There are days when the weight of human cruelty and carelessness seems almost too much to bear. I’m not speaking about the vicious climate of our political discourse or the endless shouting and posturing the dominates our news media—the wearisome, grinding tedium of left shouting at right and right shouting at left. This, too, is excruciating, but I’m thinking more prosaically today. I’m thinking of the middle school playground, or the creaking and groaning marriage, or the toxic workplace or the chaos and confusion of the dementia ward or the high school cafeteria. I’m thinking of the endless weaponizing of words, the myriad ways in which we are inhuman to one another in our everyday lives.
I opened the lectionary readings this morning for the Fourth Sunday of Advent. There are the usual suspects—a promise of hope and peace from Micah, a Psalm of longed for restoration, and, of course, Mary’s Magnificat with it’s marvelous upending word of good news for the poor and the downtrodden. There’s also a passage that I have paid little attention to in Advents past, a passage that I have never preached on, a passage that seems an odd fit here, right on the doorstep of Christmas. Hebrews 10:5-10 begins thus:
Consequently, when Christ came into the world, he said, “Sacrifices and offerings you have not desired, but a body you have prepared for me; in burnt offerings and sin offerings you have taken no pleasure.
Then I said, ‘See, God, I have come to do your will, O God.
These words point not to idyllic scenes of creche and cradle but a cross. They are located in the broader context of an indictment of Israel’s sacrificial system of atoning for sin. Over and over the priests would have to pour out the blood of animals for the sins of the people. But the system never ends. Blood just keeps spilling and nobody ever gets any holier. The root of the problem remains. Something new and different is required.
Many of us struggle to even understand the book of Hebrews. The world it describes seems remote and incomprehensible to us. The sacrificial system likely connotes images of primitive people engaging in ignorant and barbaric acts. It probably also calls to mind an unattractive and repellent image of God—a severe deity who demands appeasement for transgressions. Thank God we’re past these bloody illusions that something else could or should stand in for our sin or that someone might require it!
Except that the sacrificial impulse never really goes away. The scapegoating instinct is as lively in the post-everything twenty-first century West as it was in ancient Israel. We don’t slaughter animals for our sins, but we certainly savage one another. Our sin has to go somewhere. And so we mock because we are afraid. We inflict pain because we are in pain. We wound because we are wounded. We blame because we know we are blameworthy. We recycle ridicule and insults. We demonize those who are different—those who don’t fit, can’t fit, don’t know how to fit in. We trade in cheap stereotypes and vulgar dismissals. We take all of our sins, acknowledged or otherwise, and we redirect them somewhere else. No bulls and rams for us—we’re far too enlightened for that. We’ll settle for one another. For expunged, our sins must be.
In light of all this, Hebrews 10 makes a truly staggering claim. It says that the sacrificial system is not God’s will, has never really been what God wants, and that it has come to an end in the giving up of a body. A body come to finally, truly do God’s will. A body in whom the fullness of humanity and divinity dwells. A body that offers itself up for all of our sin and all of our wretched sacrificial impulses. A body that makes what is unholy holy. A body that offers its life so that we can truly live, forgiven, cleansed, and set free from the sin which we struggle so mightily to leave.
The body whose arrival we celebrate in Bethlehem’s manger will of course one day be broken and battered, splayed out on Calvary’s cross, a handful of kilometers from where it was first adored as heaven’s gift to earth. We know this. But we’d probably rather not think of all that just yet. Why ruin Christmas with Good Friday? Why contaminate the humanity-affirming incarnation with ugly and unfashionable words like “atonement?” Why bloody up this season of inspiration and good cheer?
Well, the short answer is because the cradle and the cross go together. It cannot be otherwise. Christmas without Easter is not good enough news for us. A baby in a manger brings us gifts that we cannot do without—gifts of hope, comfort, affirmation, joy—but it does not take enough away. Our sin, for example, and our insatiable appetite to project it on to others. For this, we need a body, come finally to do God’s will for all of us who can’t and won’t.
I took the picture above at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem earlier this year, the place where many believe Jesus died. It’s too gaudy and ornate a monument for my liking—it doesn’t fit with the Jesus I know in so many ways. And it’s not a great picture, snapped as it was in between the shuffling in and out of so many tourists…
But that body…. It speaks.