Friday, May 19, 2017

The Ascension, the Priestliness of Jesus, and the work of Margaret Barker

Since my teenage years I have had an interest in how the Old Testament forms the backdrop to the New Testament, and in particular how the New Testament authors use Old Testament passages and symbols. My observations led me to embrace a basically typological approach to the OT at a time when most friends - both "conservative" and "liberal" - were pursuing debates about the OT from a purely historical/critical angle. Among my guidebooks back then were the works of Anglican writers Austin Farrer and Gabriel Herbert. Although typology can give rise to unrestrained and subjective allegorisation, I have always thought that a failure to embrace a balanced typological hermeneutic results at best in a sidelining of the OT except as "historical background", and at worst (as Aidan Nichols points out in his book "Lovely Like Jerusalem") in our becoming modern Marcionites

The connection of OT typology with the development of Christian worship seemed obvious to me as a young man formed by highly liturgical Anglo-Catholicism, a growing acquaintance with the Church Fathers, and those parts of the 1960s & 70s charismatic renewal emphasising the worship of the community as somehow part of our "offering" to the Father through Jesus our great High Priest.

In recent years there has been a revival of scholarly interest in these themes across the Christian traditions. One of the most significant contributors is Margaret Barker, a Cambridge theologian (and Methodist), whose work has been very widely acknowledged. A number of her essays are online. Visit her home page HERE. In July 2008 Margaret Barker was awarded a DD by the Archbishop of Canterbury "in recognition of her work on the Jerusalem Temple and the origins of Christian Liturgy, which has made a significantly new contribution to our understanding of the New Testament and opened up important fields for research."

I think that her book The Great High Priest: The Temple Roots of Christian Liturgy should be required reading for all thoughtful Christians!

I mention this in the lead-up to Ascension Day, because I want to share with you a key passage from Margaret Barker's book which shows how central the Ascension was to the early Christians. (It also vindicates all those teachers, theologians and hymn-writers in the Anglo-Catholic tradition who have emphasized the Ascension as primarily a celebration of the Lord's high-priestly ministry.)

So, from pages 221 - 222 of The Great High Priest: The Temple Roots of Christian Liturgy:

Only the high priest was permitted to pass through the veil and to stand before the throne or, in the desert tradition, before the ark, and he was only permitted to do this once a year on the Day of Atonement. The words of Leviticus 16:2 could imply that at an earlier period, the high priest had entered more frequently: “Tell your brother Aaron not to come at all times into the holy place within the veil, before the mercy seat which is upon the ark, lest he die.” Entering the holy of holies was a terrifying experience, because the LORD appeared to the high priest “in the cloud upon the kapporet”. Before making the blood offering, the high priest took incense into the holy of holies, and this seems to have been a protection for him. “Put the incense on the fire before the LORD, that the cloud of incense may cover the kapporet which is upon the testimony, lest he die” (Lev. 16:13). In later texts, the high priest carries a “fire pan” in to the holy of holies and places it before the ark. Then he puts the incense on to the charcoal, and fills the holy of hollies with smoke (m. Yoma 5:1). Other texts, however, imply that there was a golden altar, within the veil of the temple. The Letter to the Hebrews is clear; in the holy of holies stood the ark and the golden altar of incense (Heb. 9:3-4). The Hebrew text of 1 Kings 6:20 - 22, however, is not so clear, but could have described a golden altar within the veil. Unfortunately, the line, “He covered with gold the altar that belonged to the holy of holies” (1 Kgs. 6:22) does not appear in the LXX, and the text of v. 20 is disordered. The Vulgate, which is quite clear that there was an altar within the veil, was translated at the end of the fourth century CE by Jerome, who would have known the Letter to the Hebrews and thus would have read the ambiguities of 1 Kings 6:20 in the light of the later Christian text. However the incense was actually offered, the tradition is clear that the high priest needed the incense as protection when he entered the holy of holies, and that the incense used in the holy of holies was a special blend. It was deemed “most holy”, and anyone who used that blend outside the holy of holies was “cut off from his people” (Exod. 30:34-38).

Entering the holy of holies with a cloud of incense is the temple reality that underlies the visions of the human figure entering heaven with clouds or of the LORD appearing in clouds upon the throne. Thus did Isaiah describe his call to prophesy: he saw the LORD enthroned in the temple, between the six-winged seraphim, and the house was filled with smoke (Isa. 6:1 - 4). Daniel saw a human figure “one like a son of man” coming with clouds of heaven to the Ancient of Days (Dan. 7:13). When Luke described the Ascension he said that Jesus was “lifted up, and a cloud took him” (Acts 1:9). Jesus was passing beyond the veil, beyond the constraints of time and place. The men in white said that he would return in the same way. John introduced the Book of Revelation with the assurance, “He is coming with the clouds” (Rev. 1:7), and John was granted his own vision of the LORD’s return, which he recorded as the Mighty Angel coming from heaven wrapped in a cloud, with a rainbow over his head (Rev.10:1). Entering the holy of holies was entering heaven. And so these visions of a human figure going or coming with clouds must be understood in the temple setting of the high priest entering the holy of holies on the Day of Atonement.

Peter’s sermon in Solomon’s Portico shows that this was indeed how the early Church understood the departure of Jesus. He had gone to heaven as the great high priest, and would emerge again at the appointed time, that is, to bring renewal from the presence of the LORD. This is exactly what happened on the Day of Atonement, sin was judged and the earth was then cleansed and healed for the New Year. Hence Peter’s warning: “Repent, that your sins may he blotted out” (Acts 3:19 - 21). What had been ritualized annually in the Day of Atonement was happening in their own times through the self sacrifice of the great high priest Jesus. Jesus had passed through the veil into eternity; he was outside time and matter and so had passed into the eternal present, no longer limited by the particular time and place of first-century Palestine. This is the context, too, of the words in the “high-priestly prayer” in John 17. Jesus knew that he was about to pass through the veil, that he was returning to Day One, i.e. beyond and “before” the creation. Thus: “Father, glorify thou me in thy own presence with the glory I had with thee before the world was made” (John 17:5).

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

. . . All of which is why we should be still singing these hymns from our own tradition:

Alleluya, sing to Jesus,
His the sceptre, his the throne;
Alleluya, his the triumph,
His the victory alone:
Hark the songs of peaceful Sion
Thunder like a mighty flood;
Jesus, out of every nation,
Hath redeemed us by his Blood.

Alleluya, not as orphans
Are we left in sorrow now;
Alleluya, he is near us,
Faith believes, nor questions how;
Though the cloud from sight received him
When the forty days were o’er,
Shall our hearts forget his promise,
‘I am with you evermore’?

Alleluya, Bread of angels,
Thou on earth our Food, our Stay;
Alleluya, here the sinful
Flee to thee from day to day;
Intercessor, Friend of sinners,
Earth’s Redeemer, plead for me,
Where the songs of all the sinless
Sweep across the crystal sea.

Alleluya, King eternal,
Thee the Lord of lords we own;
Alleluya, born of Mary,
Earth thy footstool, Heaven thy throne:
Thou within the veil hast entered,
Robed in flesh, our great High Priest;
Thou on earth both Priest and Victim
In the Eucharistic Feast.

William Chatterton Dix (1837-1898)

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Once, only once, and once for all,
his precious life he gave;
before the cross in faith we fall,
and own it strong to save.

“One offering, single and complete,”
with lips and hearts we say;
but what he never can repeat
he shows forth day by day.

For as the priest of Aaron’s line
within the holiest stood,
and sprinkled all the mercy shrine
with sacrificial blood;

So he, who once atonement wrought,
our Priest of endless power,
presents himself for those he bought
in that dark noontide hour.

His manhood pleads where now it lives
on heaven’s eternal throne,
and where in mystic rite he gives
its presence to his own.

And so we show thy death, O Lord,
till thou again appear,
and feel, when we approach thy board,
we have an altar here.

William Bright (1824-1901)

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Now upon the golden altar,
In the midst before the throne,
Incense of his intercession
He is offering for his own.
And on earth at all his altars
His true presence we adore,
And his sacrifice is pleaded,
Yea, till time shall be no more.
Alleluia, Alleluia
To th’incarnate Son of God,
Who, abiding Priest forever,
Still imparts his flesh and blood.

Then, adored in highest Heaven,
We shall see the virgin’s Son,
All creation bowed before him,
Man upon th’eternal throne:
Where, like sound of many waters
In one ever rising flood,
Myriad voices hymn his triumph,
Victim, Priest, incarnate God.
Worthy he all praise and blessing
Who, by dying, death o’ercame;
Glory be to God forever!
Alleluia to the Lamb!

Ernest Edward Dugmore  (1843-1925)


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