Life Is in the Blood

Body and Blood of Christ Scripture Readings

In several of my homilies, I’ve discussed the unique relationship between God and time. As Creator of all things in time, God is Lord of time and messes with it at will. That’s one reason why we humans have such difficulty relating to God. We cannot fathom what it’s like to live outside the constraints of time. We can’t imagine living with no before or after, no duration, no cause or effect. Yet here, in the mystery of the Body and Blood of Christ—in the mystery of the Eucharist—we encounter a timeless reality.

In the context of today’s Scripture readings, we find five sets of events that took place in time yet can only be understood sub specie aeternitatis—from the perspective of eternity—and outside of the confines of time and place. First, there is the Passover and Exodus event. Second, we have the blood covenant brokered by Moses between Yahweh and the People of Israel at Sinai in the desert. Third, we look to the animal sacrifices on the altar in the meeting tent and in the Temple in Jerusalem. Fourth, we encounter Jesus and his disciples at the Last Supper and the institution of the Eucharist before his crucifixion, death, and resurrection. Finally, we look to our presence here today at this Eucharist. Five events, distilled into one reality. What joins them all together is the blood.

For the People of Israel and their descendants, blood embodies life. It’s more than just a symbol of life—it’s the physical manifestation of life itself. Life is in the blood. That’s why, in the Book of Genesis, God gave plants to animals and mankind for food. [Genesis 1:29-30] For the ancients, since plants don’t, strictly speaking, have blood, they’re not fully alive. It’s the blood that gives life to a creature. So, in each of the five events I’ve mentioned, blood—that is life itself, human and divine—has a critical role to play.

In Egypt, during the plagues, the Israelites offered a sacrificial lamb to God, spilling its blood, and marking their doorposts with it. Sacrifice means offering back to God the very best of what God has given. The most precious gift is that of life itself. So, in pouring out the blood of an animal, the people offered to God the next best thing to an offering of human life. In a sense, the animals serve as stand-ins for the lives of the people, just as Abraham was allowed to offer a ram in place of the sacrifice of his son, Isaac. [Genesis 22:1-14] After sacrificing the lamb and marking their doorposts with its blood, the people then ate the lamb of sacrifice and, in that way, joined themselves physically to it, and therefore, joined themselves to God. The Angel of Death saw the consecrated lifeblood of the Israelites marking their doorposts and so, passed over. [Exodus 12:1-28]

After the Exodus when the Israelites left Egypt, Moses offered them a covenant relationship with Yahweh, their God. Consider it like a marriage between God and humankind. Like every covenant, there were stipulations. There were the precepts of the Law—the Torah. The people heard the stipulations and were asked to agree to them. When they did, Moses, as intermediary between the parties of the covenant, ratified it as we heard in today’s first reading. He set up an altar as the meeting place between God and humankind. Then, he set up twelve stone pillars calling the earth itself to witness the covenant. Then, he had bulls offered to God and their lifeblood collected. The covenant was ratified when Moses sprinkled the blood first on the altar of Yahweh, then on the people, joining the lives of the people with the life of God. In this covenant, God and the people of Israel became, truly, blood brothers.

From then on, similar sacrifices continued to be offered, first, in the meeting tent while they wandered in the desert, then in the Temple in Jerusalem when King Solomon built it as a permanent resting place for the Ark of the Covenant. The blood of animals offered in sacrifice continued to represent in a very real, physical sense, the lifeblood of the people, continuing to re-consecrate themselves to the covenant and atoning for their transgressions of the stipulations of the Torah. In addition, they continued to give back to God blood offerings that represented their own lives consecrated to God in thanksgiving. The first fruits of the harvest and the first fruits of the wombs of animals and humans alike belonged by stipulation of the covenant to God. If they were not themselves to be sacrificed, then they needed to be redeemed by a suitable blood sacrifice substitute.

At the Last Supper, Jesus united all these sacrificial events into one. In the same way that eating the Passover Lamb prefigured the Exodus from Egypt and the ratification of the covenant at Sinai, so Jesus’s offering of his body and blood to his disciples prefigured his sacrificial offering of himself to the Father on the cross. Only, this offering of himself that sealed the adoption of humankind by the Father needed no animal substitute. Blood sprinkled on the altar and blood sprinkled on the people to unite human and divine was no longer necessary. Human and divine life were already united in the person of Jesus and consecrated once and for all by his death and resurrection. In this, he himself was the priest, the altar, and the lamb of sacrifice. As the letter to the Hebrews stated, “When Christ came as high priest of the good things that have come to be, passing through the greater and more perfect tabernacle not made by hands, that is, not belonging to this creation, he entered once for all into the sanctuary, not with the blood of goats and calves but with his own blood, thus obtaining eternal redemption.” The living power of the Holy Spirit, symbolized by the blood of his sacrifice, was poured out on us, uniting our lives with the life of the Father and with one another, just as it is in Jesus.

So, here we are this morning celebrating Christ’s Body and Blood as God messes with time once again. “We were slaves of Pharoah in Egypt, but Yahweh brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand.” [Deuteronomy 6:21] And, “This is the blood of the covenant that Yahweh has made with you in accordance with all these words of his.” And, finally, “This is my blood of the covenant which will be shed for many.” As we come to the altar this morning to offer this Eucharist, we stand at the juncture of human life and divine, offering up this perfect prayer of thanksgiving. For as sharers in his lifeblood—his Holy Spirit—we have become, indeed, one bread, one body in Christ.

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