our Lord.”

        Taliesin was surprised. “You’ve never seen him?”

        “Never,” replied Dafyd, smiling. “Do not wonder at this. Not many of his followers have been so privileged. Very few, in fact.”

        “I wonder that you follow him then,” remarked Taliesin. “A Lord you have never seen.”

        “It is written: ‘blessed are those who have not seen, and yet have believed.’ Our Lord knew the difficulty and put his blessing on the faith of those to whom it is not given to see him. In that we are content.”

        “Still, men would believe more readily if the One God showed himself more openly, would they not?”

        “Perhaps,” said Dafyd. “Once he walked in the world as a man, and though many believed, many others did not. Belief is not always born of sight. Therefore, it is the Savior’s goal to bring faith into the world. We believe by faith, and by faith we are saved from sin and death. What kind of faith is it that believes only what can be seen with the eyes or touched with the hands?”

        “Faith is so important then?”

        “It is. So very important,” remarked Dafyd. “There is no other way to come to the True God but through faith.”

        They talked long into the night. Dafyd described the land of Israel and the prophecies concerning the Messiah; talked about Jesu’s birth, his life, and the miracles he performed; explained the meaning of the cruel crucifixion and miraculous resurrection when Jesus came forth triumphant from the grave. He explained the sacrifice that Jesus had made, he himself being the high priest who made the offering - for, he said, the druids were right in this: that sin required a sacrifice.

        In all Taliesin spent four days with Dayfd and Collen. Taliesin listened intently, questioned deeply and thought long about what they were saying. He felt in his heart that this was what he had been seeking, a new and living way to God, an end to the old sacrifices because of the one sacrifice of Jesu.

        “Dayfd, I long to stay with you and learn all there is to know about the Christ,” Taliesin finally said. “But there is someone I must tell about this truth. My master, Hafgan, is chief of the druids, and is high priest of their sacrifices. I must tell him about a greater high priest chosen by God.”

        Dayfd looked at Taliesin with wonder. “This, I deem, is the mark of true faith - that you want to share this good news with others. Here – take this. It is a page from the Holy Scriptures. The writing is Roman, as you see, but I trust you will decipher it. It is a part of the teaching where Jesus is identified as the Great High priest.”

        “Many thanks, Dafyd. If ever there is anything I can do to repay you, I will do it, and more, for you are my brother and you have given me the words of life.”

III. The High Priest
        Hafgan was seated alone by the fire in the great hall of Elphin’s lodge when Taliesen returned. He rose when he saw the young man striding in from the doorway.

        “Four days, Taliesin,” Hafgan told him. “Your father has been asking for you.”

        “Has it been four days? It seems only a moment.”

        “Where were you?”

        “With the priest Dafyd. I have been busy learning the ways of the True God.”

        “And with rolling in the mud, by the look of you.”

        “We worked while we talked. The time took wings.” He reached the hearth and turned to the Chief Druid, gripping him by the arm. “He is the One, Hafgan. I am certain of it. The Most High. He lived as a man among men, away in the east. Jesu was his name, but he called himself the Way, the Truth, and the Life. Think of it Hafgan!”

        “Ah, yes,” replied the druid. “I remember Cormach telling me abut this Jesu. The signs of his coming were very great, Cormach said. But there are many gods, after all. Would it not be better to worship this one along with the others.”

        “He is Love and Light. And he must be worshiped in all truth. The other gods are as grass before him and are not to be worshiped beside him. It would not do. Besides, why honor the creature when the Creator is present?”

        “There is something in what you say,” considered Hafgan. “But no other god demands such allegiance. There are many who will not abide such stricture.”

        “Truth is all truth, Hafgan. You taught me that. There cannot be even the smallest grain of falsehood in it or it is not truth. I have discovered the source of all truth; how can I deny what I know?”

        “Do not deny it, Taliesin. I would never ask that of you.”

        He took his seat, but Taliesin moved in front of him, into the firelight, and continued to speak. “The gods of our people: Gofannon the Smith; Clota, Death Goddess; Taranis, The Thunderer; Epona, Maiden of the Horses; Mabon, the Golden Youth; Brighid of the Silver Spindle; Cernunnos, Forest Lord . . . all point to the One, the Nameless Good God. You know this Hafgan. He is the one the druids have always sought. It was the Christ we were looking for Hafgan. And now he is revealed.”

        The Chief Druid mulled this over for a long time. At last, glancing into Taliesin’s eyes and seeing the bright light reflected there, he said, “I am satisfied that it is as you say. But I am High Priest of my people: what am I to do if I turn from the other gods to this one alone. Are there sacrifices for the high priest of the druids to perform, rituals to buy this God’s pardon?”

        “Ah, Hafgan. I have been hearing about this as well. You are a high priest, chosen by the Brotherhood to perform sacrifices for sin. But when the True One came, he himself became both high priest and sacrifice. Great as you are, my master, this Jesu is greater than you, and to follow him you must relinquish to him your preisthood.”

        “Gladly would I do so, if I thought I could, for you know how vain the repeated sacrifices, year after year have begun to seem to me. But if we do not make atonement in blood to the gods, how can we appease their wrath?”

        “Jesu is both high priest and sacrifice. Like you, he was chosen from among men to represent his brothers before God. But unlike you, he was chosen by the Good God himself, and given a final and eternal priesthood. Cormach died. Someday you will die. But this High Priest ever lives to make intercession for his people. He lived a sinless life and died a sacrificial death, and He has been raised from the dead and has gone through the heavens to the right hand of the Good God.”

        Taliesin went over to the hearth and threw several new logs on the fire. He placed them where they could catch, and watched for several minutes as they began to flare up. Then he turned to the old druid: “Hafgan, are you sinless?”

        “You know the answer to that, Taliesin. You have seen my frequent anger, my frequent doubt, my intolerance of the incompetent and the foolish. Yes, I sin. That is why at every sacrifice I must first lay my own sins on the head of the beast.”

        “Jesu is a high priest free from sin. He was tempted to sin, just as we are, but Dayfd has shown me his sinlessness in the Holy writings. And yet he is able to sympathize with our weaknesses, for unlike the cruel gods of the Otherworld, he has become what we are - he is a god who became a man. He knows what it means to be limited, weak and tempted. So he deals gently - even more gently than you, good master - with those who are weak and ignorant and going astray.”

        “Truly then, he is a greater high priest than I: eternal, sinless, sympathetic.”

        “And not only a greater high priest, but himself a greater sacrifice. He did not merely offer the blood of bulls and goats over and over as you are doomed to do in the sacred circle. He offered himself as the sacrifice to make atonement for all sin. He paid the price of sin in his blood and turned aside the just wrath of the Good God.”

        “But how can a priest offer himself, Taliesin?” Hafgan gestured toward the fire which burned brightly on the hearth: “Can he climb upon the altar and pass the knife across his own throat, and thrust the flaming brand into his own offering pyre?”

        “No, Hafgan, surely not. Others did the deed. The tribe of Jews brought him to trial, and the tribe of Romans condemned him to death and killed him on a cross. But he went of his own accord to bear the sins of men - your sins and mine, Hafgan.”

        “How - since we were enemies and strangers to him? How could he choose to die for us?”

        “Dayfd has told me of his struggle, Hafgan. He retired to a garden and met with his father, the Good God, and wrestled with Him. He cried aloud and wept tears, his sweat became drops of blood so great was his agony. The sinless one was about to become sin for us, and he longed for another way. But he longed for us more, and loved us more than himself, and so he humbly submitted himself to his Father’s will and offered himself as the victim, that he might taste death for all of us.”

        “But Taliesin, how can one who has died as as sacrifice be an eternal high priest?”

        “He rose from death, Hafgan. He defeated it. Something only the gods of the Otherworld can do and not men, he did, for though he was fully a man, he was also the Son of the Good God - himself God. When he had made atonement for our sins he arose and returned to his father where as High Priest he now intercedes for all who will trust in him. He offers eternal salvation - eternal life like his, Hafgan - to all who will obey his command to believe in him alone.”

        Hafgan rose and stood with the younger man, staring into the fire which was beginning to burn low. “Taliesin, what must I do?”

        “Only believe, Hafgan, and follow. Approach the throne of Jesu, the throne of one who is priest and king. Approach not through continued sacrifices, not with the blood of bulls and goats, but through His sacrifice. Approach with confidence so that you may receive mercy and find grace. Approach not as the high priest, but through the greater High Priest, Jesus whose sacrifice sets you, even you, free.”

        Hafgan dropped to his knees and bowed his head. Taliesin knelt beside him. In the firelight, they prayed to his new God whose Son had dispelled the shadows of the old gods by his priesthood and sacrifice.