Thursday, March 27, 2008

The Scarlet Cord Woven Through the Bible

Alice C. Linsley

The Apostle Paul reminds the Hebrew Christians that they may enter with boldness into the Most Holy Place "by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way opened for us through the curtain, that is His body..." (Hebrew 10:19, 20)  In this we follow Christ, our great High Priest, who "did not enter by means of the blood of goats and calves; but He entered the Most Holy Place once for all by His own blood..." (Hebrew 9:12)

The Blood of Jesus Christ is the source and substance of the Christian's life. Scripture teaches that life is in the blood. For Christians this has radical and profound implications. When one is born, there is water and blood. When our Lord died, there was water and blood. In Baptism and Communion there is water and blood. We humans are attracted to the water, but wary of the blood.

For years I didn't grasp the distinct yet interwoven nature of Baptism and Communion. I think this is because I thought of Baptism apart from His blood, even though the Apostle Paul makes it clear that we are baptized into Christ's Sacrifice and raised to new life with Him. Does this mean that we are free of passions that drive a wedge into our fellowship with Him? Certainly not. That is why we also need the Priesthood, confession and spiritual disciplines such as prayer, fasting, alms-giving and Scripture study.

I have never spoken of the vision I had inside the little church of St. Paul in West Whiteland, Pennsylvania.  I saw an angel pouring His blood from a golden pitcher into the baptismal font. Over the years I have pondered this and delved more into the mystery of the blood of Jesus by which we sinners are forgiven and cleansed. I was an Episcopal priest at the time and I associated the blood of Christ with Holy Communion, but somehow I had neglected the significance of His blood in reference to Baptism. I knew that the Scriptures hold forth this truth: "Life in in the blood."  Hebrews explains that no cleansing comes by the blood of beasts, but only by the blood of Christ, the true Priest.

That set me thinking.  If Christ is the Mediator of a new Covenant in His blood and I enter that covenant by baptism, then my life depends entirely on His once and for all sacrifice. Somehow in that vision beyond the mundane, I sensed a timeless dimension to His Sacrifice and I began to ponder the pleromic nature of His blood. The Apostle Paul explains that Jesus Christ is the fullness (pleroma in Greek) of all things in heaven and on earth, both invisible and visible. The term “pleroma” was used among the Gnostics to describe the metaphysical unity of all things, but Paul uses the term to speak about how all the fullness of the Godhead dwells in Christ in bodily form (Col. 2:9).

Pondering the Pleromic Blood

There is a significant difference between the Gnostic application of “pleroma” and Paul’s application. For the Gnostics, the pleroma is vague and undifferentiated, but for Paul the pleroma is the manifestation of the benefits of the “blood of Jesus.” Paul never allows the churches he planted to wander far from the blood of Jesus that brings forgiveness, cleansing and eternal life.

Paul articulated his understanding of the pleroma as early as his second missionary journey when he preached to the Athenians that, “in Him [Jesus Christ] we live and move and have our being.” (Acts 17:28) His thoughts developed further as he continued to reflect on the Hebrew Scriptures, and as he prayed, fasted, and received greater illumination. We find the fullest expression of the pleroma in his latter writings, especially in Romans and in Ephesians.

In Him we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of sins, according to the riches of His grace which He made to abound toward us in all wisdom and prudence, having made known to us the mystery of His will, according to His good pleasure which He purposed in Himself, that in the dispensation of the fullness of the times, He might gather together in one all things in Christ, both which are in heaven and which are on earth. (Ephesians 1:7-10)

While not yet fully developed in the Church, the Trinity underlies Paul’s understanding of the pleroma. He speaks of the distinct Persons of the Trinity and of the oneness of the Body of Christ in the language of Shema: “There is one Body, one Spirit, hope Lord, one Faith, one baptism, and one God and father of all, over all, through all and within all” (Eph. 4:4-5).

These words follow Paul’s explanation of the saving work of Jesus Christ. He explained to the Ephesians:

But now in Christ Jesus, you that used to be so far apart from us have been brought very close, by the blood of Christ. For He is peace between us, and has made the two into one and broken down the barrier which used to keep them apart, actually destroying in His own person the hostility caused by the rules and decrees of the Law. This was to create one single man in Himself out of the two of them and by restoring peace through the Cross, to unite them both in a single body and reconcile them with God. In His own person He killed the hostility… Through Him, both of us have in one Spirit our way to come to the Father. (Eph. 2:13-14)

Paul moves the Christian faith toward a Trinitarian comprehensiveness that forever distinguishes it from polytheistic dynamism (Hinduism), henotheistic animism (tribal religions) and the mushiness of post-Christian theologians.

All Things through Him and in Him

Since God is not bound by the constraints of time and space, perhaps the blood of the Son of God is that substance by which the world was made. The Creed and the Apostle John affirm that "through Him all things were made."  All things were made by Him before the Incarnation and now all things are gathered in Him, the Incarnate One.

If life is in the blood and only His blood gives life, we might trace the scarlet cord from before time, were that possible. Then we pick it up in Genesis. The promise that the woman's Seed shall overcome death and restore Paradise came to be fulfilled through Jesus' sacrifice and His resurrection. Jesus claimed to be the fulfillment of Genesis 3:15 when he told his disciples about his death.  He said that unless a seed fall into the ground and dies it cannot give life. (John 12:24)

In tracing the scarlet thread, we discover the "deeper magic" (to use C.S. Lewis' words from The Magician Nephew). The sacrifice of God's Lamb is alluded to in many biblical images and the scarlet cord image weaves throughout the Bible.

We continue to trace the scarlet cord where we read of the birth of twin boys to Tamar (Gen. 38:28-20). The story is told that when it came time for Tamar to give birth, Zerah stuck out his hand and the midwife tied a scarlet cord around the infant's hand. As soon as she had done this, the baby withdrew his hand and his brother Perez was born first. St Jerome wrote, "What is one to say of Tamar, who brought to birth the twins Zerah and Perez? Their separation at the moment of birth was like a wall that divides two peoples, and the hand tied with the scarlet ribbon already then speckled the conscience of the Jews with the passion of Christ." (Letter 123.12)

Perez is the younger son, but he is remembered in Ruth as one of David's honored ancestors. We remember that David too was the youngest of many sons, yet chosen to rule in Israel. And from Perez and David would come the Promised Messiah.

What is the significance of this story? It speaks of the redemption of the one who is not chosen to rule. It speaks of God's grace shown to the other, just as God promised Abraham that He would bless Ishmael and Abraham's sons by Keturah. The chosen one, Isaac, is not the only one blessed. The chosen people of Israel are not the only people blessed. The Blood which gives life, symbolized by the scarlet cord, is for all people. And that we be looking in the right direction, the scarlet cord leads from Tamar to David and from David to Messiah.

The scarlet cord is found in Leviticus. Here it is used in a priestly ritual to cleanse lepers and to retore them to the community (Lev. 14:4-6; 49-52). This too points us to the Blood of Jesus, for we who were afar and rotting in our sins, have been cleansed by His Blood and brought home.

The cord is found in Egypt on the doorposts of the Hebrews preparing to depart. This is the first Passover.

The cord appears again at Rahab's house in Jericho.  This forebearer of David and of Jesus tied a scarlet cord outside her window so that she and all her family would be saved from destruction. This is a second Passover and it too speaks of the salvation for those who are obedient to God's call.

St. Ambrose wrote concerning Rahab that she "uplifted a sign of her faith and the banner of the Lord's Passion; so that the likeness of the mystic blood, which should redeem the world, might be in memory. So, outside, the name of Joshua [Jesus] was a sign of victory to those who fought; and inside, the likeness of the Lord's passion was a sign of salvation to those in danger." (On the Christian Faith, Book V, no. 127)

And finally, the cord is traced to a temporal end and perfection in Hebrews 9:11-26, which tells us:

(11-14) But Christ came as High Priest of the good things to come, with the greater and more perfect tabernacle not made with hands, that is, not of this creation. Not with the blood of goats and calves, but with His own blood He entered the Most Holy Place once for all, having obtained eternal redemption. For if the blood of bulls and goats and the ashes of a heifer, sprinkling the unclean, sanctifies for the purifying of the flesh, how much more shall the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered Himself without spot to God, cleanse your conscience from dead works to serve the living God?

(15-22) And for this reason He is the Mediator of the new covenant, by means of death, for the redemption of the transgressions under the first covenant, that those who are called may receive the promise of the eternal inheritance. For where there is a testament, there must also of necessity be the death of the testator. For a testament is in force after men are dead, since it has no power at all while the testator lives. Therefore not even the first covenant was dedicated without blood. For when Moses had spoken every precept to all the people according to the law, he took the blood of calves and goats, with water, scarlet wool, and hyssop and sprinkled both the book itself and all the people, saying, "This is the blood of the covenant which God has commanded you." Then likewise he sprinkled with blood both the tabernacle and all the vessels of the ministry. And according to the law almost all things are purified with blood, and without shedding of blood there is no remission.

(23-26) Therefore it was necessary that the copies of the things in the heavens should be purified with these, but the heavenly things themselves with better sacrifices than these. For Christ has not entered the holy places made with hands, which are copies of the true, but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God for us: not that He should offer Himself often, as the high priest enters the Most Holy Place every year with blood of another - He then would have had to suffer often since the foundation of the world; but now, once at the end of the ages, He has appeared to put away sin by the sacrifice of Himself.

Christ suffered the sacrifice of Himself only once.  Its "innumerable benefits" are such that Thomas Cranmer wrote in the first Exhortation before Communion, "And above all things ye must give most humble and hearty thanks to God, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, for the redemption of the world by the death and passion of our Saviour Christ, both God and man; who did humble himself, even to death upon the Cross, for us, miserable sinners, who lay in darkness and the shadow of death; that he might make us the children of God, and exalt us to everlasting life."

What is our response to such great love shown to us while we were yet sinners? Cranmer continues, "And to the end that we should always remember the exceeding great love of our Master, and only Saviour, Jesus Christ, thus dying for us, and the innumerable benefits which by his precious blood-shedding he hath obtained for us; he hath instituted and ordained holy mysteries, as pledges of his love, and for a continual remembrance of his death, to our great and endless comfort. To him therefore, with the Father and the Holy Ghost, let us give, as we are most bounden, continual thanks; submitting ourselves wholly to his will and pleasure, and studying to serve him in true holiness and righteousness all the days of our life. Amen. ((First Exhortation before Communion, Book of Common Prayer, 1928)

Related reading:  Two Passovers and Two Drunken FathersThe Messianic Priesthood of Jesus; The Pleromic Blood and Gnosticism; The Pleromic Blood and Gender Distinctions; Life is in the Blood; Blood and Crosses


Lisa said...

After our conversation about the blood a few weeks ago, I have really been trying to comprehend this more deeply. These posts and links help too. Also, I appreciate your sharing your vision at the baptismal font, it made a connection for me that I had not previously made. Thanks...and it IS quite a feat to run two blogs (I can't even manage to comment occasionally!) Thanks

Alice C. Linsley said...

A reader has asked about the scarlet cord that was tied to the horns of the scapegoat. When the cord turned white the people knew that their sins were forgiven, but when it remained red, their sins were not forgiven. The only references I can find to this come from the Babylonian Talmud, Yoma 39from B.R. Barton's The Secret of the Scarlet Thread which you may read online here:

Here is the pertintent section:

The controversial scarlet thread figures prominently in the center of miraculous events that took place in the Second Temple. The Talmud records the Yom Kippur Temple ritual concerning the thread, and the miracles surrounding it:

"R. Nahman b. Isaac said it was the tongue of scarlet’, as it has been taught: ‘Originally they used to fasten the thread of scarlet on the door of the [Temple] court on the outside.28 If it turned white the people used to rejoice,29 and if it did not turn white they were sad. They therefore made a rule that it should be fastened to the door of the court on the inside. People, however, still peeped in and saw, and if it turned white they rejoiced and if it did not turn white they were sad. They therefore made a rule that half of it should be fastened to the rock and half between the horns of the goat that was sent [to the wilderness]’. . . . If you assume It was R. Johanan b. Zaccai [who made the rule], was there in the days of R. Johanan b. Zaccai a thread of scarlet [which turned white]? Has it not been taught: ‘R. Johanan b. Zaccai lived altogether a hundred and twenty years. For forty years he was in business, forty years he studied, and forty years he taught’, and it has further been taught: ‘For forty years before the destruction of the Temple the thread of scarlet never turned white but it remained red’. Further, the statement of the Mishnah is, ‘After the destruction of the Temple R. Johanan b. Zaccai made a rule’. [What says] the other [to this]? — During those forty years that he studied his status was that of a disciple sitting before his teacher, and he would offer a suggestion and make good his reasons."

Jews and Christians alike note that this time corresponds to the time after the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ and before the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD.

Anonymous said...

Alice, I was deeply moved by your vision which I read to Donna this morning. Is Saint Paul's where it was given still open? Rick+

Anonymous said...

Sorry, one more comment. One of the things I appreciate about your writing is that it is dense -- that is, there is no fluff. Thanks. Rick+