There is something holy about hospitals at night; the darkened hallways, muted voices, the general lack of people and activity. And yet, in these long hours of quiet, there lies the opportunity to dwell upon those matters which the busyness of the day keep away from conscious mind and thought. In those moments, emotions can overwhelm and paralyze: in those moments, my work as a hospital chaplain becomes real.
Dottie was having just such a night. She was dying, on “comfort care” (where all medical intervention is meant to relieve pain and symptoms rather than prolong life), and full of deep sadness and anxiety. Not because her life was coming to an end, rather because her children’s already had. She had buried her only children years before, and yet the grief of their deaths reached new levels as she began to move toward death herself.
When I met her, she immediately grabbed my hand and held it tightly as she cried. Her story came in fits and starts, and most of our time together was spent in silence, her sobs and the gentle beeping of an IV the only sounds intruding upon the sacred stillness.
“I wish Jesus didn’t have to die,” she said at one point. “No one should have to endure the pain of losing a child, not even God.”
This statement: this declaration of deep pain and empathy for the divine has stuck with me over these last weeks. Partly because of the beauty of the heart of a mother reaching out to connect with God broken heart to broken heart. But also because of what the statement says about Jesus, sacrifice, and atonement.
While many pastors have a robust Trinitarian theology that does not separate Son and Father in the same way Dottie did, Dottie’s views are common. They paint a picture of a lamb sent to slaughter–a willing lamb, to be certain, but not a full-participant in the process. The Father giving the Son to sacrifice.
This passage in Hebrews offers a slightly different interpretation. The Epistle to the Hebrews, in general, seeks to position Christ as a high priest within the Jewish sacrificial system. Verse 24 alludes to the the temple, and the holy of holies: a separate space that could only be entered by the high priest on the Day of Atonement. Christ has entered a perfected, completed, and wholly-divine sanctuary “to appear in the presence of God on our behalf.” (9:24, NRSV)
Verses 25-26 goes on to show the tension of Christ as both high priest, offering the sacrifice, and as the sacrifice to be offered. And the sacrifice is a one-time event: “once for all at the end of the age to remove sin by sacrifice of himself.” (9:26) This adds an additional point of tension: it is both true that Kingdom of God has broken into the present reality by Christ, as high priest, entering the presence of God, and that the Hebrews to whom this epistle is written were suffering terrible persecutions in the not-yet reality of the world.
The closing verse of this passage, chosen by the lectionary, reaffirms Christ’s role as the object of sacrifice: like the sacrifice on the Day of Atonement, Christ bears the sins of the community.
However, that Christ is presented as both high priest and sacrificial offering is important. It speaks to the consent and participation of Christ in the entirety of everything. Christ is not a willing pawn in the plans of others, rather, Christ is a full participant. It is not the power over Christ that compels him to the cross, rather power with Christ.
This idea of participation and consent is important, particularly when a power dynamic is added. How many times have we heard people speak of God “forcing” them into some path or decision they did not want? Or those in power in the church pushing agendas upon the people over whom they have power?
That Christ is both high priest and sacrificial offering says that God cares about willing participation and consent between persons. It paints a picture where divine love is not a Father sacrificing the Son; but the Son and the Father deciding together to sacrifice for the sins of all. It is a love that is robust and full and not marred by problematic power imbalances.
Dottie was right about many things, one of which is that God stands to meet us in the place of loss: whether it is Christ entering the holy of holies as a blood sacrifice or in the heartbreak of a mother who buried her children.