Monday, June 23, 2008

Sacrifice in the First 40 Years of Christianity

Lets put ourselves into the world of first century Christianity for a moment. When we read the New Testament, sometimes we have little more visual than Paul sitting in a dungeon somewhere and writing a letter to a "home church" in Corinth or to a young preacher named Timothy. If you're like me, thats about as far as your mind takes you sometimes.

There are some important themes and surrounding historical facts that we should be aware of though. Here are a few facts that are often over looked.

1. For the first decade or so of Christianity, Christians were almost entirely Jewish. (Yes we all knew this, but re-read it until it sinks in).
2. Christian went right on celebrating Sabbath like they always did in the Synagogues.
3. They probably still celebrated the Jewish passover and participated in the Temple cult just as they always did.
4. They definitely participated in daily prayers at the Temple.
5. James, the brother of the Lord and first bishop of Jerusalem wore the vestments of the priesthood as described in Exodus when he entered the Temple to pray on behalf of the Christians.

Now this went on for about 40 years. In fact, if modern historical estimates are right, it was exactly 40 years. What happened during this time? At Christ's death, the Temple veil was torn in two according to the gospels. Watch the significance here. This is the end of the old covenant and the beginning of the new (and not an invitation to be God's buddy). Jeremiah prophesied the New Covenant and Luke records Jesus instituting it in the Lord's Supper. The New Covenant is the Eucharist. Christ is the new Paschal Lamb. Jesus was born approximately -3 BC which would place His death at 30 AD. The destruction of the Temple was in 70 AD. The Talmud tells us that the Jews would fasten a scarlet thread on the door of the Temple when the high priest would offer sacrifice on the day of atonement. If it turned white, the people rejoiced because their sins had been forgiven. This was a perpetual miracle that happened up until a certain point: you guessed it, 40 years before the destruction of the Temple (30AD). This is recorded in the Talmud.

This is the environment the early Christians were in when they received the book of Hebrews. So Hebrews makes it clear that Christ acted as the true High Priest and the true Sacrifice. When the author wrote about Christ's perfect sacrifice, he wrote to an audience who may well have been struggling with questions like "do we still go to Temple and participate in the offerings there?" or they may have already adopted the Tradition of not participating in the Temple cult and yet were not so sure that they could make a strong theological case as to why. This is how we must understand the book of Hebrews and not that the author intended to remove sacrifice from the Christian worship! The author deals with practical questions for early Christians, for us it is lofty theology. The New Covenant was inherently sacrificial and the early Christians were acutely aware of this; we cannot remove sacrifice from the liturgy nor can we admit that there was ever a time in Church history where it was not present.

This is our data set of the New Testament world. Somehow, we have been misled into thinking of the New Testament Church as a network of autonomous cells of charismatic, Spirit-led Gentiles when the reality was much different. The starting point to understand the true New Testament Church is the authority of the apostles and their itinerant mission but we must also understand their liturgy as they would have; with the Eucharistic sacrifice at the very center. Anything less is merely a post-16th century caricature of the early Church.

2 comments:

Andrew Preslar said...

I suppose that we all tend to envision the first century church after our own image. I used to think that the original layfolk, or whatever, showed up in shorts and harley-davidson t-shirts. Then I woke up and realized that I was at a twenty-first century Mass in anywhere USA.

So maybe the Catholic Church is the first century church after all.

The shorts and t-shirt criteria has been met. So far, so ancient. I only only require my Mother to meet two more demands, and then I will begin to obey Her:

(2) Budweiser in the chalice, I mean, mug.

(3) Mesh baseball caps for the bishops.

And we must let Kevin Costner concelebrate mass, I mean, serve Beer and Hotdogs, with Shoe-less Joe Jackson and Forrest Gump in a Field of Dreams. Just like St Paul and the boys from J-Ru.

Build it and they will come.

Joseph said...

Nuh uh. The Apostles were just like us except that they wore sandals and dirty robes. I saw it on Discovery Channel.

They were cool, like my youth group leader, Slater, that gives us great ideas but makes sure that we know that we aren't bound by anything and we should validate what he says for ourselves in the Bible. Think for yourself, that's what he always says... cool. He plays the guitar too. I'll bet that Peter, or Pedro as I would have called him, played the guitar.

They were too cool to have pushed any sort of "dogma" or organized religion on anybody... come on, they were just like me and Fonzy!

(Those were very close to my thoughts when I had given up on the possibility that the Church could be found in any one denomination, thereby announcing the personal community of Joseph, community of one)