Saturday, June 2, 2018

Corpus Christi

Readings: Exodus 24:3-8; Hebrews 9:11-15; Mark 14:12-16, 22-26

One of my vivid memories from Junior High
is of a field trip to the local blood bank.
At one point, they took us into the refrigerated room
where the blood was stored.
Rank on rank of shelves
held bag after bag of dark red blood.
Turning my eyes from this slightly unsettling sight,
I looked over at one of my classmates,
a boy named Charles,
just in time to see his eyes rolling up in his head
as he keeled over onto the floor.
It was the first time I had ever seen anyone swoon,
and it was, of course, the highlight of the trip.

The reaction of poor Charles
is one that many of us might experience
at the sight of blood, especially in great quantity.
After all, typically when you see blood
it means something very not-good has happened.
Something that should be inside the body
is suddenly outside the body:
you’ve cut yourself;
there has been an accident;
someone has been injured or maybe killed.
Blood is a sign of danger.

But for someone needing surgery,
or suffering from a grievous wound,
the blood in the blood bank,
as disquieting as it may be to look at,
was also a sign of healing,
of rescue,
of salvation.

Though we call this the Feast of Corpus Christi—
the body of Christ—
its official name is the Solemnity
of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ,
and our readings today focus far more
on the blood of Jesus than on his body.
At the risk of making you swoon,
I would like to reflect on these blood-drenched readings
to see what they show us about the gift of the Holy Eucharist.

Our first reading takes us directly
into the primal heart of human religion:
the offering of sacrifice.
The Israelites, having been freed from slavery in Egypt,
journey through the desert to Mount Sinai,
where they receive God’s Law through Moses.
To mark their reception of this law
and to seal their covenant with God,
Moses sets up an altar
and slaughters young bulls for a burnt-offering.
So far, so typical:
you seal the deal with a deity by means of sacrifice.
But Moses also takes the blood
that has been drained from the bulls
and splashes half of it on the altar and,
after the people proclaim,
“All that the Lord has said, we will heed and do,”
sprinkles the other half of it on the people.

In the religion of ancient Israel,
blood was a potent and multifaceted symbol.
Not unlike our own ambivalent relationship with blood,
they saw it as something necessary for life,
but also as a sign of danger.
Contact with blood,
particularly consuming meat with blood in it,
could cause one to be cast out of the community of Israel,
because blood, the sign of life, was something sacred,
something properly belonging to God alone,
something that humans should not claim for their own,
something of such power that it had to be kept at a distance.
The book of Leviticus says,
“Any one of you who eats any blood
shall be cut off from your kin” (7:27).
To sprinkle the blood of an animal on the altar of sacrifice,
was symbolically to give back to God the gift of life itself.
When Moses sprinkles blood on the assembled people,
this substance filled with symbolic power and danger,
this sacred and taboo substance
normally reserved for God alone,
crosses the dividing line of creator and creature,
uniting the tribes of Israel to their God
in a covenant rooted in God’s steadfast love.
Moses says, “This is the blood of the covenant
that the Lord has made with you.”

In the letter to the Hebrews,
the author draws on the imagery
of the sacrifices offered in the Jerusalem Temple,
depicting Jesus as the high priest
who enters the Holy of Holies to sprinkle the altar,
not with the blood of sacrificed animals,
but with his own blood,
his own life,
which he has laid down in love for his friends.
It is this life,
this love of Jesus,
“who through the eternal Spirit
offered himself unblemished to God,”
that now purifies those
who have entered into the new covenant
through faith and baptism.

Finally, at the Last Supper,
Jesus speaks those words
that we have each heard hundreds,
if not thousands, of times—
so many, times, in fact, that our ears can grow dull
to their shocking nature:
“This is my body”;
“This is my blood of the covenant.”
Jesus’s words over the cup
deliberately echo
the words of Moses at Mount Sinai,
shockingly identifying Jesus with the animals of sacrifice.
The bond between God and humanity is sealed with blood,
only now it is not the blood of animals,
but the blood, the life, of Jesus,
poured out for our sake,
poured out in love,
to draw us into intimate love
with God and each other.
This substance filled with symbolic power and danger,
this sacred and taboo substance
normally reserved for God alone,
which the Israelites were forbidden to consume
is now given to the disciples—given to us:
not merely sprinkled upon us,
but handed over as food and drink that enters into us
and is united with our very substance,
a source of healing
and rescue
and salvation.
The life of Jesus, consecrated to God on the cross,
becomes our life as we are united to him
in the banquet of his love.

The new covenant that God enacts in Jesus
is one of such radical love
that the old rites of sacrifice must be swept away;
the new covenant of God’s steadfast love
is no longer sealed with the blood of animals,
but with the blood of Jesus himself,
within which flows the power of God,
the power of the Spirit
that enters into us as food and drink
and transforms us into lovers of God.
At the sight of such a love
we should be shocked,
and who could blame us if we swooned?