Brief synopsis of the readings: Two chapters after Moses presented the Ten Commandments he ratified the covenant. He put all the commands of the Lord into writing and then built an altar. At his command bullocks (young steers) were slaughtered. Half of the blood of these bullocks he cast on the altar. The other half he cast upon the people. In Mark’s Gospel we read the account of the Last Supper where Jesus broke bread and blessed it as his body. At the end of the meal he likewise blessed the wine as his blood.
Catholics of a certain age will remember this feast as “Corpus Christi” and know it’s not just a city in Texas. But part of this has always puzzled me: isn’t blood part of our bodies? Blood certainly is not the only fluid our body produces. The easiest answer is this: since we commonly think of the Last Supper as the Passover meal, it made sense. The heart of Passover consists of unleavened bread and wine and it was easy for Jesus to focus on them. And to this day Christians think of Eucharist in terms of bread and wine.
But why did Jesus speak about bread and wine as his body and blood? And why do we reserve this Sunday to commemorate them? Good question. For many, body and blood are the “keys to salvation” that grant us entrance to Heaven. That’s fine, as far as it goes, but I think we can look at this much more deeply.
If we look at the history of sacrifice we can see how far we’ve come. Many primitive religions demanded human sacrifice where religious leaders demanded that people of their choosing be killed in order to appease the gods (there’s an excellent depiction of this in the 2nd chapter of James Michiner’s excellent book Hawaii). I’ve even suggested that Abraham’s near sacrifice of Isaac gave us God’s insistence that human sacrifice will never be demanded.
I think we can see this as human progress and maturity. But we went from human sacrifice to animal sacrifice. When the Greek philosopher Socrates is dying, he spoke his last words to one of his students: “Crito, we owe a cock to Asclepius. Please, don’t forget to pay the debt.” Asclepius was the god of healing and Socrates believed he was being healed of the illness of being human and would be promoted to being a spirit.
Animal sacrifice was also well known in the time of Moses. The blood of the bullocks was spread on both the altar of God and the people of God to show that they were bound together in a covenant. God and his people were “bound by blood” even if it was the blood of cattle.
But blood itself took on a larger meaning. In our history, as we slowly became who we were as humans, even before we had any awareness of God, we knew about blood. We knew that we all had blood, that blood was life, and when blood left us, we die. Our blood took on almost a mystical power. And to this day we still recognize the importance of blood. For those of us fortunate enough whose health allows us to donate blood to others, we find this gift profound. We can give from our surplus to save the lives of those in need.
But the idea of blood as power also had a disturbing aspect. Pagans of the ancient world oftentimes drank the blood of their enemies in the belief that they would gain strength from the blood of those they conquered. That explains passages in the Old Testament that prohibited the consumption of blood.
When Jesus offered himself as body and blood he signaled the end of blood sacrifice. He told us that not only is God not interested in the blood of innocent people, God is also not interested in the blood of animals. We will no longer be asked to sacrifice because Jesus sacrificed enough for all of us.
And now, today, what do we do with this? As with many things, we can take the easy road or we can take the blessed road (notice I didn’t say the hard road: more later). We think of Jesus’ body and blood as Eucharist and the easy road tells us that Eucharist gives us the passport into Heaven. We don’t have to worry about being someone chosen to be sacrificed to the gods, and we don’t have to sacrifice one of our animals to please God.
But I think that when Jesus instituted the Eucharist (Corpus Christi) he freed us to do great things. I think our reception of the Eucharist today emboldens us to make our lives Eucharistic.
Earlier I spoke about the ancient belief that humans could gain strength from drinking the blood of other humans. Virtually nobody today believes that. But, in a sense, Jesus does them one better by giving us strength through the Eucharist.
If the Body and Blood of Christ grants us salvation and eternal life, it should make our road richer. I spoke about how the opposite of an easy road isn’t a hard road and it isn’t. The road that calls us can be hard, but it’s blessed. Our guarantee of salvation allows us to live Eucharistic lives. It allows us to live without any fear that we will run out of what we need.
Animal sacrifice was, in a sense, a bet. I sacrifice one of my animals (part of my wealth) in the hopes that God will grant me more than what I lost. But we lose nothing, we pay nothing back in Jesus’ promise of Eucharist. We can be generous because God has been generous to us. We can love with abandon because God has loved us with abandon. We can risk ridicule because God does not find us ridiculous.
In short, previous to Jesus meant that we paid something back. We sacrificed something in the hopes that God would be pleased. Now we sacrifice nothing which allows us to pay it forward.