Once for All

By Sarah Coakley

“Having therefore …boldness to enter into the holiest by the blood of Jesus, … and having a high priest over the house of God; let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith” (Heb. 10:19-22)

Let us tonight talk once more, and afresh, about sacrifice. But it seems this is a tainted topic. Take only one contemporary cultural vignette to illustrate the point.

In the production of Tristan und Isolde at Bayreuth, Wagner’s Festspielhaus in Northern Bavaria, something odd happens — or rather, doesn’t happen. In the famous first act of the opera enacted at sea, when Tristan re-encounters Isolde and their love is sealed by the drinking of a love potion that should have been a death potion, the two lead singers exultantly sing up to the point of their mutual sharing of that cup of sacrifice — but then finally toss, or drip — its contents contemptuously onto the stage.

A scarcely suppressed hiss of fury goes up from one element in the audience, who realize what has been forcibly repressed in this production. The same happens again in the last act, when Isolde, far from dying on the breast of her lover Tristan, after her rapturous Liebestod, instead prances back to the side of his uncle King Mark, as if vaguely relieved to return to normal life — a most weird departure from Wagner’s script and instructions. Again, the audience is divided, some declining to applaud at all, or even booing, others rapturous. What is at stake?

It took me awhile to figure out what might have been motivating Wagner’s controversial great-granddaughter, Katharina Wagner, in this strange maladjustment of the Tristan story in her production  — which frankly makes nonsense of it. It can only be that the theme of renunciatory self-sacrifice, tinged with the threat of violence and climaxing in death, is too hot a topic for a venue that was so closely associated in the 1930s with Nazism and its exultation of anti-Semite violence, enforced “sacrifice,” and military triumphalism.

Post-Shoah, any adulation of sacrifice is indeed clouded, and rightly so, by the hermeneutics of suspicion; and thus, likewise, do so many contemporary feminists, continental philosophers and cultural theorists all line up together today in their presumption that sacrifice can only bespeak a form of mandated but hidden violence, one moreover that purportedly goes disturbingly to the very root of the religious instinct.

But is this so? We return to the Book of Hebrews chastened and troubled, aware too that in the Roman context in which this extraordinary text was likely written, bloody sacrifice was a daily event, often publicly enacted in gruesome form; and aware too that in the Jewish context to which the author of the epistle more directly speaks, the matter of religious Temple sacrifice was no less controversial.

Only recall the prophet’s complaint, echoed by the psalmist: “I desire mercy and not sacrifice,” a text that — according to the Gospel of Matthew — Jesus quoted in his teaching. Where then does this leave the remarkable vision of the author of the epistle to the Hebrews, sustained through so many chapters and climaxing here tonight in chapter ten, that Jesus himself is both high priest and (bloody) sacrificial victim, and that the whole life of faith in Christ should be shot through with these paradoxically related metaphors, should indeed be the very code for our capacity to enter into the “holiest” salvific intimacy with God?

Let me put it to you afresh with conviction, and following the epistle to the Hebrews, that sacrifice — for all its historic and intrinsic difficulties — is rightly to be seen as the primary and indispensable metaphor for our life of salvation in Christ. Yet how can we still say that given the massive sanitizing resistance to sacrifice in the modern world, and the rightful criticism of many of its supposed manifestations?

The answer lies, I suggest, in unpacking the significance of just one word, one word that is absolutely crucial to the author’s whole theology of sacrifice, and the hinge of his argument in this chapter. The word is ephapax, “once for all.” It falls just a few verses before tonight’s reading, but tonight’s reading is incomprehensible without it. Were it not for that word, the epistle could not hold together the absolute insistence that sacrifice is the indispensable metaphor for Christian salvation, and yet at the same time that which is also superseded in Christ.

The spiritual point is this: this sacrifice, Christ’s sacrifice, his self-offering in the face of human violence, abuse and rejection, is unique and never needs to be repeated. What it has done it has accomplished: the redemption of the world, the forgiveness of sins, the gracious protection of us, through Christ, from the divine judgment we rightly deserve.

Only “once and for all” could One be both priest and victim, both the offerer and the offered, such that this one act both retrospectively validates the whole thrust of the sacrificial system of Judaism, yet in the same act definitively brings it to an end. Now all can “enter into the holiest” because of the “blood of Jesus,” the perfect victim offered by the perfect priest, one and the same, the God-man.

What is so important, but often lost here, is that absolutely no continuing violence or abuse is mandated by this once-for-all theology of sacrifice. Quite the contrary:  the deed has been done, by Christ, in God, ephapax. We can get this wrong, of course, as so many have; always close to the deepest truths lie alluring and darker imitations of it, the lurking suggestion that we rather than God can go on doing and repeating the “deeper magic,” can repeat the bloody aspect of sacrifice again and again for ourselves.

And that is why the 16th-century Reformers argued so ferociously over this very matter of the ephapax, Luther and Calvin urging so keenly that even to call the Mass a sacrifice was precisely to reintroduce the idea that a priest still had something to do, something to offer back to God; while the Council of Trent riposted that the priest’s offering by no means repeats the sacrifice but “re-presents” it, in all its given perfection. And both, of course, used the Epistle of the Hebrews as their crucial prop.

Does this all matter now? Most certainly it does, because it is the very logic of salvation that is at stake. And what Protestant and Catholic could ultimately and crucially agree upon is that when we dare to approach the realm of the “holiest … through the blood of Jesus” we are stepping into a glorious possibility of sins forgiven through a prior divine act, of an offering both given and received in God.

Is this illogical? (In one sense yes — and that is one of the things that stuck in Luther’s craw: “how can something be given and received at the same time?” he complained; yet this seeming illogic is, as he was bound to admit, the “logic” of intra-divine sacrifice). Is it messy? (Yes, for it gathers into it, places under “judgment,” and — in Christ — promises over time to purify all that is messy and violent in our lives: that is why sacrifice’s odd mixture of blood and offering and moral transformation is so weird but so irreducibly powerful).

Is it costly? (Yes, for Christ, qua human, supremely; and for us — in concert with his death and resurrection and in confrontation with the world and our sin — yes too, but not to justify any future violence on our part.) Is it then transformative? (Yes, supremely, for as we are placed in the flow of that once-for-all divine exchange that Christ has wrought, we are, as the writer of the epistle to the Hebrews says, “believing … to the saving of the soul” [v. 39].)

On this core substance in the Epistle to the Hebrews, then, so stern a critic of the ‘papists’ as John Calvin, on the one hand, and the authors of the documents of the Council of Trent, on the other, could agree. We simply cannot do without the metaphor of sacrifice for Christ’s act of reconciliation: it is richer, more dense, more powerful than any other “rationalization” of Christ’s atoning work; yet we must constantly police ourselves against the dark perversions of its overtones to which the 20th century has been so peculiarly subject.

Let us then come back to Wagner’s Tristan in closing, not the odd inside-out version of the story in his great-granddaughter’s production, but the real Tristan that Wagner intended. And here’s the problem. The music, as surely most can agree, is among the most sublime in the Western operatic tradition; the theology, however, is something else.

As Roger Scruton puts it in his book on Tristan [Death-Devoted Heart], ironically nailing the problem even as he seemingly approves the Wagnerian alternative: “Tristan and Isolde are not destroyed by external forces or overcome by fate, but instead approach their death in a spirit of quasi-Christian renunciation, wanting nothing … save their final union in nothingness” (175).

The “quasi-” and the “nothingness” are crucially important here, for as Scruton admits, “The Christian [story] offers us redemption from death; Wagner offers redemption in death” (174). The final nihilism and death-obsession in Wagner is out of the bag, and now we know that this ‘sacrifice’ is not that of the epistle to the Hebrews, but its modern, dark twin. How easy it has been to confuse them.

“Having” then “a high priest over the house of God; let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith”. Here is the way of sacrifice, done once for all in God; here is the secret ground of suffering transformed and death turned to life. Only lean into the flow of that unique divine givenness that is also the unique divine offering, and taste Christ’s life in all its joy and gladness. This, to be sure, will come with spiritual and moral cost; but what it knows is that its “true heart” is already safe in God. So be it for each one of us.

The Rev. Dr. Sarah Coakley is a visiting professorial fellow at the Australian Catholic University (Melbourne and Rome).

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