Arguments for Easter: A Jewish answer to a Christian pomposity
Imagination is the proper antidote to the self-regarding pomp of the Church and it is to be found nowhere better than in the text for today
Tuesday 30 March 1999
The Epistle to the Hebrews
THESE WORDS are drawn from the Epistle set for today, the Tuesday in Holy Week. At first, the words seem awkward and odd, like the rest of that Epistle. It dates from around Paul's time, and it seems to be written for an eccentric Jewish Christian sect, not much older than Paul's epistles. The anonymous author talks about the Priesthood of Christ, and how it is superior to that of the Jewish Temple - more like that, he says, of Melchizedek. And before we have time to enquire: "Who he?" he mutters, "I have much to tell you about this Melchizedek", and we fear that one is here who will make the Ancient Mariner seem like a purveyor of snappy one-liners. In any case, the Jerusalem Temple went up in flames in AD70, soon after the Epistle was written. It hardly seems worth the effort.
But further into the Epistle is the bit that sends a shock through the soul:
In the course of his earthly life he offered up prayers and petitions, with loud cries and tears, to God who was able to deliver him from death.
These words take us to Holy Week - to the conflict with the Temple authorities, to Jesus's claims to be able to destroy the Temple and to rebuild it after three days. They take us straight to the garden of Gethsemane, in one of the very few passages in the Epistles that resonates with the gospel narratives.
For Christ's eternal, divine priesthood depends on his human vulnerability and this fragment reveals to us that Jesus is not simply a mythic figure, but a real human being - a truth that the Gospels repeatedly emphasised. The author of the Epistle sees all the heroes of the Old Testament (especially old Melchizedek) spanning the centuries in anticipation of the fulfilment of their hopes in Christ.
It is common in religion that devotees make sacrifices as part of their worship to an otherwise implacable God. But the author of this letter to the Hebrews insists that, in the sacrifice of Christ, an entirely different transaction occurs. Now, instead, it is God who is devoted to humanity.
This revelation transforms the human relationship to God in the most radical way. Formerly, the Divine was approached by the means prescribed by law or tradition - and which it may be fatal to transgress. But now, all is changed; humanity no longer has to strive to fulfil the divine command. Our sins are forgiven already. It is that sense of gratitude rather than obedience that makes the devotee seek the divine purpose, out of thanksgiving rather than duty.
The key to it all, he is saying, is worship, which makes the author of the Epistle so different from St Paul, and so important as an early Christian spiritual thinker. The Pauline epistles convey that sense of liberation from the bondage of our nature and to our tradition. He describes that generosity of God which frees us to speak the truth and to do good. But the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews sets that proclamation in the context of worship - of a new Temple, a new liturgy, centring on Christ, God made near, made human. That point of that worship is to give thanks, the literal meaning of "Eucharist".
Of course, the form of worship that most resembles that humane, personal style is the Jewish Seder - the family meal with which Jews this week commemorate the feast of Passover. For the sensibility of this Epistle is, above all, Jewish.
That kind of worship exists over against all the mechanical, impersonal forces of the world - which our anonymous author saw embodied in the Temple in Jerusalem. Today it is all too often to be found in the Church where self-regarding pomp - and our ingenious preaching, with its tedious stories and dreadful jokes - can all too easily wreck the celebration of the mysteries. It is a tendency deflated in J.B. Priestley's phrase about the pompous nonconformist who took pride in being "A big man at t' Chapel".
The author invokes the presence of God, and the nature of Christ's sacrifice, and the presence of all who have ever sought God, in a way that no other scripture does. He enjoys one faculty above all - imagination. This quality serves worship more crucially than other, perhaps more pious, attributes.
This is why. Let's assume that the world is not hugely depraved. Let's simply assert that it's just there. Its problem is that it's, well, mundane. It is in worship that we conjure that great cloud of witnesses into our presence, and assert the primacy of the truly human, despite all the forces that dehumanise us. It is in public ritual that we discover our secret selves - often more successfully than in private self searching. But the worship works only when the spiritual imagination stirs us from the mundane. This happens nowhere more powerfully in Scripture than in the Epistle's final blessing:
Now may the God of peace, who brought again from the dead our Lord Jesus, the great shepherd of the sheep, by the blood of the eternal covenant, equip you with every good thing that you may do his will.
John Kennedy is Secretary for Political Affairs for the Methodist Church
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