We at Good Shepherd have been going through Hebrews pretty methodically for a while now. I think we’re in chapter nine or ten or something. The author has been detailing, some might feel belaboring, the Temple furniture and the work of the priest. For one so far removed from the system of sacrifice, it’s easy to sit back and wonder what the big deal is. Why go on and on about it. We all get that Jesus died on the cross for our sins, tralala. And I’ve prayed the sinners prayer. So where’s my happiness and my stuff? To the modern ear, the details of furniture and blood might perhaps sound like a clanging gong, a useless exposition.
But the blood, well, it would have been the bedrock of the worshippers’ sensory experience. You’d go to the temple, and blood would flow down like water as animal after animal is slaughtered in the warm Mediterranean sun.
When I was a kid we would have to drive a hot twenty kilometers once a week to the big town to go shopping. We would park the car and then wend our way through the maze of market stalls buying tomatoes, lettuce, aubergine, cucumbers, and onions. The town was along the river and the produce was abundant, if fly encrusted. Every single vegetable got a solid scrub and a soak in bleach and then a soak in fresh water before we ate any of it. But one thing we didn’t buy in the town was meat.
The meat market was its own quarter–a big wide open foul smelling wooden pavilion, filled with the sounds of sellers bargaining with buyers under the hanging carcasses of cows and goats and sheep. The flies, the smell of decay, the flesh hanging out there in the breeze–it is rather well imbedded in my childhood consciousness.
Meat, blood, the flesh of animals–most of humanity depend on them for survival, but it’s not the easier food. The animal has to die, and in ancient Israel, the blood would be poured out. Then the animal had to be cut up and cooked, and hopefully ended up being delicious–food such as my soul loves–but not easy. Rich, life sustaining, but difficult.Witness truly that if you go to a restaurant and order a steak, if they put bread on the table, you can keep eating the bread long after the steak has disappeared. And if you’re in some kind of distress and sorrow, the thing that you’re going to want to reach for–even if, in these modern times, you’ve been told over and over again not to–is not a big hunk of meat, but a piece of bread.
Bread is such an interesting counterpoint to meat. For one thing, nothing dies. It’s the coming together of flour, water, salt, heat–the forging in the fire of disparate elements into one. And for another, it’s comforting, not just for the body, but for the mind. The person who sits and eats bread is agreeing to the childish, shattered nature of the self–bread is the easier way.
I think every Sunday now of that long ago Hebrew congregation, sitting hearing this sermon preached, sketching out in the mind’s eye those essential elements of the tabernacle–the light, the incense, the show bread, but more, for them, because they would never have seen those with their own eyes, for them it would have been the blood, flowing endlessly over the sides of the altar. You have to have blood, so much blood. How can it be enough then–the singular violent death of one man who, before he died, superseded the meal of lamb and herbs with bread and wine.
It’s like he took all the difficulty into himself. ‘This is my flesh,’ he said, but at the critical moment it’s not something hard to bite down on. It’s the easiest thing–a piece of bread. ‘This is the new covenant in my blood,’ but instead of choking down the stench of the plagued Nile, you take a sip of something that makes life more bearable, something that clears away the stress for a few minutes so that you relax, lift up your head, and look at the people around you.
It would have been fair for it to keep being hard. He didn’t have to die like that. He didn’t have to absorb all the grief and sin in himself. But to have taken on the trouble too, to have left as the sign, as the hope, something so easy, so perfect for the weak and tired person–that is a graciousness, a mercy that none of our rebellion deserved.