The crowd stands and sings the national anthem. Someone throws out the first pitch. People wear goofy outfits, take a seventh-inning stretch, sing “Take Me Out to the Ball Game”, and buy overpriced hot dogs. Most of them will never know that what they are doing is religion.
A nonbeliever asks, “Why do Christians need to do all these rituals, like Communion? Why don’t they just preach what they believe?” The ball game comes to mind with thirty thousand people or more singing, reciting creeds or pledges, and feeling a sense of unity — even with the opposing team — as they sing about buying “peanuts and Cracker Jack”. It must have been similar more than two and-a-half millennia ago, when the ancient Greeks gathered for the first Olympics, a series of games and rituals designed to give glory to their gods. Rituals are simply what human beings do. They make us feel close to one another and to God. They take away our guilt. They comfort us in times of stress. They remind people of what they believe, and teach them the values of their culture. Regardless of which team we root for, we love the game itself; and we don’t care if we ever go back.
It must have been the same way in the temple. The psalmist says that one day in the temple courts is better than a thousand elsewhere, and he envies even the sparrow who makes its nest in a corner of the building (Psalm 84). This was the place where people could come to formally wipe the slate clean, to start their relationships with God over again.
We are far away from the smoky slaughterhouse smell of the ancient temple, the sound of bells and the bleating of sheep. Our Christian churches have a different smell: wood polish and flowers, carpet and candles. So when the author of Hebrews starts talking about high priests, blood, goats, bulls and sacrifice, some of us have a hard time relating. We’re much more comfortable with baseball and the Olympics.
Blood has always been a symbol of both life and death. The ancient Israelites believed that a creature’s life-force was in its blood, and therefore blood was holy to God. If someone was murdered, God was supposed to be able to hear their blood crying from the ground. If you killed an animal for food, you were forbidden to drink its blood; instead, you had to offer its blood back to God. When the Hebrews escaped from Egypt on the night of Passover, the Hebrews painted their doors with the blood of a lamb so that the angel of death would know which houses to avoid and pass over.
When we sing about fountains filled with blood and about being washed in the blood of the Lamb, it is best not to actually try to picture such things. A fountain filled with blood? It sounds like a scene from a horror movie! Yet we have hymns like, “Nothing but the blood of Jesus”. This fascination with blood seems pretty grisly, but in the ancient world, blood was viewed as the divine source of life.
Actually we haven’t come so far in our thinking. We still say someone is hot-blooded if they are passionate; we refer to a cold-blooded killer or a blue-blooded noble. We ascribe cultural attributes to blood: “He has Irish (or Native American or African) blood”; we speak of people having musical or athletic talent “in their blood”. It’s the stuff that beats through our hearts and fuels our passions. Abraham Lincoln had the audacity to stand up at the podium at Gettysburg and call a battlefield holy, because it had been hallowed with the spilled blood of fallen soldiers. Pouring out his life willingly, Jesus enacted an ancient ritual that changes who we are.
Sometimes Christians, hearing so often about how Christ takes our place on the cross, think that sacrifice and punishment are the same thing. It’s important to remember that the animals slaughtered on temple altar were not being punished for the sins of the people. When we talk about Jesus as “the perfect sacrifice for our sins”, it does not mean that someone had to be killed in order to appease an angry God’s thirst for vengeance. It’s something far deeper — a blood ritual that reminds us of where life comes from and where it goes.
Jesus’ death on the cross was more than just a terrible injustice. It was more than just an inspiring act of nonviolent resistance. It was more than a ritual that makes us feel better. It was cosmic. It altered the very fabric of reality. Jesus’ action of offering his own blood — that divine, life-giving substance — somehow made possible a new relationship between human beings and God. Our faith is not in a set of rituals and dramatic actions that make us feel better. Our faith is in a God who has acted once and for all on our behalf.
So we are invited to imagine Jesus as the cosmic priest, performing a glorious ritual outside of time. The cross becomes not merely an ugly upright pole upon which Jesus is nailed. It is an altar; crude but beautiful, surrounded with the smoke of incense. Although we may see Jesus bound, naked and bloody; when we look through the eyes of the ancients, Jesus wears the robe of a priest, and he ascends the steps to the altar of his own free will. The blood falling from his wrists, side, and torn back is no longer a reminder of pain and injustice, but the life-giving substance that Jesus offers back to God — his own essence and life-force — and by doing, so he purifies the world. Watching this spectacle are not only his mother and a few courageous followers but every human being who has ever lived and who will ever walk our planet. Like the crowd at the baseball game, root, root, rooting for their home team, those standing around the cross and watching the execution of Jesus have no idea that what they are doing is religion.