The beginning of the beginning

18 November 2012
Twenty-fifth Sunday after Pentecost
Proper 28B (RCL)

I Samuel 4:1-20
Psalm 16
Hebrews 10:11-25
Mark 13:1-8

I don’t think it overstates the case to say that the destruction of Herod’s Temple in 70 CE provided the defining crisis for both Christianity and Judaism as we know them today. As long as the Second Temple stood, both Jews and Christians (to the extent that it makes sense to use those words before the destruction) could look to the Temple as the focus of their identity. Questions of identity were not forced on either community.

When the Romans destroyed the Temple, identities which had been taken for granted were called into question. In Paul’s day, it was enough, regardless of where one lived in the Roman Empire, to contribute to the Temple cult to be considered a Jew, a practitioner of a licit religion. Paul was anxious that Christians be so considered, as demonstrated by his collection for the relief of the saints in Jerusalem. After the destruction, the contributions went into the Roman treasury.

In the passage from Mark’s Gospel for this week, we hear Jesus predict the destruction of the Temple (whether Mark was written just before or after the fact is an open question). Mark has his own reasons for placing this prediction on Jesus’ lips, making it appear as if the destruction were God’s punishment on the Jews for the crucifixion of Jesus. However, Mark does not cast this event as the catastrophe that will end the world. Instead, in this passage, it is “the beginning of the birth pangs.” Something new is in the works.

In Mark’s Gospel (and indeed all who copied him), at the moment Jesus died, the curtain in the Temple was torn from top to bottom, indicating that God had left the inner chamber. The Temple was just an empty hulk from that moment until its actual destruction, for Mark.

The Letter to the Hebrews seeks to line up this new Christian identity with Jewish practice, both ancient and contemporaneous (if the Temple still stood, or recently past, if not). In the cult laid out in Leviticus, the High Priest entered the inner chamber of the Temple, where the ark of the covenant was, once each year to reestablish the kinship of God with God’s people. The High Priest sprinkled the blood of a goat on the mercy seat and then on the people, so that God and the people were linked by blood. The author of Hebrews shows Jesus entering the true Holy of holies in heaven (not the hand-made copy on earth) with his own blood, and establishing blood-kinship with God once and for all. And because Jesus shared flesh and blood with us, our kinship with God is established with Jesus’. Whether or not the author knew of the tradition of the tearing of the curtain at Jesus’ death is not clear, but the similarity of imagery is suggestive. But instead of suggesting God has left the Temple, it suggests our way to God is now open.

So, rather than the logion about not one stone left upon another suggesting something in the past now being closed, it suggests that something in the future is now open. This is just the beginnings of the birth pangs, in which the new creation is waiting to come to birth. We enter God’s presence through Jesus’ blood to intercede for the world.

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