02 April 2010

Human Sacrifice, Cannibalism, and Good Friday

It’s like a scene from a horror film.
A terrified young man struggles against the ropes that cut into his flesh, keeping him stationary on the cold stones of the altar.  Meanwhile, a wizened old man in his twilight years, crazed eyes full of pious resignation, takes a deadly dagger from his belt and holds it shakily over the boy’s throat. 

All the man has to do is cut.  He is very good at this.  He’s done it thousands of times to sheep, to cattle, but never to a human.  Certainly never to his only son.

His eyes tear up, and his soul is anguished within, but this thing must be done.  He blinks several times, rapidly, and steels himself to do it.  He tries not to hear his son’s fearful, pleading cries for mercy.  One keen thrust, one quick pull, and it will be finished.

You know the rest of the story, no doubt.  If you don’t, it’s in Genesis 22: A voice from Heaven, a divinely appointed ram in the thicket, and a blessing from God before father and son descended together from Mount Moriah.

But what if the scene had ended differently? 

What if the knife had plunged, the blood had gushed, and the stench of burning hair and meat and bone that afternoon had come from Isaac’s body instead of from some hapless ram? 

What if Abraham had knelt down and lapped up the pools of his son’s blood?  What if he had sliced off chunks of the boy’s flesh and devoured them greedily, hoping to gain life and forgiveness of sins from the young man’s vitality and innocence?

I hope that image is disturbing to you; I know it is to me.  And yet, as a Christian, my salvation from sin and death depends on an even grimmer scene.

A man who loved all – especially the weak, the outcasts, and the misfits – is betrayed by one of his closest friends into the hands of his enemies.  He is spat on, mocked, and abused at the hands of his captors.  He is stripped naked; strangers gamble for his clothing.

A man who did no wrong – and, indeed, who spoke out against corruption and hypocrisy – is falsely accused before the civil and religious authorities.  The only charge they can prove against him is that he claims to be the son of God – a claim that his teachings and miracles seem to support.

A man who brought wholeness and joy – healing the sick, making the lame walk and the blind see, even casting out demons and raising the dead – is beaten, tortured, and crucified.  The skin of his back is torn to ribbons from repeated scourging, a crown of thorns is pressed down onto his head, and he is nailed to a cross to die the slow, painful, humiliating death of a criminal.

The very son of God —the one who left a heavenly throne for an earthly life of trouble and tears – has the full wrath of his Father poured out on him as he suffers on the cross.  He who despises sin with every part of his being becomes the very thing he hates so God can punish him on our behalf.

Somehow, surrounded by the filth and stench and buzzing flies of the town refuse heap, dripping blood and overwhelmed by the pain of the cross, my salvation was born from Christ’s suffering.  My life was wrought from his death. My darkness was suddenly flooded with a light I could not have known without the cross.

It is a fearful mystery, and one beyond my comprehension.  I don’t pretend to understand God’s motivation or why he worked it out the way He did.  I think the best explanation is probably in the 53rd chapter of the prophet Isaiah:

He was oppressed and He was afflicted,
         Yet He did not open His mouth;
         Like a lamb that is led to slaughter,
         And like a sheep that is silent before its shearers,
         So He did not open His mouth.
    By oppression and judgment He was taken away;
         And as for His generation, who considered
         That He was cut off out of the land of the living
         For the transgression of my people, to whom the stroke was due?
    His grave was assigned with wicked men,
         Yet He was with a rich man in His death,
         Because He had done no violence,
         Nor was there any deceit in His mouth.
    But the LORD was pleased
         To crush Him, putting Him to grief;
         If He would render Himself as a guilt offering,
         He will see His offspring,
         He will prolong His days,
         And the good pleasure of the LORD will prosper in His hand.
    As a result of the anguish of His soul,
         He will see it and be satisfied;
         By His knowledge the Righteous One,
         My Servant, will justify the many,
         As He will bear their iniquities.

So that’s the human sacrifice: almighty God, in human form, gave himself up as a guilt offering for my sins and yours.  But don’t go yet; I also promised you cannibalism! 

In John 6, Christ says:

"Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in yourselves.

 "He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.

"For My flesh is true food, and My blood is true drink.

 "He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood abides in Me, and I in him.

 "As the living Father sent Me, and I live because of the Father, so he who eats Me, he also will live because of Me.

 "This is the bread which came down out of heaven; not as the fathers ate and died; he who eats this bread will live forever."

This saying was a mysterious one, and it turned off a lot of his fair-weather followers (some of whom simply saw how Jesus multiplied the loaves and fishes and wanted to get more free food out of him).  Many of his followers turned away after this teaching – and who can blame them?  Cannibalism is repulsive.  Yet, in a sense, when we come to Christ, it is what we practice.  By believing him and accepting his sacrifice on our behalf, we admit that our very sustenance comes from his broken body, and that our forgiveness comes from his shed blood.

In Mark 14, we see more elaboration of what Christ meant when he talked about eating his body and drinking his blood:

While they were eating, He took some bread, and after a blessing He broke it, and gave it to them, and said, "Take it; this is My body."

And when He had taken a cup and given thanks, He gave it to them, and they all drank from it.

And He said to them, "This is My blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many.

"Truly I say to you, I will never again drink of the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God."

Here, Christ isn’t literally slicing off pieces of himself and passing them around as snacks.  Nor is he draining a vein and passing his literal blood around in juice cups.  Rather, he is instituting a symbol to help his followers remember who they are – and, just as importantly, whose they are and what they believe. He knows that, in the future, as often as they replicate this ceremony, they will do so in remembrance of him and of the sacrifice he made on their behalf. 

The horrors of what we remember on Good Friday are indeed strong.  In fact, when I initially began contemplating what this day means, I was a little indignant at its name.  How can such inexpressible pain and suffering be called good?  How can we call a day “good” on which the only perfect one was brutally murdered for sins he did not commit?

Then I remembered that, although this day wasn’t good for the one who died, it also brought hope to the whole world.  Upon reflection, I must conclude that my own life would be hollow and bereft of meaning if Good Friday had never occurred. Because of the suffering that occurred on that cross about two millennia ago, I have life, hope, and peace that are not my own. 

And that is reason enough for me to agree that, despite the human sacrifice and the cannibalism, it remains a very Good Friday indeed.