A few weeks ago I attended a flag football game played by the eight year old son of some friends of mine. Flag football has evolved quite a bit since I was in grade school. Now, there are specially designed belts that hold specially designed “flags” that release under a standardized vector quantity of force. Gone are the days of shredded towels tucked into a waistband.
For the eight and nine year olds on the flag football team, however, the technologically advanced flag system was beside the point. Not a single play ended by an opponent gaining a flag; all of the plays were ended by the ball carrier falling down. The ball carriers tripped, mostly over their own feet; sometimes, they collided with one another. Sometimes, they fell over for no apparent reason. This was usually accompanied by several other players falling over spontaneously – apparently out of sympathy for the first fallen.
Young children enjoy sports such as flag football, but they don’t always have the muscular coordination and spatial awareness to look graceful on the field. This Sunday’s Scripture readings require something like spatial awareness from us. In order to understand what the Scriptures say about Jesus’ sacrifice on the Cross, it is necessary for us to apply something analogous to spatial awareness to our understanding of the word “faith.”
Jesus’ sacrifice on the Cross is often misunderstood or simply ignored. The second reading today says, “we have been consecrated through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.” (Hebrews 10:10) What does that mean, precisely, that Jesus offered his body on the Cross? Further, what does it mean when we say we believe that we receive the Body of Jesus in the Eucharist? It is easy to misinterpret statements such as these to mean that Jesus had a self-destructive compulsion that led him to pursue suffering and death, or alternately, that God is, perhaps, slightly bloodthirsty. When Jesus’ death is seen in this fashion it leads to all manner of self-destructive personal piety on the part of believers.
The Letter to the Hebrews, however, offers an interpretation of Jesus’ death on the Cross that excludes both vindictiveness on God’s part and the possibility of self-destructiveness, or any other morbid desire, on Jesus’ part. This section of the Letter to the Hebrews paraphrases Psalm 40, and depicts Jesus saying, “Sacrifice and offering you did not desire, but a body you prepared for me; holocausts and sin offerings you took no delight in. . . Behold, I come to do your will, O God.” (Hebrews 10:6,7) The Letter describes Jesus’ sacrificial death as a fulfillment of God’s will. It is necessary to understand this thoroughly. According to the Letter, the only internal motivation that Jesus had was his loyalty to God.
As I mentioned above, it is necessary for us to apply something analogous to spatial awareness to our understanding of Jesus’ sacrificial death. In the Letter to the Hebrews, Jesus’ body is depicted as an instrument through which Jesus accomplished God’s will. This is radically different from our modern understandings of the human body. We tend to think of our bodies as our possessions or as a personal boundary that excludes others. The Scriptures describe the human body as an instrument that exists, not for its own sake, but for the purpose of accomplishing God’s will. In order to grasp this Scriptural notion of bodily existence we have to be willing to put aside much of what we assume about physicality.
First and foremost, we have to be willing to put aside our tendency to value the physical over the relational. In the Scriptures, the relational (what is often incorrectly called the “spiritual”), is the highest value. Personal possessions and personal accomplishments take a distant second place to personal relationships. Rather than being a possession, bodily existence is depicted in the Scriptures as being a means to an end; in the case of faith, the body is an instrument to accomplish God’s will. Our culture tells us to think of ourselves as superstar athletes who take the field, and monopolize the attention of all the spectators in attendance. The Scriptures tell us that there are no spectators, only players who share with one another both the field of play and the ultimate goal of serving God.
This has direct bearing on the way we worship as a community and the way we live our lives. Our Sunday worship isn’t a spectator sport; it is a participatory activity. The Mass isn’t a distribution device that provides Eucharist as a commodity; rather, we come together on the Lord’s Day to use our voices and minds to give God praise. When we receive Eucharist we affirm our belief that Jesus lived only to fulfill God’s will, and we commit ourselves to live in exactly the same manner.
We live in a culture that tells us that each of us individually is the center of the universe, and that there is nothing more important in the world than self. The Scriptures offer a different perspective on human existence. The Scriptures tell us that God is so aware of the distance between us and God that the second person of the Blessed Trinity took a human body in order to bridge the gap between God and humanity. The Scriptures ask us to direct our awareness beyond self, and to consider the value of those around us.
As we approach the feast of the Nativity of the Lord we might ask ourselves what we hope for during this blessed season. If all our hopes and dreams are focused on self, we are caught in a prison of our own making. Freedom from the self-imposed exile that our culture preaches can be found only by gaining an awareness of what is beyond the self – beginning with the acknowledgment that what we call “self” is only an instrument to serve a greater goal, who is God.