Friday, July 3, 2009

Of Heaven and the Book of Hebrews

We interrupt the special programming of all things vacation for some regularly scheduled discussion of all things Catholic and Bible.  When I was on vacation (oops, how did that word slip in there?), I started reading Hebrews.  Interesting book.  There's a lot that I don't quite grasp, but there's a lot of good stuff in there.  One of the things that is really striking me is how important it is to understand the Old Covenant in order to understand the New.

I don't know about you, but I have had a tendency to dismiss the Old Testament.  You know, "the old has gone and the new has come" type of a mentality. Only, in my mind it often becomes: "The old is worthless and the new is the only thing that matters; why would I want to waste my time reading genealogies and the laws for animal sacrifice?"

These thoughts for today come from Hebrews.  Hebrews 9, verse 1 to be exact*:

"Now even the first covenant had regulations for worship and an earthly sanctuary."

I think the word "even" is interesting.  It's not in the New International Version (NIV), but it is in the New King James (NKJV) and English Standard (ESV) versions (All three fairly common Protestant translations).  It's also in both my Catholic translations.** Does that imply that it would be more likely that there would be regulations for worship in the second, definitive covenant based on Christ's sacrifice?  Verse 23 refers to the earthly Jewish sanctuaries, the Holy Place and the Holy of Holies as "copies" of heavenly things.

Think about that for a few minutes.  Over and over again, we're given descriptions in the Bible of the dimensions of these sanctuaries.  First the tent that was constructed by Israelites while they were wandering in the desert, then the temple of Solomon.  I don't remember if they gave the precise description after the Temple was rebuilt after the exile, but it followed the same principles.  These principles were not made up by the Jewish people, but given them by God so that there earthly worship could somehow reflect heaven.  Heavy stuff!  If only you knew how much I tend to skip over descriptions like that in the Bible, and all along I could have been learning something of heaven!

This is hard to grasp.  The Temple tells us something about heaven.  It is not heaven.  My pictures of the Grand Canyon may tell you something about the Grand Canyon.  They are not the Grand Canyon.  Have you seen the Grand Canyon?  Last month was the first time for me.  I had seen pictures, so I recognized it, but experiencing it is not the same as seeing a picture. 

As a Catholic, I have been accused of having a Mass that is too "by the book".  According to this person, with all the dusty rituals, there's no room for the Holy Spirit to work.  I'm very eloquent when it's in the moment like that, so I choked, turned red in the face and tried to sputter 16 different explanations all at once.

If I were a little more smooth, perhaps I could have explained that it is by the book, but since that book is the Bible, it's okay.  That the rituals are not dusty, but are part of the very breath of life that the Spirit breathes into the Church.  That if even the first covenant showed us something of heaven, the regulations for the new worship ushered in by Christ put us in a position to touch heaven itself, even while we wait for the fullness of things to come.

*Please note that I am not a Scripture scholar, I do not know Greek, Hebrew or Latin.  I don't know the ins and outs of exegesis (I don't even know exactly what that word means, only that Scripture scholars do it).  These are my personal thoughts and are not authoritative in any way, though I my thoughts have been influenced by reading Scripture scholars, so I'm not totally making it up, either.
**I find a lot of these different translations at  If you're not familiar with all the different versions, don't worry about it.  Stick with the one that you've got.  They're all going to be very similar, but sometimes it's interesting to look at different nuances if you're nerdy and into that.

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