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A Liturgy from the Book of Hebrews 1

Inspired by Weekend Fisher, I’ve been fiddling around with the possibilities of constructing a traditional liturgy using (almost) exclusively language derived from the book of Hebrews. Here is a first draft of how the service might begin (with congregational responses in italics):

Greeting

Grace be with all of you. (Heb 13:25)
And also with you.

Scripture Sentence

(Advent)
In a very little while, the one who is coming will come and will not delay.
But God’s righteous one will live by faith. (Heb 10:37-38)

(Christmastide)
When Christ came into the world, he said, “See, I have come to do your will, O God.” (Heb 10:5, 7, 9)
Let all God’s angels worship him! (Heb 1:6).

(Epiphany)
The message was declared at first through the Lord, and it was attested to us by those who heard him. (Heb 2:3)
I will put my trust in him. (Heb 2:13).

(Lent)
Because Jesus himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested. (Heb 2:18)
I will put my trust in him. (Heb 2:13).

(Holy Week)
Christ has appeared once for all at the end of the age to remove sin by the sacrifice of himself. (Heb 9:26)
I will put my trust in him. (Heb 2:13).

(Easter)
Jesus has now obtained a more excellent ministry, and to that degree he is the mediator of a better covenant. (Heb 8:6)
See how great he is! (Heb 7:4)

or:

Jesus is able for all time to save those who approach God through him, since he lives forever to make intercession for them. (Heb 7:25)
See how great he is! (Heb 7:4)

(Ascension Day)
When Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God. (Heb 10:12)
See how great he is! (Heb 7:4)

(Pentecost)
God added his testimony by signs and wonders and various miracles, and by gifts of the Holy Spirit, distributed according to his will. (Heb 2:4)
See how great he is! (Heb 7:4)

(Ordinary Time)
Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever. (Heb 13:8)
I will put my trust in him. (Heb 2:13).

or:

I will proclaim your name to my brothers and sisters.
In the midst of the congregation I will praise you. (Heb 2:12).

Bidding Prayer

Brothers and sisters,
we have come to Mount Zion
and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem,
and to innumerable angels in festal gathering,
and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven,
and to God the judge of all,
and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect,
and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant,
and to the sprinkled blood
that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel. (Heb 12:22-24)

Therefore,
since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken,
let us give thanks, by which we offer to God
an acceptable worship with reverence and awe;
for indeed our God is a consuming fire. (Heb 12:28-29)

Through Christ,
let us continually offer a sacrifice of praise to God,
that is, the fruit of lips that confess his name. (Heb 13:15)

Amen.

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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.

A Hermeneutical Key to the Book of Hebrews 3

Liminality, the limbo of statuslessness one experiences in rites of passage the world over, is a fitting interpretive grid through which to read the cultic depiction of Christian existence in the book of Hebrews. To be sure, it is not the only valid interpretive grid, but I think it is a fruitful one. We have seen how the concept of liminality provides a key to Hebrews’ attitude toward outward forms of religious devotion. In this post I want to explore a somewhat more esoteric topic: the imagination.

Attitude toward Imagination

The author of Hebrews boldly asserts that his readers have in some sense already drawn near to the heavenly realities to which they aspire (they have “tasted of the heavenly gift” and of “the powers of the age to come,” 6:4, 5; see also 12:22-24). However one is to understand this assertion theologically, in practical terms it invites an engagement of the imagination on the part of the reader. Rituals operate on the level of symbolism and imagination. They move people, individually and corporately, into a realm where humanity’s creative energies are given free rein to renew society. In this sense all rituals are more or less liminal. Similarly, the cultic spirituality of Hebrews seeks to tell us something that cannot be apprehended through rational means.

Authentic spirituality should be about helping to foster the creative, right-brain aspects of existence. (It is certainly about more than that, but it just as certainly must include that.) Although the content of the Christian message remains the same, it is up to each new generation to embody the tradition in creative and imaginative ways. We must not, however, confuse imagination with one particular misuse of it, which is fantasy. Fantasy preys on human desires and fears, and is thus earthbound and egocentric. A healthy imagination, in contrast, is self-transcendent. Hebrews models a vital interplay between tradition and imagination that does full justice to both.

As but one example, consider the writer’s lavish use of the Old Testament texts, especially the Psalms, in explicating the meaning of the Christ event. A former professor, Dr. Harold Songer, once related how he had assumed the author of Hebrews had more or less randomly drawn on words and phrases from the Psalms that he thought referred to Christ, and that it would be fairly easy to find additional verses with a similar thrust. Then he put this assumption to the test. After combing the book of Psalms, Dr. Songer later became convinced the author of Hebrews had in fact exhaustively compiled every possible allusion to Christ in the Psalter. I’m not prepared to vouch for Dr. Songer’s thoroughness in reading the Psalms for potential christological types and allegories (although those who knew him would question his attention to detail only with great trepidation!), but I can attest to the author of Hebrews’ encyclopedic knowledge of the biblical texts, familiarity with classical Jewish and Hellenistics methods of interpretion, and ease of expression within the accepted canons of Greco-Roman rhetoric. The author knew his tradition inside and out, but he creatively re-appropriated it in the service of his proclamation of Christ.

While the imagination needs the support of a tradition to be fully creative, the tradition also needs new imaginative insights to stay alive. Unfortunately, the spiritual traditions of the West often prefer, like the first audience of Hebrews, to live in the past. Edward Robinson describes the problem in terms that one would easily identify with the crisis in Hebrews:

Tragically, our spiritual tradition has almost entirely become obsessed with self-preservation and a wholly disproportiate veneration for the achievements of the past. Unless the grain fall into the ground and die… A tradition that is not ready to see all its outward structures destroyed, all its conventional forms of expression abandoned, to give room for growth of the new, is already moribund. (“Enfleshing the Word,” Religious Education 81 [1986] 358)

Another aspect of this issue is that of “holy leisure.” Celebration, play, and even humor have oten been a part of ritual in preindustrial cultures. Christian worship as well owes itself to be playful from time to time. Some of this playfulness may be seen today in the festive, childlike atmosphere we embrace at holidays like Christmas (for Christians) or Purim (for Jews).

Finally, the role of the arts in the spiritual life deserve a closer analysis. Christians can stimulate the imaginative, creative side of spirituality by fostering a deeper appreciation for drama, music, and the visual arts as means of religious expression and religious encounter.

A Hermeneutical Key to the Book of Hebrews 2

Since the author of Hebrews chose to express his vision of the Christian life in cultic categories, we should do him the favor of accepting that these categories were important for him and indeed a key to understanding his message. There are several ways of approaching Hebrews through the lens of ritual, but for now I’m interested in the concept of liminality—the status-reversing transitional experience at the heart of many rituals found in all human cultures. Among other things, attention to the liminal aspects of the message of Hebrews may help us understand the author’s attitude toward outward forms of religion.

Attitude toward Religious Forms

For the author of Hebrews, the major concern is not with the cultic presuppositions of his audience (he surely shared many of them) but with their valuation of particular cultic forms. It is inevitable that religion—any religion—will express itself with external manifestations. This is because of the social and psychological constitution of humankind itself. Christians are not exempt from this reality, and in fact I think a solid case can be made that the earliest forms of Christian worship, drawing from prior Jewish traditions, was in fact quite liturgical in form, though not without its spontaneous or “charismatic” elements (as I’ve discussed previously).

So, we’re stuck with outward forms—liturgies, customs, religious routines. The problem arises when we get fixated on them, so that we see them as an end in themselves and not a tool or guide to bring us into an authentic divine encounter. This, I think, was the pastoral concern the lies behind the book of Hebrews. The addressees were longing for the liturgical “good ole days” and didn’t see how their new experience in Christ measured up.

Hebrews examines the religious forms associated with the old covenant and finds them insufficient for living and preaching the authentic gospel. They may effect some positive results on a superficial level, but nothing more (9:9-10; 10:1-2; 13:9). The author never calls these things bad, but he is insistent that they do not compare with what his addressees now have in Jesus. Forms, therefore, are to be questioned and critically evaluated. Those that fail to measure up to the gospel are to be forsaken.

Hebrews thus posits a spirituality of letting go. Whatever externals we make the focus of our loyalties become our idols and keep us from experiencing God through the mediation of Christ alone. Numerous points of relevance come readily to mind. One would be the danger of religious legalism. Evelyn Underhill has noted the dangers ritualism and formalism present to a healthy view of outward religious forms (Worship [Harper, 1937] 34-37). Ritualism is the view that, for any good to come of them, the external expressions must be performed “just so.” It is marked by a great attention to the minute details of religious performance to the extent that one loses the overall picture. Formalism is an approach to ritual that concerns itslef with simply “going through the motions” with little thoguht for the significance of the practices. Both forms of legalism deny the proper place of ritual in spirituality because they deny the realities that always lie behind the ritual itself.

Another point of relevance is the area of liturgical reform, which continues to be a hot topic in churches. Rather than simply reclaiming the old worship forms from previous centuries or creating new forms in the image of Madison Avenue, the author of Hebrews would have us demonstrate critical judgment about the outward forms we would embrace. For him, worship in the gathered community was an enacted anticipation of heavenly realities:

But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assemmbly of the firstborn who are now enrolled in heaven, and to God the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel. (Heb 12:22-24; see Hans-Detlof Galley, “Der Hebräerbrief und der christliche Gottesdienst,” Jahrbuch für Liturgik und Hymnologie 31 [1987-88] 72-83).

Since we humans cannot get away from the external contingencies of worship, we had better choose our rituals well!

In general terms, the attitude toward religious externals we see in Hebrews involves discerning what are our sources of religious, spiritual, and theological security. For example, the author does not deny the possible benefits of having formally recognized spiritual leaders in the community (13:7), but the “main point” of his treatise is that “we have such a high priest, one who is seated at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in the heavens” (8:1). He does not disparage “regulations for worship an an earthly sanctuary” (9:1) including, no doubt, such things as baptisms and the laying on of hands (6:2). But these are merely the “basic teaching about Christ” (6:1). What matters far more is spiritual sacrifice the believing community offers: “the fruit of lips that confess [God’s] name” and doing good and sharing from one’s material resources (13:15-16). We do these things confessing that, rather than trusting in any “lasting city” on earth, “we are looking for the city that is to come” (13:14).

Once our sources of security are located, they must be put to the test. Those that are found wanting must be discarded—no matter how precious they may be. Letting go may in fact lead to doing without, and there may be in Hebrews an apophatic undercurrent that would confess the inadequacy of any sort of external religious practice or assertion. After all, Abraham left his home and inheritance “not knowing where he was going” (11:8) and Moses “left Egypt” in pursuit of the invisible God (11:27).

This point is driven home in chapter 13, where the author’s concluding exhortations repeatedly use the word “outside”: “outside the camp” (13:11), “outside the gate” (13:12), “Let us then go out to him outside the camp” (13:13). In this passage we find the final resolution of Hebrews’ continuing theme of entering the divine presence. The author has worked with the motif of “entering” or “drawing near” since the beginning as a central metaphor for encounter with God (compound words with εἰς [“into”] at 1:6; 2:10; 3:11, 18, 19; 4:1, 3, 5, 6, 10, 11; 6:19, 20; 9:6; 12:24; compound words with πρός [“toward”] at 4:16; 7:25; 10:1, 22; 11:6; 12:18, 22; the verb ἐγγίζω [“come near”] at 7:19). Here the imagery shifts to movement in the opposite direction. The substance of such an encounter now becomes clear: to approach God is to abandon the “camp” and accept Christ’s shame. With a stroke of the pen the old, comfortable boundaries fall. The author calls on his readers to abandon the camp—to abandon respectability, security, and conventional holiness, however they may be understood. There is thus grace to be found at the Christian altar (13:9), but there is also a personal cost.

At the very least, the quest for liminality in religious forms should suggest the importance of moving beyond the rationalistic patterns of much of mainline religion. Richard Baer, for example, notes the functional similarities between Quaker silence, high church liturgy, and glossolalia in that all three forms of religious expression tend to transcend the analytical intellect (“Quaker Silence, Catholic Liturgy, and Pentecostal Glossolalia—Some Functional Similarities,” in Perspectives on the New Pentecostalism, ed. Russell P. Spittler [Baker, 1976]). In so doing, these practices free other aspects of the self for spiritual engagement. I’ll discuss one possibility for contemporary application in the next installment.

Depends on What I’m Reading

iMonk has asked his Liturgical Ganstas, “When were you saved?” Had he asked me, I think I would be tempted to answer, It depends on what I’m currently reading:

If I’m reading Ephesians, I was saved many years ago by grace through faith when God, who is rich in mercy, made me alive in Christ, although I once was dead through the trespasses and sins in which I  lived (Eph 2).

If I’m reading James, I am being saved today when I supply the bodily needs of a brother or sister, bringing my faith to completion by my works, since faith by itself is barren (Jas 2).

If I’m reading Hebrews, I will be saved at the last day, and therefore I am making every effort to enter into that rest, so that I may not fall through disobedience (Heb 4).

Interesting Question Indeed

What Would James Make of Hebrews?

The impression that one would get [from Hebrews] is that the coming of Christ brings about a change in the parts of the Law that apply to the cult and that participation in the Jerusalem cult would, in effect, be a denial that Christ had indeed initiated the new covenant.

But our evidence suggests that the earliest Jewish Christ-believers did participate in the Temple rituals including the sacrifices (I include the big names here like Peter, James and, yes even Paul). They did not seem to see any problem with maintaining that Christ’s sacrifice was THE sacrifice and participating in the cult (which, one would imagine, they saw as being fulfilled in Christ).