A reading and reflection for Tuesday, December 18, 2012.
The seventeenth day of Advent.
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Hebrews 10:5-10 NRSV
The book of Hebrews arrives to us without an author named. The book is peculiar because it does not resemble the other epistolary works of the New Testament. It reads more like a sermon than a letter, and the preacher of Hebrews makes his or her chief point the uniqueness of Christ in God's salvation history. In the tenth chapter, of which we are given but a small snippet, the preacher is making the point that the sacrifice of Christ outdid other antiquated forms of sacrifice. A few verses after our text, the orator notes that Christ's sacrifice (his death on a cross) "offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins" (10:12).
But in our text, the author notes the centrality of Christ's humanity, something especially critical to our Christian faith. In the lead up to our text, the author claims that "it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins." In this statement, the author is claiming that the sacrificial system of ancient Judaism, in which animals were offered to God on behalf of the people to atone for their sins, this ancient system was fundamentally flawed. At its best the old sacrificial system was designed to function symbolically, to show the people their constant need for atonement and reconciliation. And even then, the author of Hebrews says, "it can never, by he same sacrifices that are offered year after year, make perfect those who approach." The old sacrificial system was flawed because it was a never ending cycle of judgment, sacrifice, and atonement. It was temporary and it did not fix the root of the problem, but rather temporarily fixed the symptoms.
In Christ, by contrast, we see a Person whose bodily existence and atoning death essentially made the claim that what the old sacrificial system could not do, he could. "Sacrifices and offerings you have not desired, but a body you have prepared for me." At the fullness of time, when God's word joined itself to the human experience as a human person, God's will was revealed toward humanity: no more cycle of sacrifices, no more offerings save one: the human body of God's own self.
"And it is by God's will that we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all." As Advent draws to a close and as Christmas approaches, we come again to the manger to peer into the makeshift crib of the infant Christ, a fragile human baby born to fragile human parents whose existence held the story of humanity and the story of God in one body. We look to the beginning, the coming of Christ, not as a spiritual being, but as a human person, whose body would become the very substance of our salvation. We look into the crib and we encounter God's approach to humanity. And if we gaze long enough, we can see the will of God to save us all through the advent of this child.
1. Why do you think it was important for Jesus to come as a human being?
2. St. Gregory of Nazianzus (4th century) once said about the incarnation's effect on humanity: "That which is not assumed is not healed." What do you think this means? How does it apply to today's text?
3. What images or words grab your attention in the above text?
Read Leviticus chapter 4. What images are given about sacrifices and sin? What did you learn about sacrifices in ancient Israel? What did you find interesting? Revolting? Hard to understand? Now read Hebrews chapter 5. What contrast is given to the Leviticus passage? How is Christ understood in light of the ancient sacrificial system?