A New Altar

Today’s reading is taken from 1 Maccabees 4:36-51.

It’s found in the part of the Bible that Protestants refer to as the Apocrypha. Christians in the Reformed tradition generally do not consider these books to be inspired or authoritative for establishing doctrine. Nevertheless, reading the Apocrypha can be helpful “for examples of life and instruction in behaviour, but the church does not use them to establish any doctrine” (from the Church of England’s 39 Articles of Religion).

Today’s reading is taken from the part of the story upon which the Jewish feast of Hanukkah is based. Judas Maccabee and his brothers defeated the enemy army against all odds and then went about the arduous work of cleansing and rededicating the temple.

The most difficult question concerned the altar of burnt offerings, upon which an enemy general had sacrificed a pig to a foreign deity. The priests determined that this violation of their sacred space was severe enough to warrant significant changes before they could move on in the process of healing.

And they thought it best to tear [the altar] down, so that it would not be a lasting shame to them that the Gentiles had defiled it.

There are times in life when one must make a break with the past in order to move forward in faith. Sometimes, this even involves breaking away from the religion of the past.

I have known many good people who have made such a shift:

  • Catholics who become Protestant and Protestants who become Catholic;
  • Evangelicals who become Liberal and Liberals who become Evangelical;
  • Activists who become contemplatives and contemplatives who become activists;
  • Traditional liturgists who come to appreciate the freedom of contemporary worship and contemporary worshipers who fall in love with traditional liturgy.

Sometimes in life, we need to make a new beginning, to “forget what lies behind and strain forward to what lies ahead” (Phil 3:13). We must tear down an old altar and build a new one. There are many reasons why someone might feel the need to make such a shift: perhaps they experienced abuse or trauma in their old church, perhaps their legitimate questions or doubts were silenced by insecure leaders, perhaps their church’s staid formalism left no room for them to develop a personal relationship with God, or perhaps their church failed to provide them with adequate guidance for navigating the difficult waters of life.

Whatever one’s reasons for tearing down an old altar and building a new one, two features stand out from this story and strike me as significant. I will address them in reverse order:

First, “[the priests] took unhewn stones, as the law directs, and built a new altar like the former one.”

The new altar is not constructed casually. The priests drew from the deepest roots of their religious tradition in the construction of this new altar. The break with the past was not a clean break. They keep that which is truest and best from the past and use it to make something that is simultaneously old and new. G.K. Chesterton described his own spiritual journey as the dual experience of setting out on a journey of exploration and arriving home at the same time.

Such was the case with me when I went through my own process of building “a new altar”. When I left the Evangelical faith of my upbringing, I wondered for a while if I even believed in God or if I could still call myself a Christian. During this time, I thought about continuing my career in the Unitarian Universalist Association, where I could avoid answering such questions.

I came to love and appreciate my UU brothers and sisters during that season. My soul was sustained by songs from their hymnal (which I could still sing with gusto in my state of doubt) and sermons from the epic All Souls Unitarian Church of Tulsa, OK. To this day, theirs are some of the best sermons I have ever heard.

But in the end, I decided to remain within my mainline Christian denomination. Two books in particular reminded me that I do indeed believe in God and I am indeed a Christian. The first was The Case for God by Karen Armstrong. The second was The Dark Night of the Soul by St. John of the Cross. They presented me with a new way of faith that brings me into a face-to-face encounter with the Great Mystery that has the power to transform my life from the inside out. The way forward, for me, actually involved reaching back farther into the roots of my tradition. I am a Christian, my heart belongs to Jesus, and there is nothing else I can be, even though my Christianity today looks very little like it did ten years ago.

My new altar is built of the same kind of “unhewn stones” as the old one. I take my direction from Scripture and church tradition, so there is continuity as well as innovation in my faith.

The second significant feature of the Maccabees’ new altar is that the priests, after they had torn down the old altar, “stored the stones in a convenient place on the temple hill until a prophet should come to tell what to do with them.”

The old stones are not thrown away. They may not be useful for their former purpose, but they are not garbage.

There are many elements of my Evangelical heritage that I continue to hold in reverence and appreciation. In particular, I most highly value the Evangelical love affair with Scripture, their emphasis on developing a personal relationship with God, and their passion to share their faith with the world. These are elements that Catholics and Liberals could learn from and be enriched by, if only we could stop ourselves from throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Likewise, there are elements of Catholic and Liberal traditions that could bring depth and breadth to those who walk the Evangelical path.

When we build our new altars, let us store the old stones “on the temple hill” (i.e. on sacred ground), so that we might keep the good parts of the spiritual traditions that were handed down to us. Even if we don’t yet know what to do with those stones, we should keep them in sight while we worship at the new altar, trusting that there may yet come a day when some deeper prophetic wisdom might enlighten us as to how we might better integrate the old with the new in some new combination of reverence that transcends anything we could possibly build for ourselves right now.

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