Over the last week our Old Testament lessons at morning prayer have covered the opening chapters of Ezra and Nehemiah, which, if you pray the Office (which I commend to you) you might have found a bit dry, but which I find extremely interesting. The Jews have returned to the land and get to work, with the help of their liberators the Achaemenid–or First Persian–Empire. Two things that struck me as interesting, the first really a curious point but worth noting and the second particularly relevant.
So, first, if any of you saw Zack Snyder’s exceedingly silly movie about the Battle of Thermopylae 300, which came out fifteen years ago, you’d have gotten precisely the wrong idea about the Persians. In short, they should have been the good guys and the Spartans should have been the baddies. Starting with Cyrus the Great, the one who founded the Empire and liberated the Jews, the Persians established an order which respected and fostered religious and cultural diversity, established good government with an essentially federal system 2,000 years before America, and (perhaps most significantly) largely eschewed slavery, the life-blood of societies like that of the Spartans. In our readings from Ezra this week, we learn how much assistance Darius I assisted in helping the Jews restore the temple in Jerusalem and reestablish the sacrificial system there. Then of course you have the movie’s big-baddie, Xerxes I, who in the film is portrayed as a sort of tyrant and target of the audience’s supposed homophobia because of his flamboyance. In the biblical Book of Esther, on the other hand, Xerxes (called by his Hebrew name, Ahasuerus) is shown saving the Jews in the Imperial city of Susa from the wicked designs of his viceroy, Haman, and eventually making Esther his queen. This, by the way, is the origin of the festival of Purim, which is observed today as a sort of Jewish Hallowe’en (complete with costumes and baskets of candy) so how appropriate we are reminded of that today.
More importantly for our purposes today, one is reminded in these lessons from Ezra and Nehemiah the great complexity of the temple’s ritual system and the enormity of the construction required to house it. The nature of the sacrificial vessels are outlined in some detail as well as the particular sacrifices to be made on appointed days. In chapters omitted from our course of reading, after Nehemiah inspects the temple walls, we are treated to details of how that work proceeded and given a sense of just how great the scope of restoring the buildings of the temple complex must have been. And that the Jews would seek help from their new imperial overlords (relatively benevolent though they may have been) suggests just how important the project was considered by those newly returned to their land.
Interesting, then, that the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews draws not upon the image of the second temple, nor even of Solomon’s temple before it, when drawing his parallel to Christ’s sacrifice:
But when Christ appeared as a high priest of the good things that have come, then through the greater and more perfect tent (not made with hands, that is, not of this creation) he entered once for all into the Holy Place, taking not the blood of goats and calves but his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption.
“The greater and more perfect tent.” The Greek here is σκηνης. It does not say temple or building, but “tent.” The verses prior to our Epistle’s opening makes it plain, here, that he is speaking not of either of the grand building complexes of the Jerusalem temples with their thousands of gold and silver vessels, but the relatively simple tabernacle toted around the desert by Moses and the Israelites recently freed from Egypt. There is, here, an earthiness in the image Hebrews chooses, a simplicity, but arguably even more importantly, a mobility–a sort of geographic and temporal limitlessness not permitted by a system bound to a single place and time to which one must travel thousands of miles to approach or hope that the geopolitical reality of any given era allows that place to stand and be entered.
I cannot remember whom I heard put it this way, but I think he was right, as non-pluralistic as it might strike the ears of a contemporary person. One genius of our faith is that it is not bound to a particular place. One needn’t go to Jerusalem to make the appointed sacrifices in precisely the point God told the Israelites to do. One needn’t make the hajj to Mecca because Muhammed said so. Christ, though born in Bethlehem, is truly born in the hearts of all believers. The heavenly tent, the Holy of Holies into which Christ entered once for all, is not a place we must go, because it comes down to earth upon hundreds of thousands of altars in the sight of hundreds of millions of Christians throughout time and space. This is not to say we’ve always appreciated this fact; the Crusades stand as perhaps the greatest historical example of our getting this all wrong. Nevertheless, here Christ is [on our altar] and here he is, too [in our hearts].
I, for one, am grateful that we have a lovely and well-maintained church. It is, first and foremost, a temple in which the Body of Christ is given a home, just as the temple in Jerusalem was, first and foremost, a temple in which the Spirit of God, resting upon the mercy seat of the Ark of the Covenant, is given a home. It should, therefore, be respected and maintained and made beautiful. That said, our Lord is just as capable of being present anywhere anytime, in a beautiful cathedral or on a card table set in the midst of a homeless encampment or on a little stand in the hospital room of a believer about to meet our him face to face. How appropriate that the Apostle Paul–whom I’m comfortable claiming wrote the Epistle to the Hebrews, though I’m in the minority camp–literally made tents for a living. So whether one goes forth into the world carrying the Blessed Sacrament (as I often do on my calls) or just with the Christ who is present in each of our hearts, we can be certain that he is there with us, and wishes to make himself known to all whom we meet. For he has entered the Holy of Holies, he has become our Advocate, and he promises to give us the victory over sin and death wherever he may call us to spread his presence.
+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.