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A Hermeneutical Key to the Book of Hebrews 4

There is a final avenue of exploration of the message of Hebrews that I would like to explore in terms of the anthropological concept of liminality, and that is how the author envisioned his readers conducting their earthly lives.

Attitude toward Earthly Life

There is indeed an inner sanctum in heaven that Christians may experience proleptically even now (4:16, 12:22, etc.). For the moment, however, our lives must be lived on earth, where there is no longer any distinction between sacred and non-sacred space. The context for our current divine encounter is beyond any fabricated sacred enclosure. With no sacred borders, there is no longer a realm of safe haven. We are to live our faith “out there” in the world, where acts of mercy, solidarity with outcasts, and bearing Christ’s shame are the components of our liturgy (10:32-34; 13:13, 16). Life in all its fullness, and indeed in all its worldliness, is thus the context in which we draw near to God through Christ (13:13). The spirituality of Hebrews, for all of its dualistic language, does not represent a retreat from the world. Hebrews ritualizes the practice of spirituality, but does not reduce it to a liturgy that can be performed somewhere and then left behind.

Timothy Radcliffe argues that, unlike other Christians, the author of Hebrews “makes the bold move of refusing to offer any alternative experience of the celestial liturgy” than that found in the no-longer-available Jerusalem cultus (“Christ in Hebrews: Cultic Irony,” New Blackfriars 68 [1987] 495). While this is true to a certain extent, it misses the author’s main point. Heavenly realities are in fact available to believers, but they do not always appear heavenly in their earthly incarnations.

One aspect of the phenomenology of pilgrimage is worthy of mention in this regard. That is that the pilgrim generally goes as one intentionally assuming the role of the stranger. In various traditions, pilgrims wear distinctive garb and go penniless, or else carry money only to give to the poor. Rather than blending in with the locals, they must be different; and in the process they willingly enter that limbo of statuslessness where authentic life transitions can be accomplished. It is thus no accident that Hebrews insists that believers identify with the poor, the mistreated, and the prisoners (10:32-34; 13:2-3).

This sacralization of all of life implies that need-meeting ministry is a fitting expression of one’s commitment to Christ. It is not something ancillary or preparatory to spiritual practice: it is an integral part. Furthermore, if all of life is the Christian’s act of worship, this suggests we look at the commonplace as an avenue for divine encounter. We must find a place in our spirituality for daily work, so that we might pray with Brother Lawrence, “Lord of all pots and pans and things… Make me a saint by getting meals and washing up the plates!” (The Practice of the Presence of God [Revell, 1958] 11).

Herein lies an implicit repudiation of the isolationist mentality that sees the church as a fortress against the world. At the same time, however, this embrace of earthly life as the context for divine encounter does not imply an “anything goes” attitude. In fact, much of the suffering believers may endure in the world is a direct result of their failure to blend in with their surroundings. The author of Hebrews never suggests that Christians go out of their way to find persecution, but he is aware that a genuine commitment to Jesus often meets with society’s resistance. He therefore urges his audience to make the first move, to sever ties with the world that keep them from following Jesus authentically (12:1; 13:13). He can thus applaud the community for once cheerfully submitting to the plunder of their property (10:34). With no unnecessary worldly entanglements, the pilgrim people of God are free to seek the lasting city which is to come (11:15-16; 13:14). Such an attitude guarantees that believers will lead lives at a distance from the world, moving toward God who is to be found outside of human restrictions, creating sacred space where there was none before.



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