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.
“……we need a body, come finally to do God’s will for all of us who can’t and won’t.”
Wow, that’s Beautiful,man. If that don’t drive the point home then nothing can
Money, power, physical strength, attractiveness, personal accomplishment any and all of life’s competitions, seperating winner from loser…..none of these.
Salvation in a person, through relationship, grounded in love.
Best news a world weary people can hear.
Ryan, I have come to appreciate your thoughtful posts very much. Thank-you! You mentioned how much good theology is evident in many of our Advent songs. Recently, I led an adult Sunday School class where we went back looking at the various stages that Atonement models have passed through since the time of Christ. I have since looked for Atonement themes in our singing. This morning in the words of ‘Hark! the glad sound!’, the ancient Christus Victor model appeared in the line,’He comes the prisoner to release, in Satan’s bondage held.’ This is the model likely widely held by the early Church where the dynamics included God and Satan. In contrast, several weeks ago we skipped ahead to a well-loved Christmas song, ‘Away in the manger’ which ends with the line, ‘Bless all the dear children in thy tender care, and fit them for heaven to live with thee there’. That very much follows a more recent and popular evangelical Substitution model where heaven is the major and perhaps sole purpose of Jesus’death.
Anyways, a blessed Christmas to you and your family
Thank you, Linden. Yes, it’s interesting to pay attention to which atonement models are operating in our hymns and liturgies isn’t it? Personally, I think that the line from Away in a Manger has more to do with suspect eschatology than atonement theology, but I suppose these things become tangled up over time.
A very Happy Christmas to you and yours, also!
I find it tragic that despite our stated abhorrence of animal and human sacrifice as propitiation, we (beginning with gospel authors) explain our redemption using a pagan, idolatrous paradigm. We teach it to little children in Sunday School, preach it incessantly, picture it in stained glass and banners, and remain blind to the destructive power in the paradigm as witnessed in the divided and quarrelsome promiscuity of the “bride of Christ.”
Thank you for wrestling openly with critical concepts and practices!
Well, unless we want to go the Jesus Seminar route and just edit out all the parts of the gospels that make us squirm, it’s hard to get away from the fact that the early church, not to mention Jesus himself, somehow understood the crucifixion at least partially in continuity with the sacrificial system of the OT. The cross ended it, transcended it, set it aside, yes, but it also can’t be neatly separated from what came before or written off as “a pagan, idolatrous paradigm.”
At any rate, thanks for your kind affirmation and a very Happy Christmas to you and yours.
I understand that before Christ, God DID demand/accept animal sacrifice, Jesus Christ being the ultimate LAST atonement. It’s interesting lately the amount of news I’ve read from various sources concerning the re-establishment of a 3rd Temple(sacrifices and all) in Jerusalem, Orthodox Jews everywhere are ecstatic!, It’s curious to me that I hear no Christians speaking out about this, if anything they are rooting for it to happen.