Last revised: February 1, 2017
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THE PRESENTATION OF OUR LORD (February 2)
Malachi 3:1-4; Hebrews 2:14-18; Luke 2:22-40
1. Cheryl Kirk-Duggan, Refiner’s Fire. Handel’s use of Malachi 3:2 in “The Messiah” becomes the primary metaphor in this book which “analyzes the effects of religion as catalysts that help humanity to foment and/or transcend violence” (p. xiv). Later in the Preface, she says, “A Refining Fire is an impulse, a creative energy given to us by God, in a context of choice: we can choose to do justice out of love, or we can choose to be violent out of pain” (p. xvii).
Reflections and Questions
2. Is “refiner’s fire” a good baptismal metaphor, if we connect it with the Pauline idea of dying and rising with Christ?
1. The Letter to the Hebrews has been one of the most controversial books of the Bible in Girardian circles. Its heavy orientation around sacrifice appears suspicious in the face of the Girardian analysis of sacrifice. Girard’s own first assessment of it was negative in Things Hidden since the Foundation of the World (written in 1978), pp. 227-231. He retracted these criticisms in an interview with Rebecca Adams in November 1992 (“Violence, Difference, and Sacrifice: A Conversation with René Girard,” in Religion and Literature 25, no. 2, 1993, pp. 9-33). Here’s a portion of that interview:
RG: I say at the end of Things Hidden — and I think this is the right attitude to develop — that the changes in the meaning of the word “sacrifice” contain a whole history, religious history, of mankind. So when we say “sacrifice” today inside a church or religious context, we mean something which has nothing to do with primitive religion. Of course I was full of primitive religion at the time of the writing of the book, and my theme was the difference between primitive religion and Christianity, so I reserved the word “sacrifice” completely for the primitive.RA: So you scapegoated Hebrews within the canon of Scripture.
RG: So I scapegoated Hebrews and I scapegoated the word “sacrifice” — I assumed it should have some kind of constant meaning, which is contrary to the mainstream of my own thinking, as exemplified by my reading of the Judgement of Solomon in the book [Things Hidden, pp. 237-245]. This text is fundamental for my view of sacrifice.
2. Other Girardians have thus made more positive uses of the Letter to the Hebrews. James Alison makes plenty of positive use of it in Raising Abel, quoting it numerous times throughout and even giving it the last word. He closes with a quote of Heb. 12:18-24 (pp. 196-97) as a way of summarizing his entire argument in the book.
Hebrews 2:14-15 figures prominently in Raising Abel — in Alison’s theology as a whole, really. For he always begins with the resurrection as the beginning of faith in the Living God of Jesus Christ. He quotes these verses, for example, in summing up his argument in chapter 1. He has just called attention to the particularity in a number of the Gospels’ appearance stories to the emphasis on Jesus’ wounds, and continues:
The marks, then, of Jesus’ death were something like trophies: it was his whole human life, including his death, which was made alive and presented before the disciples as a sign that he had in fact conquered death. This not only meant that he had personally conquered death, which he had manifestly done, but that, in addition, the whole mechanism by which death retains people in its thrall had been shown to be unnecessary. Whatever death is, it is not something which has to structure every human life from within (as in fact it does), but rather it is an empty shell, a bark without a bite. None of us has any reason to fear being dead, something which will unquestionably happen to all of us, since that state cannot separate us effectively from the real source of life. This can scarcely be said with more precision than it is by the author of the epistle to the Hebrews:
Forasmuch then as the children are partakers of flesh and blood, he also himself likewise took part of the same; that through death he might destroy him that had the power of death, that is, the devil; and deliver them who through fear of death were all their lifetime subject to bondage. (Heb. 2:14-15)
Now I insist on this, since it is the central pillar of the Catholic faith. From the presence to the disciples of the risen victim, the crucified one risen as crucified, the lamb triumphant as slaughtered, everything else flows. Without that insight, nothing unfolds, no clear perception of God, of grace, of eternal life, about what we must do, how we must live. This means that eschatology is an attempt to understand ever more fully the relationship between those empty marks of death which Jesus bore and the mysterious splendor of the human bodily life which enabled them to be seen. What type of life is it that is capable not of cancelling death out, which would be to stay on the same level as it, but to include it, making a trophy of it, allowing it to be something that can be shown to others so that they be not afraid? It is about this that I wish to speak. Remember please that this presence of Christ risen as crucified is the centerpoint of our investigation. Perhaps at some stage I’ll give the impression of wandering away from it; but if I really have, then I’ll have lost my way. In fact we’ll be chewing over it, coming back to it, moving out from it, seeking to allow it to cast light on our texts, trying to see how this presence, which seems so elusive to us, is in fact the pivot of everything, what makes it possible that there is a story to tell at all, what makes it possible that we find sense, or meaning, at all. (pp. 29-30)
3. Raymund Schwager offers an extensive exposition of Hebrews in Jesus in the Drama of Salvation, pp. 182ff. In a major “Systematic Consideration” entitled “Redemption as Judgment and Sacrifice,” Schwager basically uses Hebrews to anchor his argument. The concluding section of this part is “The Sacrifice of Christ and the ‘Conversion’ of Evil,” and Schwager uses Hebrews to show how the Cross works that transformation.
4. In Violence Renounced, edited by Willard Swartley, there are two articles with a Girardian perspective on Hebrews: “Sacrificial Language in Hebrews: Reappraising René Girard,” by Michael Hardin, pp. 103-119; and “‘A Better Sacrifice’ or ‘Better than Sacrifice’? Response to Michael Hardin’s ‘Sacrificial Language in Hebrews,'” by Loren Johns, pp. 120-131. Hardin, for example opens his argument (that Hebrews subverts the sacrificial language in using it) with quotes from Hebrews 2:
In Hebrews, it is personalist categories that allow the author to unveil how victimage is unmasked. To do this requires great skill, for using sacrificial language and accepting the victimage mechanism are two different things.As the revealer, Jesus is similar to those to whom he brings the word of God. Jesus shares in their humanity (2:14); he was made like his siblings in every way (homoiðthenai, 2:17); he was tempted just as they would be (4:15); he is the pioneer of their salvation (2:10) and the perfecter of their faith (12:2). This likeness of Jesus to all humans has a double function. On the one hand it allows Jesus to be a mediator with compassion. On the other hand, it toms him into a potential double. His similarity to humans is such that his divine character cannot be known apart from his absolute undifferentiation in regard to humankind.
Girard has pointed out that sacrificial crises occur when there is an abolition of all distinctions, when mimetic conflict and mediated desire renders each person in the community like to the other. The demand for differentiation escalates until one is found who can indeed be deemed different, the victim. What the author of Hebrews recognizes in the discussion that precedes his comparison of Jesus to the sacrificial system is this: revelation of God’s self occurs precisely in the midst of a sacrificial crisis. To use the later language of Martin Luther, “God reveals himself under his opposite” (LW, 31:39). That is, for God to reveal the hideous character of violence and victimage there are only two options: join with the victimizers, which brings nothing to revelation, or become the victim. (pp. 106-107)
1. Gil Bailie, “The Gospel of Luke” audio tape series, tape 2, side B. Bailie makes two comments about this passage: (1) Simeon’s canticle declares the closing of the Old Testament portion in a sense. He represents the Jewish tradition and the recognition of Jesus’ fulfillment of it. The whole tradition is summed up and brought to conclusion; the Messiah has arrived. (2) Simeon’s prophecy to Mary (2:34-35): “the inner thoughts of many will be revealed.” Conscience leads to greater consciousness (or self-consciousness). There is an epistemological revolution underway; the question involves its locus, its driving force. Inner thoughts will be revealed by the fact that he is rejected.
Jumping ahead to Luke 23:48: people walk away from the crucifixion suddenly aware of something about themselves; they beat their breasts. Conscience and consciousness are closely related. The real evolution of consciousness has to do with the workings of conscience. When the myth that justifies our sinfulness is shattered, our sinfulness becomes a problem. This is the beginning of interiority because we can begin to see our self from outside the mythological veil. “Forgive them for they know not what they do.” Girard calls this the first definition of the unconscious. Only several verses later, however, the spectators of the cross see (Gr. theoreo) what has happened, and they go home beating their breasts. The epistemological handicap has been removed, and immediately there is a pang of conscience and the beginning of a new consciousness.
2. Andrew Marr, Abbot of St. Gregory’s Abbey (Three Rivers, MI) is a long-time reader and writer on Mimetic Theory and in his blog, “Imaginary Visions of True Peace,” wrote a brief essay for this feast day in 2017, “On Expecting Patiently in God.”
Reflections and Questions
1. The sacrificial context of Simeon’s and Anna’s prophecies is striking. Luke is rather elaborate in setting up this passage by telling us the details of the sacrificial practice. The summary of Anna’s prophecy puts things in terms of “redemption.” Christ comes to redeem us from the powers of the sacrificial institutions. As an infant, Jesus is brought by his parents to participate in the sacrificial institutions. As an adult, on the cross, he will once again participate in those sacrificial institutions, but in such a manner that it will reveal their true nature, thus redeeming us from them. Simeon and Anna prophecy that revelation, which will not only redeem Israel, but will also be a light to the Gentiles.
2. My sermon on Luke 2:22-40 three years ago was along the theme cited from Gil Bailie’s tape series on Luke: Keeping Faith and Breaking Ground. The sacrificial context and the elderly prophets represent a keeping of the tradition; but this salvation will also need to reach beyond the tradition if it is to be a light to the Gentiles, if it is to be universal.
The contemporary example I used to ‘flesh’ this theme out is one many congregations are currently facing: how do we remain rooted in the tradition while trying to reach out to the younger generations, especially in our worship and music? Change in our century has happened so rapidly that each generation effectively has its own new culture, even within the same racial and ethnic boundaries. Congregations can be segregated racially and ethnically these days and still find themselves facing a crisis of a “generational multi-culturalism,” if I may coin that term. Either congregations intentionally face this newly accentuated problem of integrating the generations, or they begin to segregate along generational lines, as well. Unfortunately, many congregations already find themselves in the situation of having all the young people leave. On the other hand, many newer congregations, which cater to the younger generations, find themselves with few senior members, and little sense of the tradition. But the Gospel does mean to be universal, to offer salvation to all people, so how do we keep the faith and break new ground in ways that reach out across all the cultural barriers?
3. I heard a sermon in 2003 (for Christmas 1B) that made an impression on me. In the Catholic church they observe Holy Family week in the week after Christmas, and the priest reflected on this lesson to the theme of family in three spheres. First, the biological family: God in the incarnation honored the human family through Jesus. Second, the church family: Jesus in his ministry stressed, “My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and do it” (Luke 8:21). Finally, the human family: Simeon prophesies that this child will be a light even to the Gentiles. God in Jesus blesses our human families and challenges us to continually stretch the boundaries of our families.
4. Also in 2003, with war against Iraq pending, our family was wearing buttons that simply said, “I have family in Iraq.”