Fellow Passengers: This week’s Pastoral Passage* (Hebrews 9) transports me to the weekly ecumenical lectionary group I attended every Monday for several years in Eden, NC, while Kim and I were co-pastoring Providence Baptist. It was a wonderful, eclectic group of 5 or 6 pastors, with a diversity of race, gender, and denominational affiliation. And there was great diversity over cultural preferences for worship. Praise music was a subject that often provoked intense and passionate debate. I loved to push the buttons of one of my good friends in the group, John, a Moravian, who had a deep aversion to the “bloody hymns.” The worst, for him, was There Is a Fountain. I could just mention that, or start humming it, and it would send him off on a tirade. What kind of images are we filling our kids’ minds with? “A fountain filled with blood, drawn from Immanuel’s veins?” Really? “And sinners plunged beneath that flood?” Really? Do you see what kind of picture that paints? I loved John, even if I had a hard time generating a lot of enthusiasm for the liturgical music in the Moravian hymnal. Fast forward twenty years and I’m talking with a couple of ministers in Matanzas, Cuba, and they are laughing about how the language has changed in churches there, so that many worship leaders now avoid any mention of the word blood. Even in the Santa Cena, the Lord’s Supper, the leader will speak about the broken body and the cup, never the sangre. One of those ministers, a youth leader, talked about the irony of what their youth group’s favorite videos were – a series of comedy cartoons called Happy Tree Friends, in which every episode ends up with way over-the-top bloodshed, the sangre streaming and swirling freely from all sorts of strange and slapstick injuries. I watched an episode with some of the youth, and it was shockingly funny. Ron Weasley might say it was bloody hilarious.
The writer of Hebrews did not share our cultural ambivalence around blood. Perhaps it was because be was writing in the pre-modern age, when people were more in touch with the daily shedding of blood that took place to get food on their table (they didn’t have neatly packaged, bloodless chicken tenders bearing no signs of a previous pulsating life). Whatever the reason, this writer understood the vibrancy, the energy, the life force that pulses and flows through our bodies. And so, like the ancient Hebrews, he understood that there was a connection between the flow of blood and the presence of the sacred. Hence, he speaks of blood no less than 24 times, and sacrifice no less than 25 times in this epistle. Sacred bloodshed. Connecting humanity to the holy. Here in today’s Passage he talks about the times before Christ, when priests had to annually sprinkle blood of animals on the altar, to atone for the priest’s sins as well as the sins of the people. Atonement, at-one-ment, bringing people back into one-ness with the sacred, integrating them back into God’s good graces. And then Jesus came, and didn’t use the blood of animals. He used his own flesh and blood, the blood of Immanuel, God With Us, to cleanse our consciences and set us free to live in the pulsing heartbeat of God.
Somewhere between my Moravian friend’s strong aversion to blood and my young Cuban friends’ strong attraction to animated bloodshed, there lies some sacred middle ground. I’m not sure how accessible that ground is to us in the modern world, with our plastic gloves at the ready in case there is any sign of blood. Perhaps I will get closer to what the pre-moderns felt and thought when I start slaughtering my own chickens, and deal more directly with the lifeblood that is sacrificed to bring chicken divine to my table. Somehow, it feels like that connection will make my table more of a santa cena on a daily basis. Maybe a cup of sangria should be on the table, to wash it all down.
How about you? Where does this Pastoral Epistle take you on your journey of faith? Feel free to comment.