When we Christians teach about the Old Testament sacrifices, we often place much emphasis upon the death of the animal. Do we believe that the moment of death is the moment that God reconciles himself to sinners? Does he venerate death so much? As a teenager I felt horror at the thought of the innocent animal, completely unconcerned in this divine drama, dying for sins that people had committed, because God was otherwise unable to forgive. My viewpoint now is a little different.
It’s been a while since I examine the scriptures with the rigor I used in Bible College, but as far as I recall, the only place in the Old Testament where an animal was explicitly said to be bearing, in a substitutionary sense, people’s sins, was in the case of the scapegoat. And the scapegoat was not killed – he was sent away into the wilderness, outside the camp.
My brother in law was speculating today that a protestant viewpoint would see words and argumentation as the primary means of bringing people to faith. His wife disagrees; he admits it’s more complicated; then says: but still. They both went to Bible College, too. I miss these discussions sometimes. I do recall debates in my protestant days – is faith a matter of reason, of logic? Or is it something else? (No one seemed to know what else it might be. Emotions were too girly and what else was there?)
I think the protestant perspective does tend toward a rather rational approach, probably because of its emphasis on words, but of course there are many other viewpoints and understandings within that particular theological cluster.
So I was talking to myself, after this conversation with my brother in law, and wondering – what would an Orthodox approach be to healing relationships? I mean – if there was going to be an approach tending from Orthodox practices, what might it be?
I think that the first element to Orthodox healing would probably be presence. Simply being with people – simple being there for and with and to them – has a wonderful healing effect. I won’t go into the reasons why. Today I prefer to treat the reasons as something that people recognize until they are talked out of them.
I think the second element would be these basic human acts that lend themselves so well to religious rituals. Bathing and washing is the first; eating together is the second. There are others. In our culture, washing is restricted, as a social activity, to very close family members and only those in specific relationships to one another and of certain ages. Eating together, however, remains one of the basic and most powerful acts of fellowship – and, when necessary, of restoration and reconciliation – available to both the divine and human relationships.
I’ve tried to talk about this before and to tell the truth I know I sounded completely pretentious. This thing is asking for a more diffident treatment, something that doesn’t approach too close.
I imagine that the moment of reconciliation for those Old Testament believers was the moment they sat down with their family and ate the food they got back from the sacrifice. Those animals, far from undergoing a horrific and unusual fate, were always meant for food. They were being raised in the herd for ordinary slaughter. But being the best of the best, they ended up being offered as food for a different purpose. The food was given to God; then God gave the food back to the people.
And then they shared the meal with God. Friends again. It cost a lot in some sense. In another sense it cost nothing because God gave it all back and more.
They were not allowed to eat blood. Of course that would have been really gross for one thing. (Christ’s blood is not gross; it is something that we are not able to imagine. His body is resurrected and transformed; it is a spiritual body and his blood is spiritual, too.)
But the animal blood was off limits for the express reason that “the life is in the blood.” I don’t really understand this prohibition or its explanation, but to me it does seem to point to a specific way in which the Old Covenant was incomplete and imperfect. To put it simply, they benefited from the animal’s death but were not allowed to acquire its life. They were not animists; this was religion, genuinely, and not superstition.
However, in Christ we must acquire both his death and resurrection. In his body we acquire his death, for his body has known death. By making his body our body as we consume it, we find the law fulfilled, which requires that sinners die. (For reasons I won’t go into here, that’s not the vicious punishment that it could sound like.) But by consuming his blood also, we enter into his life. The animals became part of a living being and that was all the afterlife they knew – as far as we are told. But Christ is risen from the dead (the bells of Pascha are still ringing and echos hum in my mind – trampling down death by death, they remind me) and his life, his blood, takes us beyond the requirements of the law and opens up the way to Heaven itself; that is, to Love eternal, to the better way. I’m getting beyond myself here.
All I mean is that we don’t stop at dying with him. If we are going to take Christ we don’t get to be content with fulfilling the law. Christ comes as Christ is – terrible as a lion who holds the power of life and life’s end, awe-filling as an army with banners, Christ, the beautiful, Christ the quiet conversationalist, Christ the immovable who is easily entreated, Christ the never-forceful and all-powerful, Christ Jesus who has been to Hell and back and knows all our excuses, Christ the blessing of God who turns away the curse from us, Christ the lover of mankind and the love of mankind, the all-loved, the light that shines on all men, Christ the law that writes himself in the heart, Christ, the singer of the song of songs, Christ, who hears confessions only to put away shame, Christ, the ladder, the gate, and the way, Christ the Son for which mankind longed, Christ the bridegroom of the chaste spirit, Christ the image of God that stamps itself on our hearts, and Christ the only beloved, the unknown who makes us to know what we cannot speak of himself. Not by words, but by making himself present and available to us – to speak in understatement.
This Christ is the perfection of covenant, of reconciliation, of fellowship, because he is not looking for death but life.