The Crucifixion was street theater performed by God Almighty.
On Sunday, we'll be reading from Hebrews, written around 63CE, in which the writer makes what seem to be categorical statements about who Jesus was and what he means. The readings will show him as comparing Jesus to the High Priest of the Temple:
The Hebrews Writer (I'll call him Howie, for convenience) sounds pretty sure of himself, and we could say that he is being divinely inspired to compare and contrast Jesus, whom he esteemed highly, with the highest religious personnel of his day: the priesthood of Temple of Jerusalem. But I think there's more going on here. For Howie and for many early Christians, Jesus's shameful death was a mystery. All this theological business that we now take for granted -- about Jesus being the Suffering Servant from Isaiah rather than an avenging messiah figure -- had not been worked out yet.
Simply put: The Cross was a puzzlement.
Then came Howie, trying to figure things out. But what did he have to work with? He had the Torah, and the Psalms and various historical writings and the prophets. He had the Temple and its priests and attendants. He had his owned lived experience as a Jew in the Holy Land, probably one who expected the same divine bouleversement that Jesus, John the Baptist and the other apocalyticals expected.
So what does he do. Compare and contrast and see what pops out.
If you compare Jesus to the high priest, some interesting parallels emerge. The high priest is appointed to represent the people before God. Jesus Messiah is God's representative, called by God from among the people. The high priest makes animal sacrifice to expiate the sins of the people. You could say that Jesus was sacrificed by his bloody death. And hey! Jesus talked endlessly about service for others, forgiveness of sins and the certainty of his own death. What is he offered himself -- and was both the high priest making the sacrifice and the sacrificial offering itself?
A neat solution, PLUS a recursive puzzle in combining the Escher-like image of priest and sacrifice into the same person which Must Have Blown Howie's Mind when he worked it out.
Which leads to my point. In the middle of the first century, a devout Jewish Christian worked out a solution for a problem that didn't make a lot of sense: a savior who dies. He used the materials at hand and teased out an answer that proved satisfactory for his time, and some time beyond. If we were faced with the same problem today -- if Jesus lived, died and was raised in our day -- what tools would we use? The Temple has been gone for nigh unto 2000 years. The religion that Jesus inspired has sprouted, bloomed and some might say is dying on the vine. Would we be inspired to compare Jesus's death to some feature of the cosmos? to a computer? to the working of evolution? Would Jesus be our CEO, president or cable news magnate?
That's what makes a mystery a mystery: its unending ability to inspire new answers and new insights. The Crucifixion has been challenging us with its koan-like contradictions for two millennia. The God who is Man. The Savior who is killed. The King who is commanded. The Shamed One who is glorified.
Personally, I'm about done with the language of sacrifice, altar, blood and immolation. Doesn't resonate with me. Which makes the Mass problematic, of course, since it perpetuates the ancient language and symbology of the ancient sacrificial system into the present day. Can't say that I have a better idea, frankly. Perhaps there's a modern-day Howie out there, working out a new answer. Maybe she will blow our minds with an insight that is just as awesome as that in Hebrews. Maybe the wordless street theater that occurred on a rocky hill 2000 years ago will yield a new meaning that speaks to modern ears.
Until then, we ponder