Sunday readings: http://usccb.org/bible/readings/061012.cfm
Blood donations and reminders of shortages are not at all uncommon. The Red Cross, for example, will never turn away any healthy individual willing to donate a pint of blood for whoever may be in need. If you’ve done so yourself, you know how rewarding it can be. And someday, we may be in need of one of those donations ourselves. Blood is life and through proper testing, our doctors can be given a picture of our health. Everything from your blood pressure, to sugar level, conditions of certain vital organs, cholesterol numbers, vitamin efficiencies or deficiencies and a host of other life indicators can be measured through our blood.
This Sunday’s Solemnity of the Body and Blood of Christ is likewise the remembrance of a life poured out for us, literally upon the cross 20 centuries ago, by the one who called each of us to life.
Some may wonder why the Eucharist needs a Feast of its own. After all, we have Holy Thursday during the Sacred Triduum in preparation for Easter which remembers the institution of the Eucharist during the Last Supper of Jesus. While this Sunday’s remembrance does not stand in the Church Year as the greatest of Feasts we could never lose by reflecting more specifically on the mystery of Christ’s presence in the Eucharist.
As a young child in Catholic Schools I remember distinctly the description of the Mass by the good Dominican Sisters: “The Mass is the unbloody sacrifice of the Cross.” I wasn’t quite sure what that meant to begin with. It sounded a little strange to a seven year old child preparing for Holy Communion. What is “the unbloody sacrifice of the Cross?”
Obviously, the good Sisters took time to connect the sacrifice of Jesus in his death on the cross where he shed his blood, with the Mass as a remembrance of that same event. Not too much attention, however, was given to the Last Supper, although there was clearly a connection with that fateful event the night before. However, the emphasis, at least as I remembered it, was more on Jesus’ death event than it was on the life giving gift of the Eucharist itself. Was it wrong to do so? No, of course not. Our readings this Sunday do make a connection with the early blood sacrifices of the ancient Jews at the Temple of Jerusalem.
In the Book of Exodus 24: 3-8 we hear of, “. . . the Israelites to offer holocausts (burnt offerings) and sacrifice young bulls (kill them upon the altar) as peace offerings . . .” Then we hear that Moses, “took half the blood and put it in large bowls, the other half he splashed upon the altar . . . then he took the blood and sprinkled it upon the people . . .” Clearly, to the ancient Jews such slaughter, done with faith intent – a life for lives in atonement for the sins of those who were “sprinkled” was seen as a way of appeasing God. All this is tied to the ancient covenant offered by God to his people. Faithfulness to God’s Law is our constant goal and that of the Covenant between us and God but unfaithfulness may be more the experience of everyday life. So, some sort of sacrifice is offered to seek forgiveness and mercy from God.
The Gospel of Mark 14: 12-16, 22-26 finds Jesus before his Apostles at the last supper. He eats with them the lamb of sacrifice in remembrance of the Hebrews’ flight from Egypt and the spreading of blood upon the lintels where the angel of death passed over those households and spared the Hebrews. So here too blood figures as a life savior as it spared the lives of those ancient peoples making it possible for them to flee to the desert where they were formed by God.
At that supper with his Apostles Jesus shared a cup of wine, part of the Passover ritual dinner, but forever changed its meaning. “This is my blood of the covenant, which will be shed for many . . .” Just before that he had done similar with the bread of the meal, “Take it; this is my body . . .” The connection between the blood of animals in the Jerusalem Temple, the Covenant between God and his people, the power of sacrifice to appease sin, Jesus who became the ultimate lamb of sacrifice and the giving of his own body and blood upon the cross which formed the new Covenant, is the very foundation and meaning of the Mass and the Eucharist. At its very root it is and will always be a mystery to us for God himself is at work in this “unbloody sacrifice of the cross.”
The Church Fathers of the Second Vatican Council recognized the central place of the Liturgy in our life and especially the Liturgy of the Eucharist. “Full, conscious and active” participation, in the words of that document, is a clarion call to all who attend the Mass that what formally for 400 years since the Council of Trent was rather passive participation (the Tridentine Latin Mass).
I have no doubt that the Temple worship of ancient times was not a silent event. The very cry of young bulls, the messy blood being poured and sprinkled, the cleanup and the smell of roasting animal flesh was not exactly neat and tidy worship service as we experience in the more antiseptic surroundings of our parish Churches. But a far greater mystery is at work in the Eucharist where we consume the very presence, body and blood, of the risen Lord. All we do, our posture, our dress, our gestures, our singing and our overall disposition have a place on how the grace of the Eucharist will affect us.
He, Jesus, is not sprinkled on us; he becomes the food we eat for our spiritual life. So, our present day celebration of the Mass, done well with proper reverence but without a distance from the people, can be and should be a transformative experience.
The Eucharist calls us to faith in action, to holiness and to prayer, to imitate Christ Jesus himself as the food we eat. But it is not a private devotion. While prayer before the Eucharist in Adoration has great value, even if one is alone in the Church or Chapel, we kneel before a great mystery of Christ’s presence who came, “for many.”