Therefore, my friends, since we have confidence to enter the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain (that is, through his flesh), and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us approach with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water.
In the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen
Many of our most beloved stories from childhood share some common themes. There are often two worlds in the story: for instance, one that’s dull, mundane, and usually harsh; the other magical and full of life. The two worlds are then linked together by the protagonist who often starts out in the “real world” of drudgery, but through some fantastical happenstance, finds him or herself transported into the other realm. This other realm is usually where the protagonist finds true self-discovery at last -- his or her “destiny.”
Harry Potter comes immediately to my mind in this regard, as I’m currently reading through the books (for those in the know, right now I’m in the middle of The Goblet of Fire, Book 4). Harry Potter spends his childhood in the “muggle” -- that is, “non-magical” -- world with his aunt and uncle who despise him, but then is whisked away to Hogwarts to study magic as the wizard that he is. But there are other stories. Think of Cinderella and the contrast between the world of her oppressive step-mother and step-sisters and the world of the palace with the prince. And then there are those which subvert and play with these worlds, such as in The Jungle Book stories where Mowgli’s journey is not a straightforward one from reality to fantasy, but rather is through the discovery that reality and fantasy have switched places; the reality of life as he has known it in the wolfpack turns out to be an unsustainable fantasy, and he is forced to leave the wolfpack and return to the human world. This was something that the youth and I talked about at the last Youth Film Night, as this subtle subversion of reality and fantasy is a common theme in Pixar films like Wall-E.
What gives these stories their enduring depth is that they ask where, exactly, it is that we belong, given who we are. The question of identity is inextricably tied to the question of place. We see these questions work themselves out in these stories in that the protagonists are never complete aliens when they arrive in the next world. It is as though they were always meant to be there, and sometimes it is precisely through their experience as misfits in their former world that they are prepared for the task that awaits them in the world that becomes their home. You could say that Harry Potter’s resilience in the face of his aunt and uncle’s abuse becomes his resilience in the face of Lord Voldemort.
There’s something similar going on in the Letter to the Hebrews, which is where we get our epistle reading for today. Elsewhere in the letter, there’s that great line about how “though he was a son, he learned obedience through what he suffered” which definitely gets at something like those stories. How the conditions of suffering and embodiment become the very means by which Jesus manifests his identity as the Son who does his Father’s will. Learning obedience through suffering is what being God looks like as a human. But beyond this, the author of Hebrews also extensively analyzes the rituals, codes, and structures of the Old Covenant and realizes that they all end up serving as the glove which Christ wears perfectly, like no one else could. As if they were custom-tailored for him all along. So not only is it just the world in which he lived as a human being, but it’s also the people from which he came, the Israelites, and the covenant worship which they had rendered unto God for centuries. He fit them both as a hand in a glove. Jesus was the first human after the fall to be both fully at home in the world even as he was in perfect fellowship with God. And that’s the point: perfect obedience to God is the condition for being perfectly at home in the world.
But this was not the situation before Christ. As Hebrews puts it, under the Old Covenant, “every priest stands day after day at his service, offering again and again the same sacrifices that can never take away sins.” What’s implied here? First, that perfect fellowship with God had always remained elusive. The law, not yet being written on the hearts and minds of the people of God, was something that had to be obeyed as something external to them. The obedience of the Old Testament believers was certainly credited to them as faith, but before Christ, it never was fully united in them, internalized in them. And their sins remained unatoned for. The priests of the Old Covenant had to commit themselves to continual sacrifices for sins which could not atoned for, but merely prefigured the ultimate sacrifice of Christ and kept them from falling back into idolatry.
As a result, the people of God remained caught up in the alienation that afflicted the whole fallen human race. The Old Testament is full of the stories of that affliction, from apostasy and exile to repentance and obedience and back again. For the people of God, the lack of perfect fellowship with God meant that they lacked a full sense of place and peace in the world amidst their suffering.
So we have seen that Jesus Christ, the great protagonist, comes into a world which is estranged from him, as light into darkness. And yet, even amidst this estrangement, the suffering, he fulfills the law and the sacrifices which had been prepared for such a one as himself. In so doing, he lives as human beings were always supposed to live: in peace with God and the world.
The “confidence” in Hebrews that results for those who follow Christ is twofold. First, we are freed from the despair that comes when our hope is limited to things that are passing away. In our gospel today, Jesus tells his disciples that not even the temple will stand and that wars and rumors of wars will come. But they are not to be alarmed. Likewise, Hebrews tells us that our ultimate hope is not to waver. Second, we have confidence in that nothing of this world stands between us and God any longer. There is no need for repeated sacrifices for sin. There is no law that is external to us. The only curtain there is is the curtain of the flesh of Christ, into which we have been united. And with that union in the Body of Christ comes the indwelling of the Spirit, who has written the law on our hearts and minds.
There’s no way to reflect on the Letter to the Hebrews without diving headfirst into rich biblical imagery and vocabulary. We’ve got priests, sacrifices, animals, curtains, temples, etc. It might seem opaque. But all of it is to make sense of how Jesus made himself at home in the covenant of his people and in the world. And further, to make sense of what it means to continue to live in this world as Christians. So I’ll put it simply: who we are is the people that have been incorporated into the Body of Christ; where we belong is with him in the presence of God the Father. And if we enter that sanctuary, we will find a confidence that is strong enough to live in love and peace, in this place, as the Great Day approaches. Amen.