Leviticus is wearing me out this week. This morning, as we work through another battery of the what, which and how of offerings to be presented to God, I am impressed again with how demanding it would be to attempt to follow and worship God in the wilderness. So many offerings, and the demands of finding good olive oil, fine flour, perfect incense, fine linen, and unblemished livestock out there in the wastes must have been daunting to say the least. On top of this challenge, there is a growing sense of both God drawing nearer to the people and God's holiness becoming more and more of a threat to the people.
In contemporary times, we see "holiness" as a virtue in others and a state to be desired in relationship with God. In Leviticus, I am coming to see holiness as a rather frightening concept. That sort of proximity to the Presence is downright dangerous, and not necessarily something to be desired. Aaron lost two sons to a mishap with the offerings. Even a fleck of the unclean adhering to the sacrifice or the priestly garments, even a blemish or mark on self or offering and the whole stack of cards would come crashing down. Holiness is awe, apprehension and a human being in contact with that holiness while in the Presence of God might not emerge with their lives, their person, intact.
I used to live near a glass studio once upon a time. They were just down the street from my apartment, and I would walk by on my way to work at the church on nice days. They had three furnaces from which they took molten glass, and into which they would push their works in progress. Even in the dead of winter, the craftsfolk would be in t-shirts and the windows and doors of the place would be wide open. No snow or ice accumulated on the doorstep, it was too warm. The workers also, always, had sunglasses hanging on lanyards around their necks; and if you went close to watch, you would notice that not one of them lacked a lacy crosshatching of scars on their forearms caused by countless burns, cuts and scratches. You were warned not to look into the furnaces when the hatch was open, because you might damage your eyes. They would tell you about the processes, including the dangers. For example, when blowing glass, you had to be careful never to even slightly draw air up through the pipe...because you risked burning out your lungs in an instant. All those dangers, and yet the result of their work was so incredibly beautiful. To them and to their customers it was worth the risk. That memory brings new meaning to my mind when I think on "the beauty of holiness."
I have no doubt God is loving Israel, but the costs of humans being that close to holiness are daunting to say the least. After reading about the requirements of sacrifice, the passage today closes with the stoning of a man who blasphemed the name of God. Holiness, and conforming to the holiness of a God that demands so much shocks me to my present-day sentiment, and yet that was life in the camp for Israel in those days.
That same shock, granted of a slightly lesser magnitude, strikes me in seeing Jesus' cursing of the fig tree in today's Gospel reading. As he is being paraded into the city with people singing Hosanna, that encounter with the fig tree lingers in my mind. It is in leaf but has no fruit because it is not in season, so Jesus curses it. The next day, the disciples note that it is withered from the root up...Jesus states that with faith all things are possible. All I can think is...be careful what you pray for...that poor fig tree. I struggle to see the lesson in that cursing, other than that we-in Christ-should be very mindful that our prayers be blessings and not curses. Too much is at stake!
Faith demands that we pray, act and live with a care and attention to the holy, and the big debate between the Pharisees and Jesus chooses instead to focus on a question of authority. Here we are, witnessing the magnitude and impact of holiness and faith in our lives...and the public debate is over where Jesus claims authority...how human.
Today's readings draw me up short with images of how daunting devotion to God can be, how risky the "beauty of holiness" is, and how faith lived out has a direct and tangible impact on the world around us. Coming to terms with that should preoccupy the Church, and yet in the great debates that rage in us with regard to questions of sexuality, stewardship and social justice we get hung up again and again on who has the authority to speak and act...when Christ has modeled for us a call to grace-filled living that focuses more on the healing of the world than on resolving the notion of who is "in" and who is "out."