The Cross is a Time Machine (and It’s Bigger on the Inside)
Good evening. I have been asked to speak to you today about the Eucharist as sacrifice—something of a daunting prospect for an Orthodox speaker in front of a hall of mostly Roman Catholic and Lutheran Christians. So instead, I am going to talk about the Doctor.
“Earls Court Police Box” by User:Canley – Photographer: User:Canley. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.
My patristics professor, Fr John Behr, told students in our first year at seminary that we have to learn to think about time in ways that seem more like science fiction than what we are used to. So allow me to begin with this quote from Doctor Who: “People assume that time is a strict progression of cause to effect, but actually from a non-linear, non-subjective viewpoint—it’s more like a big ball of wibbly wobbly… timey wimey… stuff.”
We tend to think of time as a linear progression. There’s no rewind or fast-forward. I have no access to the Battle of Okinawa, because 70 years intervene between it and my present existence. When I lived on the island as a teenager, I could visit various monuments to those momentous events, but I had no access to the battle itself. Moreover, even though I lived on Okinawa as a youth, I longer have any access to Okinawa except as a memory. From our limited perspective within the system of time and space, subject to its constraints, as participants in it, we can only call to mind past events and imagine future possibilities.
Understandably, we bring this limited perspective to salvation history. The perspective of an observer outside this system (of which we know only one) would see things quite a bit differently. Classical theism and classical Judaeo-Christian faith both hold that God exists outside of the time-space system. With no frame of reference except that of our existence within time, so we tend to think of God’s eternity as merely extension in time—time, only longer. In fact, this is the quality of everlastingness, not eternity. Eternity is to be outside of time, unbound by it, time-less.
This insight has several implications for our theology. The most important for us this evening is that God’s acts or operations within creation will appear to us as discrete moments in time and will seem like separate acts or events, but in fact they are a single divine action. The cross stands at the center of the Big Bang.
This brings me to one more quote, which will require a bit of explaining: “The TARDIS is …burning. It’s exploding at every moment in history” The TARDIS is the Doctor’s almost sentient time machine/spaceship, famously “larger on the inside than the outside,” an almost infinite amount of space and time crammed into the space of a 1960s London police box via the dimensional magic of television science fiction. As a space-time machine, its destruction in one episode occurs “at every moment in history.” A complete synopsis of the story is too complex to undertake tonight, but I think you can imagine what I’m driving at.
The execution of God on a cross does not simply occur on a hillside outside the walls of Jerusalem in first century Palestine. It is the eternal Word of God voluntarily sacrificing himself on the cross; the crucifixion exists eternally in the life of God. The cross stands at the center of all time and space. The Lamb of God is slain for the life of the world and its salvation “at every moment in history.”
Notice that this is not about repeating the Lamb’s sacrifice. The Apostle makes this clear in his letter to the Hebrews: “Christ has entered, not into holy places made with hands, which are copies of the true things, but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God on our behalf. Nor was it to offer himself repeatedly, as the high priest enters the holy places every year with blood not his own, for then he would have had to suffer repeatedly since the foundation of the world. But as it is, he has appeared once for all at the end of the ages to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself” (Heb 9.24–26 ESV). The sacrifice is not repeated; it is the single divine self-sacrifice that stands at the center of creation. The cross creates the world.
Now, finally, we can look at the Lord’s Supper in a new light. When we speak of the Eucharist as a sacrifice, it is not a new sacrifice or a repeated sacrifice. Martin Luther correctly opposed the idea that Christ was crucified again in the Mass, as did the Council of Trent. His sensitivity to scripture as a unique source of authority made such an interpretation of the “perpetual sacrifice” abhorrent, and he said so in very colorful language. To understand how the Lord’s Supper can be a perpetual sacrifice without “they are crucifying once again the Son of God to [our] own harm and holding him up to contempt,” we must understand the biblical concept of memorial.
The Israelites were instructed to keep the memorial of the Passover yearly. In this ritual (which continues to be remembered among Jews in the seder meal), the exodus from Egypt is not merely recalled. Let me read you a passage from Kevin Irwin’s Models of the Eucharist:
For the Jews the Passover is considered as much more than a past event that occurred once and for all. The Passover is also an event that is a present, effective reality. And in being commemorated (literally remembered together) in the present, it also necessarily leads to its fulfillment in the future. In biblical phraseology, saving events like the Passover and the death and resurrection of Christ [that is, the Christian Passover] are events that occurred “once for all (time)” (from the Greek term ephapax in Hebrews 7:27). The Passover of Israel and the paschal mystery of Christ are both events that occurred once and for all and yet they are also events that by their very nature occur still, here and now, in the unique moment of liturgical commemoration.
So, the Doctor Who version of time and space actually takes on biblical proportions.
Thus, in the Lord’s Supper, it is the Lamb of God who offers and is offered on the altar, and the offering is the same offering he makes on the cross. The priest acts under the authority of Christ, making Christ present by his action—or rather, revealing the sacramental presence of Christ by his submission to Christ’s command, summed up in the Latin phrase in persona Christi. The Lord offers himself, a human being, through the action of offering the gifts of bread and wine and the gifts of the people which are his body and are made to be his body by the eucharistic action. Indeed, the priest acts on behalf of the people who corporately act in persona Christi to offer themselves as living sacrifices (Rom 12.1).