Dear Christ Church Family,
Our current crisis is causing us all to consider how our personal habits might affect those around us. For some around us, this is a novel and new idea. But you might be surprised to know that this has always been the case for God’s people. In our reading from Leviticus today, we find out that our personal habits matter a great deal to God; they even have an impact on our worship.
Monday, May 11, 2020 RCL Daily Office Readings, Year 2
Leviticus 16: Cleanliness is Next to Godliness. Some of you will remember this, but there was a time when Saturday night was “bath night” in America. During the early part of the Baby Boom especially, this became part of the American culture. Comedians made jokes about it, and advertisers pitched products for it. Why was it America’s bath time? Because the next morning was Church. It was understood that nearly half the American populace would be in a church of their choice, and that all those children needed to be scrubbed clean and dressed up in their “Sunday Best” before they got there. I remember how my older brother and sister and I would be lined up at the bathroom door according to strict schedule, marched through, and then thoroughly inspected by our parents for any flaws in our washing regimen. No unwashed ear or hair follicle was going to be allowed to disgrace the family the next morning.
A phrase I remember hearing in those days was, “Cleanliness is next to Godliness.” So where did my parents get this idea about baths being so Godly? From our Jewish ancestors, of course, who got it from this very section of Leviticus that we have before us this day. In the chapters leading up to chapter 16, a great number of human hygiene problems are brought up, and every time the Children of Israel are told that the only “fix” is to take a bath. So important is this “fix” to God, they are told, that they will not be allowed into God’s presence for worship without it. Literally, they will not be allowed to be “next to God” in the Tabernacle, or even each other, without being washed thoroughly clean. (And, from inferences in chapter 16, pleasant-smelling as well!)
Lest anyone think that this was just another one of those “ideals” that probably didn’t get much practice in reality, note this: today, one of the ways that archeologists and anthropologists know that they have discovered an ancient Jewish settlement is the presence of all the baths in all the households. From the richest to the poorest, everyone’s dwelling has them. This was, and still is today, a law well kept.
Chapter 16, though, is about more than just physical cleanliness. It is chiefly about the spiritual cleanliness that the physical is to represent. Here, the rules of worship are laid out for what will become known as Yom Kippur: The Day of Atonement. On this day, not only will the people come fully physically cleansed, but they will also become thoroughly spiritually cleansed. Two acts will continue this cleansing regimen. First, the Tabernacle (and eventually, the Temple) will be physically cleansed from top to bottom to symbolically remove all the contamination brought in by the people’s sins during the year; and second, the people will be spiritually cleansed of the contamination of those sins as well. The priest will lay hands on a chosen innocent goat and God will symbolically transfer all the guilt of all the sin of the people onto that goat. Then the goat will be released and sent away into the wilderness, away from the people. In this way, God will forgive them of everything by removing their sins far away from them, and they will be clean again.
This act has come to be known as “the Scapegoat.” The one who takes away our sins by taking them all upon himself. This is, of course, what Jesus did for us on the Cross. When we were beyond cleansing, he, the only innocent, took them upon himself, away from us, and now, we are made clean spiritually by trusting in him. This is the point of this passage, and the chapters that lead up to it, and why it still matters to your faith and mine.
But I do have another point to make this morning: Before very long, though not nearly soon enough, we will be allowed to reopen our Sanctuary doors again and gather together to worship. I must stress, in light of this passage, and in light of the Pandemic that is keeping us apart, that our own observance of new and strict protocols of physical cleanliness will be needed. Your Vestry, Staff, and Clergy, in concert with our Bishops, are making and reviewing plans that will make it possible for us to do this safely. These protocols will include masks, gloves, social distancing, and a thorough cleaning of the Sanctuary after every gathering. Until then, though, consider praying Psalms 122 and 65 each day as prayers for Christ Church, and be sure to “attend” worship every Sunday.