Friday, May 29, 2009

1-20-2008: 2nd Ordinary Time (A)

Isaiah 49:3,5-6/Psalm 40/1 Corinthians 1:1-3/John 1:29-34
When the Baptist identifies Jesus as the Lamb of God, he’s not being cute. On the contrary, it’s a dire prediction, a foreboding prophecy. Jewish priests would routinely slaughter lambs as sacrifice for the sins of their donors. The priests – butchers really – must have reeked of the blood and guts of those animals. Incense burned not so much for symbolic effect, but to erase the stomach-turning smell that must have pervaded the Temple precincts. Although it was a severe blow to Judaism in 70 AD when the Romans destroyed the Second Temple, sinners seeking forgiveness would have saved a bundle (they didn’t have to buy those unblemished and expensive lambs) and, no doubt, the lamb population itself would have rejoiced. With the destruction of the Temple, the sacrificial practice that had so long defined Judaism came to an end – at least, until the Third Temple is someday built. For the Baptist, and subsequent Christians, Jesus is seen as the Lamb of sacrifice; through his bloody sacrifice, atonement for all sin is effected.

Atonement is not easily defined; its etymology is ambiguous. It has layers of meaning, as the recent film, Atonement, cleverly examines. It involves contrition or sorrow for some offense given and punishment in retribution for the offense. But it also suggests more than reconciliation – establishing a kind of union between the one offended and the offender, somehow becoming at-one with each other. The film, Atonement, proposes that such reconciliation may be achieved in a vicarious way, and yet be experienced as quite real. It would seem Catholicism does the same.

Those of us who were taught our religion by the Baltimore Catechism might remember the distinction made between the crucifixion on Calvary and the Mass – Calvary rendered as Christ’s bloody sacrifice; the Mass, Christ’s unbloody sacrifice. The same unique sacrifice offered once and for all on Calvary is mysteriously re-presented each time the Mass is celebrated – one bloody, the other not.

The New Evangelization is keen on pointing out the unique importance of the Mass as the experience of atonement. It demands the continued increase of Masses offered and the frequent reception of communion – both practices long-encouraged. My question is this: how can the endless repetition of Masses be expected to lead to an appreciation of a unique sacrifice? Too much repeating of an experience you claim to be unique may be defendable on a theological basis but, humanely speaking, sinks into rote religiosity – an omen of certain decline.

I’m sure the slaughter of lambs, day-in and day-out, at the Temple in Jerusalem was a monotony of sorts as well. But I’m somehow also sure that the smell of those bloody sacrifices put an edge on the experience, never letting you become completely bored, precisely because it wasn’t pleasant. Consumerism – that need for repeated experience perceived as gratifying and pleasant – can also infect the practice of religion, tempting us to believe that more is always better.

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