TWO CLEAN BIRDS
Outside the camp I came
bringing my offering:
two clean birds,
a piece of cedar wood,
a handful of scarlet yarn
and hyssop for the sharing of aspersion.
It was my own hand that struck the victim,
poor innocent dove,
and made his blood to mingle
with the living water;
and then the priest
as though to soothe the pain
of that little mate,
plunged her into the mingling,
and I arose – yes, I arose,
for the mate was I.
Gomer, they had called me –
Gomer, the sin-blotched soul,
but in my rising I was called the Alma
and in my new-found innocence I took wing
to carry over the country-side
the Good News of resurrection.
(cf Lev. 14:1-7; Hos. 1:2-3)
Moved by the Spirit, touched by the healing hand of the Master, I make my way to the priest as bidden (Lk. 5:12 f). I enter the scene a repentant sinner and I emerge a spotless bride.
* * *
… But Life Goes On
Surely there is a place within each one of us who have been plunged into those saving waters, where we know ourselves to be healed, to be cleansed, indeed to be espoused to him who laid down his life for us. But life goes on, and we also know ourselves in need of making atonement, in need of deep existential purification. St. John of the Cross deals with this in his classic work,The Dark Night, drawing out in soul-shaking terms the image of a log as it passes through searingly progressive stages of union, to arrive finally at transformation in fire: i.e., the Fire of love, the Fire of the Holy Spirit. Moses (or the writer of the Book of Leviticus) deals with the theme in gentler terms, while being equally deft and thorough (Lev. 14:8-32). Here we might interject parenthetically that in this text is found the unmistakable biblical identification of the image of leprosy with a state of sin.
Persevering doggedly through the seemingly endless sequence of stages of the ritual, we experience the tedium of our own struggle with sin in our lives. The forgiven sinner must wash his garments, bathe his body, and shave off every bit of his hair, imaging not only the cleansing away of the filth of sin, but even the self-despoliation from every attachment to the least thing which is not of God. The forgiven sinner has been received back into the camp, it is true, but his healing/cleansing goes on. He must make guilt offerings and holocausts of animals; he must bring wheat and oil, and he must wait out his sevens of days, repeating the washings and the shavings. He is accompanied and assisted by the priest throughout the entire process. Meanwhile, he must remain outside his own tent, the rituals taking place at the entrance to the meeting tent. Provision is made for the leper whose resources are few – a significant detail, given our unique personal capacities and limitations. In any case, however, what is described here entails a commitment to the engagement, the marriage-bonding which has been sealed in that awesome ritual of immersion into Christ.
Most and perhaps all of us have experienced the difficulty of understanding the Old Testament accounts of events and rituals as prophecy, specifically Messianic prophecy. It is like trying to translate a book from one language or idiom into another. What in the world does the crossing of the Red Sea have to do with the death and rising of Christ?! What do the quaking mountain and bread falling from the sky and the walls of Jericho tumbling down have to do with our getting to heaven? Or what do two clean birds or a piece of cedar wood and a handful of scarlet yarn have to do with our saving? We find it difficult, don’t we? – to make out what God is telling us in the Sacred Scriptures. Yet St. Paul tells us pointedly that whatever has been written has been written for our instruction (Rom 15:4). We walk unawares over hidden treasures – hidden, that is, but treasures that are shouting out to be found. Perhaps this is why the Apocalyptic seer, John, wept bitterly that no one was found who could open the seals of the scroll and read its contents (Rev. 5:4). But Jesus himself gives us the password; in fact he is himself the key, for all that has been written is about him. “Search the Scriptures,” he says, “ … they testify on my behalf” (Jn 5:39). He shows us the way when he gives us the image of the serpent raised on a pole, the sign of Jonah and others. Furthermore, our Mother the Church through her saints and doctors leads us along and points out to us so many of these treasures. But this is not all. The Holy Spirit lives in us to enlighten and inflame us. It is in his light that we see Light itself (Ps 36:10), in his light that we learn how to find Jesus on every page of the Bible.
A Bride for Adam
When Adam was created he experienced himself, and was indeed, alone and incomplete until his helpmate, companion and bride was given to him. When the divine eternal Son of God came in a human mode of being, he had to experience himself as incomplete without his bride, precisely because this is the human mode of being. With this consideration in mind, we should not find it surprising that in the Old Testament Scriptures, seen as the prophetic portrayal of Jesus the Messiah, he is never separated from the bride. He is the New Adam and is incomplete without her. He is continually with her, liberating her, healing her, feeding, protecting and leading her to her home, and ultimately bringing her to the eternal marriage with himself. And who is this bride? Is it not the human race, personified first in Eve, then in Israel, and then in the Church, even the broader Church? Within the context of the consideration of our forgiven sinner theme, this is where and how the two clean birds make pertinent sense. The New Adam gives his life for his sick and sinful bride, as she is plunged into the mingling of his saving Blood and the Living Water of the Holy Spirit. Jesus, the Bridegroom, of course, is imaged firstly in the priest, for he is the eternal high priest, and then in the male dove, for he is both priest and victim. The Bride likewise is imaged firstly in the cleansed leper and then in the female dove. Here is where Mary also comes in; it becomes clear that in her the focus reaches its sharpest point, for she is the New Eve. She too has been saved by the death of Christ. This is not just a beautiful theological idea, image or figure of speech, any more than the human mode of being taken on by the eternal Son of God is a mere figure of speech. It is as real as Love Itself.
Colors And Scents Shared
A bit of fleece from a young lamb, dyed in the crimson of his own blood: what more graphic symbol could be found than that, of the bloody sacrifice of the Lamb of God, Jesus our Savior? It is a detail that could hardly be missing from the scene which we are contemplating. It appears not only here, but it is also an integral part of the other animal sacrifices offered in the liturgical rites of the Mosaic Law (Num 19:6; Heb 9:19). As the Letter to the Hebrews confirms, the blood of the heifers offered in sacrifice could not suffice; even in its very offering, the scarlet fleece had to be thrown into the fire as well.
The richness of the symbol of the scarlet fleece was not lost on the Israelites, even though they certainly could not have grasped its significance. We find the spies sent by Joshua into Jericho giving scarlet wool, now woven into a cord, to Rahab the prostitute, which would be a saving sign for herself and her whole household (Jos 2:18ff). She was to tie this scarlet cord at the window of her house, which was built into the city’s wall. Seeing it, the Israelite invaders would spare her and her family. Furthermore, as the tradition would have it, these individuals were taken into the community of Israel and, in Matthew’s genealogy, Rahab is listed as an ancestress of Jesus (Mt 1:5).
Cedar wood is another powerful symbol in the drama of our forgiven sinner. The Church sings of the wood of the Cross in her liturgy of Good Friday and, although she does not particularize on its being of cedar wood, this symbolic detail should not be lost for us. Cedar wood, durable, precious and so amazingly fragrant! It bears a redness all its own and is a regal banner in and of itself. We read that Hiram, king of Tyre, sent innumerable cedar trees to King David for the building of his palace (II Sm 5:11), and again even more to King Solomon for the building of the magnificent temple (I Kg 5:20,22). Moreover, not only does the Bride describe her Lover in terms of the cedar (Sg 5:15), but even his carriage (his Cross) he has constructed of the Lebanon cedar (Sg 3:9).
And then the hyssop: Branches of the minty-fragrant hyssop are very twiggy and lend themselves well to the sprinkling of the blood of the sacrifices and the waters of renewal. The message they give us is a glorious one: in our Church, the Body of Christ, every gift, every covenantal and sacramental grace granted to one is shared freely with all. Praise God!
Outside the Camp
One could wonder what God meant when he told Moses that he punishes to the third and fourth generation the wickedness of those who despise him and do not obey his law, while his blessing extends to the thousandth generation upon those who do love him and keep his law (Ex 34:6f; Dt 5:9f). Certainly he was not talking about numbers and accounts. In any case, who can untangle the thirds and fourths generations, so ubiquitously scattered within the thousandth? However, when we stop to think about it, we know that the mercy of God endures forever (to the thousandth generation) while our own contemporary experience bears out the truth of what is said. The break-up of families which we are witnessing in our day demonstrates that abuse, discord and division, the sin of parents, breeds anger, violence and crime in the children, and from there, further down the line. Credible statistics prove this beyond question. But the good news, as Saint Paul tells the Christian community in Rome (Rom 5:20), is that where sin abounds grace does more abound. The overpowering reality of sin, we could say, has its habitat “outside the camp”, but healing and forgiveness can and do also take place outside the camp, because Jesus has come to seek and save the lost sheep. In fact, the meeting tent itself was pitched outside the camp (Ex 33:7), so how could one ever not find the place of hope and healing? The Holy Spirit speaking through the prophet Micah (4:10) assures the people that outside the camp, yes, even in Babylon, the Lord will be at work redeeming them. Therefore, persons who find themselves within the “third and fourth generations” , deprived of God’s blessing, can and do find their way back through his grace. There remains only the need for Reconciliation, as our passage from Leviticus (14:1-7) shows. The healed leper must be received back into the camp, the “assembly of believers” (Acts 4:32). Within the camp he will find not only life but more abundant Life (Jn 10:10). Within the camp there are to be found the Living Bread of the Eucharist, the sacramental Waters of the Holy Spirit, and in fact the very Supper of the Lamb – the everlasting Wedding Feast. Who would not want to enter the scene, though a repentant sinner, to emerge a spotless bride?!
The Church teaches us that our Faith rests firmly on the Scriptures and Tradition. But it took some centuries after the Ascension of Jesus for her to sort out the full application of this principle. Paul, especially in his Letter to the Galatians, makes it abundantly clear that the Law of Moses with its stipulations, covenant and priesthood are abrogated by the New Covenant sealed in the shed Blood of Jesus Christ. The priesthood of Jesus is not that of Aaron, but rather that of “the Order of Melchisedek” (Ps 110:4). Yet, while recognizing well that the priesthood of Jesus does supercede and annul that of Aaron, the Church does retain some of its important and seemingly unimportant elements. For example, in the ritual of priestly ordination we find the anointing, the investiture with ornate and symbolic vestments, the mitre, the staff, and the laying on of hands (Ex chs 28, 29). There are the priestly prerogatives of entering the sanctuary, where we find altar, incense and lamps Most importantly, however, is the constant and indispensable presence and functioning of the priest in the life and worship of the community. We are a priestly people, but it is the ordained priest who offers the great Sacrifice on behalf of us all. He is there to receive our confession of sins and make atonement for them (Lev 5:5f; Num 5:7f). It is he who presides over the wonderful mystical union of our two clean birds, bringing our forgiven sinner back into the camp and enabling the Bride for the carrying of the Good News of Resurrection all over the countryside.