There’s no getting around it, redemption costs. The price is high. Freedom from sin is won by the sacrifice of the blood of the Lamb.
Unity is Bloody Business
Traditionally July is the month of the year dedicated to the Precious Blood of Christ. However, this theme can ring a bit dissonant in our lives, since these summer days are typically given over to vacationing. Calvary Hill seems a long way from summer cookouts and the beach!
Nevertheless, we hear St. Paul telling us this Sunday, “In Christ Jesus you who once were far off have become near by the blood of Christ” (Eph 2:13). Scattered though our lives may be, different and diverse as the members of the body are, all are made one in the blood of Christ.
Blood and Sacrifice in the Old Testament
In the Old Testament the one who offered sacrifice was, by the sacrifice, made near to God. In fact, that’s the etymology of the Hebrew word for sacrifice: the korban (קָרְבָּן qorbān) means “to be near.” While the people of Israel possessed an intricate, highly specified cultic system, a few words on the nature of sacrifice in the Old Testament illuminate the Christian understanding of sacrifice.
God called the people of Israel to be a nation set apart, a people peculiarly his own (Deut 7:6, Ps 135:4). The ritual system, exhaustively prescribed in Leviticus, called this people to one central tenet urged by God: “Be holy, as I am holy” (Lev 11:44). Israel has a unique conception of God: Personal union with him is the goal of life. God is the source from which all strength and life are derived.
Different from other ancient peoples, human sacrifice was expressly prohibited in Israel (Deut 12:31, Lev 18:21). It is true that the God of Israel demanded that the firstborn be given to him (Exod 22:28). However, it is clear that animals were sacrificed in the place of children (Exod 34:20). Redeeming the firstborn by the sacrifice of a lamb becomes the foundation for a theology of substitution, allowing for the offering of an animal to redeem a child.
Famously in the book of Exodus, it is the blood of the lamb sacrificed for a family and spread on the doorposts of the home, which shields the family from the angel of death. The blood is the sign of the covenant, which protects the people of Israel.
Then, after fleeing Egypt, Moses and Israel receive the Ten Commandments from God. At Mount Sinai, to ratify the covenant of the people, Exodus recounts, “[Moses] took the blood and splashed it on the people, saying, ‘This is the blood of the covenant which the Lord has made with you according to all these words’” (Exod 24:8). Having been delivered from slavery, the blood of the covenant signifies the new life Israel has with God. Communion with God is mediated by sacrifice and made visible in the rites, which include the shedding of blood.
The Blood of the New Covenant
The New Testament book Letter to the Hebrews recognizes the centrality of blood in ritual Israelite worship. Hebrews notes that the covenant was ratified in the blood of animals and that blood is used to purify the Temple. Explaining the customs of Israel, Hebrews says, “According to the law almost everything is purified by blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness” (Heb 9:22).
But Hebrews goes further. The book argues that the worship of Ancient Israel is not yet fulfilled, incomplete as it were when compared to the sacrifice of Christ. Hebrews says, “But in those sacrifices there is only a yearly remembrance of sins, for it is impossible that the blood of bulls and goats take away sins” (Heb 10:3-4). Christ, true God and true man, shed his Precious Blood, the blood of our redemption, once and for all. Unlike the regular offerings of bulls and sheep, the sacrifice of Jesus merited the salvation of the world on Calvary Hill.
The Sacrifice of the Mass
Where, then, is the blood in our lives? How do we come in contact with the sacrifice of Calvary? The Catholic Church has always understood that the celebration of the Eucharist makes present the graces of Christ’s passion. Lumen Gentium, a document of the Second Vatican Council, puts it this way, saying, “As often as the sacrifice of the cross in which Christ our Passover was sacrificed, is celebrated on the altar, the work of our redemption is carried on, and, in the sacrament of the eucharistic bread, the unity of all believers who form one body in Christ is both expressed and brought about.” (LG 3).
Not every Christian sees the Holy Mass this way. Noted Protestant theologian John Piper has preached, “This repeated sacrifice [the Holy Mass] in the church necessitated an official priesthood to administer the sacrifices just like the Old Testament had an official priesthood to offer the animal sacrifices. But both the mass and the clerical priesthood minimize and distort the once-for-all sacrifice of Christ on Calvary.”
But the Mass is not a repetition of Calvary. The once-and-for-all sacrifice of Jesus is not replayed like a rerun of Frasier or copied like some kind of printed handout. Rather, in the Mass, the graces of the cross are sustained as it were, brought into the here-and-now. In the Holy Mass the historical event of Jesus’ shedding of his Precious Blood is made present for us.
Union in the Precious Blood
Let us then love Jesus in the shedding of his blood. In the first century, Pope Clement exhorts the Church saying, “Let us fix our gaze on the Blood of Christ and realize how truly precious It is, seeing that it was poured out for our salvation and brought the grace of conversion to the whole world.” Jesus’ precious blood washes away our sins, and in so doing, makes it possible for us to be drawn together, to live united to God and to each other.
The medieval proverb tells us, “blood is thicker than water.” The proverb means more or less that family, blood relations, are the most reliable. We might develop this idea, thinking again of Lumen Gentium which says, “Christ instituted this new covenant, the new testament, that is to say, in His Blood, calling together a people made up of Jew and gentile, making them one, not according to the flesh but in the Spirit” (LG 9). The Blood of Christ consecrates Christians in a new identity, binding us together in the Lord.
Blood is indeed thicker than water. In his Precious Blood Jesus draws us near, making us closer even than blood relations. By his blood we have been redeemed, and as believers we share this most extraordinary gift of his grace and mercy. That same blood continues to nourish us. In the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, the element of simple wine is transubstantiated into the very Blood of Christ. May this Precious Blood nourish us, sustain, and preserve our union in the Lord.