Thursday, July 10, 2008

Leviticus and a life of liturgy

I finished reading Leviticus. I had never read all of it before. It took a while to get any significant benefit from it, but finally things started coming together. Here are some unoriginal reflections. The text contains a welter of regulations about various aspects of life. In the first century AD, some heretical groups found the regulations so arbitrary that they rejected the Torah as something not fitting to a reasonable God, and some more orthodox Christians tried to find far-fetched allegorical readings of them (the Epistle of Barnabas, while well-meaning, and an interesting early witness to the Christian opposition to unnatural sexual activity, is a particularly egregious example). But textually these regulations are anchored in exhortations that the Israelites should be a priestly people, holy even as the Lord is holy.

Rudolf Otto has famously criticized the modern misunderstanding of "holy" as "superlatively morally good" for leaving out the numinous, the mysterium tremendum et fascinans. Indeed, if we read "holy" in Leviticus as "superlatively morally good", we will throw up our hands in despair, as the early groups I had mentioned did. The prohibition on eating hares surely is not in itself requires for superlative moral goodness. But neither does it appear right to read the text as simply exhorting us to be mysterious, awe-full and fascinating.

Rather, "holy" in the text tends to carry the connotation of "consecrated": holy to the Lord. A priest is, of course, consecrated to his deity, and his life is a life of liturgical service to his deity. There is no surprise if this liturgical service involves actions that are strange, for instance ordained by ancient tradition, held to be revealed by a deity, and so on. It is no surprise if a priest of a religion should be commanded to wear only certain kinds of clothes, eat only certain kinds of foods, perform special actions on special days, and so on.

What is surprising, however, is the notion of a whole people that is set apart, holy, consecrated in a priestly way, and perhaps also the notion of a service to the deity that encompasses all of the servant's time. But once we have the notion of a priestly people, and of liturgical services that encompasses all of a priestly person's time, that these people should have strange rules is no more surprising than that there should be regulations as to which direction around an altar a priest should proceed, or what material his knife should be made of. Liturgy, the priest's business, is full of rules that are not of the priest's making, rules that go beyond moral requirements. In fact, the existence of such rules seems central to liturgy—a liturgy that is created ad hoc for one occasion is either an oxymoron or at least deeply defective.

One thing we can learn from Leviticus, then, is the idea of a whole life lived as liturgy. And while the specific rules no longer literally apply in the Christian era, the idea of a whole life of service to God, a life of liturgy, is intensified in Christianity, in at least two ways. The first way is through every Christian's participation in the sacrifice of Christ, a participation more intimate than that of the Israelite in the Levitical sacrifices, because Christ the High Priest lives through us. The second, and liturgically very significant, intensification is that in the Eucharist all Christians need to participate, in a completely real way, in the quintessentially priestly action of eating of the sacrificial victim.

At the same time, we also see from Leviticus that even in a priestly people there can be distinctions between priestly roles. The priesthood of all believers does not entail that all believers are priestly in an equal way. Each Christian has a priestly role deeper than that of even the Israelite levites, but this is quite compatible with some Christians being ordained to an even deeper participation in Christ's priesthood. In fact, it seems that hierarchicality is an important part of a priestly people, just as priesthoods seem to be innately hierarchical.

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