Our two texts share the feature of putting Hebrew Bible texts to Christian uses. In the context of evening prayer, we might say that they show the evening of the old religion and the dawning of the new. But that is nasty supercessionism. Besides, we remember that evening is the beginning of the new day in the biblical way of reckoning, so we really are celebrating the early hours of Thursday. We need to ask, then, what is new for us in these texts[, and Jim can work out the liturgical significance of the fact that sometime in the Spring evening prayer will come before sunset to that so the occasion will revert to the closing of Wednesdays].
The Magnificat, Mary’s song from Luke, is a knock-off of Hannah’s song in 1 Samuel 2:1-10. In Christian hands, Mary’s song says several things, not all of them elevating. First, she says that God has shown her favor in making her famous to future generations. Second, she says that God has mercy on those who fear him, presumably not on others. Fear, in the biblical context, has to do with awe and respect, not only being scared; but still, God’s mercy is reserved for those who cower before him like awed subjects of a shock-and-awe king. Mary attributes battle victories to God, the confusion of the hearts of the proud, the dethroning of the powerful, the elevation of the lowly, the feeding of the hungry, the dismissal of the rich, and the exaltation of Israel. From our perspective, these are all false. The military victors still write the histories, claiming God on their side, and they are as often the bad guys as the good. The proud are still in office. The powerful still have the power. The lowly are getting lowlier, the hungry increasing around the globe, the oligarchs run most of the world’s governments, and Israel has cast its lot with swords, arrows and the strength of horses, not its God. So despite the baffled amazement of this young girl suddenly pregnant, and her thanksgiving, this text should give us pause regarding that about which to be thankful.
The text from Hebrews is mainly a quotation from the Septuagint version of Psalm 40, saying that God takes no pleasure in sacrifices and offerings but rather in those who do God’s will. This is a familiar theme for Protestants who want plain piety in action rather than the hocus pocus of ritual sacrifice. We should ask Jim to say the words of institution in Latin, and they would come out “hocus pocus” or something very like that; this seems a dangerous text for a smells and bells Eucharist. But then, the setting of the Hebrews text turns that around. In the Torah, God established a covenant with the people of Israel that allowed them to approach the divine presence. The covenant required purity and holiness, which was almost impossible to sustain. So God provided a regimen of sacrifices and offerings that served to purify people so that they could reacquire the holiness necessary to approach God. For instance, if you touch the carcass of an unclean animal, such as a pig, according to Leviticus 5, you need to make the offering of a female sheep or goat in order to atone and become clean; this is why fundamentalists who play football should invest so heavily in sheep and goats. Well, Hebrews, following Psalm 40, says that this Levitical method of atonement is superseded and replaced by simply doing God’s will.
But God’s will is not so simple. God’s will, says Hebrews, is that Jesus Christ himself, Mary’s baby, be sacrificed in such a way as to redeem all football players and every other kind of sinner once and for all. What God provided for Israel with the sacrifice-rules for sheep and goats God provides for all people with the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. Mary’s little baby suddenly is hogtied by the post-Levite priest and lifted up like the snake in the wilderness to redeem the people from sin’s venom.
Wild images, No?
Moreover, for Hebrews, Jesus is not only the sheep on the altar, but also the priest cutting its throat, splashing its blood into chalices, and dicing its body onto patens. [You see why Jim wears such outlandish disguises in recreating this sacrifice as a priest? He’s afraid Mary will tell his mother and all hell will break loose!] These symbols are too wild, too intense, too uncontrollable to be the ordinary way of religious, liturgical, tying together of our lives.
But then, the true tying together of our lives necessarily must surpass the ordinary. Our problems are not really football uncleanness, nor transgressive sins of hurting one another, nor neglectful sins of acquiescing in injustice, bad as these are. Our problems are that such sins destroy our sense of self-worth at deep levels, which turns us against the God who gives us such a life. We suffer the self-contradictions of the holy/unholy will and hate the very ground of our being. No ordinary scheduled payment of sacrificial offering can fix this. For the first century people who read Hebrews, our only hope is a sacrifice that re-arranges the universe so that our sin does not set us outside the covenant. Rather, the covenant is expanded to embrace us no matter how sinful, unclean, and unholy we are. No matter how far we flee from God, God overshoots with the divine embrace so as to put us back inside. Hebrews expresses this in the outrageous language of human sacrifice, with the Son of God as butcher.
Now, we know that there is a problem for us in this language. If we were first century Jews who thought that sheep and goats were the way to go, it would make a lot of sense to express the extraordinarily more powerful claim about Gentile inclusion within the divine circle with the cannibal sacrifice language of the Eucharist. We late-moderns, by contrast, are not into the sacrificial way of thinking according to which the division of the animal parts reconstructs cosmic relations between people and divinity. What is our alternative? I suspect we have none. We have no way of recognizing the cosmic significance of sin as that which drives us away from God. We think of sin only in terms of personal moral culpability, which need have little to do with God, the secular outcome of Enlightenment morals.
But does not our sin, our inward self-loathing and subsequent flight from the very ground of our being, cut off our deepest love? Is not our love for others frustrated and distorted because we deny our created common ground? Is not our soul’s longing flight to the divine lover who would ravish us made to seem illusory by weary worldly cynicism? We need to see that this is blood serious, that we really would kill to find the way back, that we would sacrifice our own lives to redeem our holy reach to God’s touch. The gospel message is that God’s merciful creation already does this for us, and we only need to participate, to ingest the divine blood and body into our own, to come to God’s holy hospitality as personally redeemed guests. Although the good grace of our Eucharist sacrifice in truth outrages decorum far more than the stinking butcher-pits of Levitical temple sacrifice, the sacrifice is an invitation from God to come home.
So maybe Mary was a bit deluded about how God was going to fix up the poor and lowly. Perhaps that is only an ideal of the kingdom. But her song was right that “the Mighty One has done great things for” her, “and holy is his name.” For her baby, grown, flayed, and drained, has become the way back for all people, not only her. Holy is his name because he leads us into the holy of holies. Our Wild Lover advents us in all Glory, embracing us despite ourselves. Wachet auf!