Death is not the ultimate destiny for our mortal flesh.
I find it hard to make sense at times of the Epistle to the Hebrews. I get the gist of the author’s argument. He is trying to persuade some wavering Christians to remain firm in their allegiance to Jesus.
What I find hard to follow is the support arguments he makes for his case. For one, he makes constant references to the old Jewish temple and sacrificial rituals. If we are not familiar with them, as most modern Christians are not, then we will find the arguments he makes based upon them puzzling.
For two, the author is well versed in the Greek literary culture. He writes elegant Greek. He also slides in and out of the Greek practice of interpreting narratives as allegory. He sees aspects of the Old Testament story as prefiguring the events that happened with Jesus. This is not quite seeing Old Testament details as spiritual symbolism, but it’s not far from that. That can challenge our attempts to understand his argument, too.
Yet his imagery and phrasing can prove highly provocative to the imagination. They stick in our minds like thistle burrs. We have a hard time shaking them out. They have left an enduring impact on Christian worship language and theology.
The Example of Melchizedek
Let me give one example. The author makes a big deal about the Old Testament figure of Melchizedek. Melchizedek is a minor figure in the Old Testament. He is described in Genesis 14 as the priest-king of Salem, the future city of Jerusalem. He greets Abraham after his victory over four kings. Abraham gives Melchizedek a tenth of the spoils. Melchizedek in turn entertains Abraham with a meal of bread and wine.
Early Christian readers noted that small detail. They saw it as prefiguring the Christian Eucharist. And so in Christian iconography, Melchizedek’s reception of Abraham is linked to the celebration of the mass.
The mosaic of Melchizedek in the Church of San Vitale, Ravenna, Italy. 6th century A.D.
A beautiful example appears in the Church of San Vitale in Ravenna, Italy. There a mosaic shows Melchizedek offering a sacrifice of bread in front of something that looks like a Christian altar. His bread is clearly prefiguring the bread that will be consecrated in this spot in the Christian Eucharist.
Entering the Inner Sanctuary
It was a different detail, however, that caught my attention as I was reading Hebrews recently. In chapter 10, the author writes:
Therefore, my friends, since we have confidence to enter the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain (that is, through his flesh), and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us approach with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful. (Hebrews 10:19-23)
The point of the passage is found in the last sentence. The author repeats once again his admonition to remain steady in faith. He has been repeating this theme throughout the letter.
We can be resolute in faith, he argues, because Jesus has opened the way into the inner temple. Here he is alluding to the curtain that separated the most inner sanctum of the Jewish temple, the Holy of Holies, from the less sacred Holy Place. Only the high priest could enter this inner room. And that only once a year, on the Day of Atonement.
Now the author of Hebrews employs this imagery to express a spiritual reality that the earthly reality points to. The inner sanctum is the presence of God. We can confidently enter into that presence because Jesus has opened the curtain that separates us from the presence of God.
The Curtain of Flesh
Here’s the detail that grabbed my attention. The author says in a parenthetic phrase that that spiritual curtain is our earthly flesh. By having lived a life of faithfulness in the flesh—a flesh he shares with all of us human beings—Jesus has opened the way into God’s presence.
When I read that, this detail became the burr that stuck in my mind and provoked some further reflection.
It is an axiom of Christian spirituality that God is spirit. As invisible spirit, God cannot be perceived directly by the sensory organs of our bodies. We cannot see God with our eyes nor hear him with our ears. In that respect our material bodies are a barrier to spiritual perception.
We can only perceive God’s presence indirectly, through the effects God has in his actions in the world. That’s why I think the traditional proof for God’s existence based upon the world’s design has such persuasive power, even if it does not provide a logic-tight proof. We sense the presence of a creative power behind the beautiful universe we observe with our senses and our scientific tools.
And that is how it must be as long as we remain creatures of flesh. In that sense, I resonate with what the author of Hebrews says when he identifies the obscuring curtain with our material flesh.
But what if our flesh can come to perceive spirit? What if our flesh can be given the right perceptive capability? That is, I believe, the good news of the Christian gospel. For the destiny of the material universe–and the destiny of each of us as material human beings–is ultimately to be so infused with God’s Spirit that we can come to perceive God’s presence directly. The barrier of flesh is transcended.
The Role of Resurrection
And how does that happen? By a transformation of the flesh in the experience of resurrection. In the resurrection we become, indeed the whole universe becomes, material bodies which unite with spirit in a perfect and fulfilling union. As a result of that union, we become capable of perceiving the world of spirit in a way we could not before.*
This transforming experience seems to be what the apostle Paul is trying to describe in 1 Corinthians 15. There he says of the resurrection that lies ahead:
So it is with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown is perishable, what is raised is imperishable. It is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness, it is raised in power. It is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a physical body, there is also a spiritual body. Thus it is written, “The first man, Adam, became a living being”; the last Adam became a life-giving spirit. But it is not the spiritual that is first, but the physical, and then the spiritual. (1 Corinthians 15:42-46)
Our experience of life in the flesh is one of both pleasure and pain. It is a life of mutability, for our bodies are always in flux. It is one of health and of disease. It is one of amazing ability (witness Olympic athletes) and one of disability and limiting injuries. It is one of creativity and one of staleness. It is one of vitality, and one that ends in total loss that comes with death.
It is these facts of life that made the ancient Greeks so disdainful of material life. In the great Platonic vision, salvation meant escape from this imperfect, mutable existence and arrival in the static, but perfect world of spirit (the world of the Forms). Christian spirituality has inherited much of this disdain in its various forms of extreme asceticism.
But that is not the vision of the New Testament. When Christians proclaimed the gospel of the resurrection of Jesus, they held out to the world an unprecedented hope. They saw the destiny of human beings–and ultimately of the whole universe–to be a glorious transformation when material existence is not abolished, but raised to a high and glorious existence, in which matter and spirit are so interfused that they become one.
We see this vision described with great vividness in the vision of the new Jerusalem that we find in Revelation 21-22.
The Practical Point
Now what is the practical, here-and-now point of this Christian vision? It means Christians are called to care deeply about life now in the flesh. In caring for that life here and now we are stewards with God in working to bring material life to its glorious destiny.
We do not run away from the demands placed upon us by daily living, demands that we encounter in carrying for our families and earning our living in our jobs. We pursue with all our energies the search for healing for bodies and minds. We work to nurture the well-being of our environment and the earth’s climate. We care deeply about the needs of the poor and disadvantaged, for we work to help them rise to their glorious destiny too.
And yet we do all this well aware that the eternal is not the same as the material existence we now live. Therefore there is nothing about our present material existence that is of supreme value. We do not turn material existence into idolatry. We long for a glorious destiny that has not yet arrived in its fulness. All of the material creation must pass through the door of death before it can emerge into resurrection.**
I am aware that what I am writing may sound just as strange as the language of the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews. I am trying to describe a vision I have of creation and life that I cannot describe with full precision because it is not yet here. Yet I glimpse hints of it throughout the New Testament.
We can sometimes feel about our lives that we are stuck in the mud, as if we are turtles crawling through the muck of a fetid swamp. That, to some degree, is life in the flesh. Yet the Christian gospel tells us that is not a fully correct perception. The swamp will someday be transformed into a beautiful paradise garden, fed by all the life that was the swamp. And we turtles will one day sprout wings so we can soar through this garden like dragonflies.
In the meantime, let us–as the author of Hebrews might counsel–keep up our faithful crawling encouraged and buoyed by our vision of the glorious destiny that is coming in God’s providential timing.
* If I understand the theology of Teilhard de Chardin correctly, this is what he means by his Omega Point. Like the Epistle to the Hebrews, his writings can be challenging to read, but they linger in my mind and continually stimulate my thought. What I write in this post would not be possible without the influence of Teilhard de Chardin on my own thinking.
** In saying that, I think of the strange phenomena of black holes in our universe. I wonder if we cannot think of black holes as the form of death that stars experience. What happens to a star when it is sucked into a black hole? Does it dissolve away? Or does it go through some kind of resurrection experience? Who knows? But the message of the gospel might suggest that in the black hole experience stars too undergo some kind of mysterious transformation.