It was noticeable that our first reading taken from the book of Exodus, and also the second one from the letter to the Hebrews, spoke of the sanctioning and saving power of blood: the blood sprinkled on the Israelites by Moses in the desert, and that poured out by Christ on Calvary.
At the Last Supper however -- as St. Mark’s Gospel told us -- Jesus blessed and offered bread first of all, saying “This is My Body”, and only afterwards some wine, saying, “This is My Blood”. Now, why did Jesus not simply offer His Blood? Why did He bless bread and offer His Body before offering His Most Precious Blood?
Our Lord’s wisdom is beyond any merely human scrutiny; and that is why Mother Church offers us several readings at Holy Mass, so that we might gain some understanding and appreciation of Jesus’ words and actions in the Gospel account by viewing them in the light of other bible texts, both of which, in this case, as I said, speak only of blood, thereby inviting me, and I hope you also, to wonder why Jesus took bread and wine to offer both His Body and His Blood.
In our first reading, Moses led the people of Israel out of Egypt to their first destination, Sinai, where Moses encountered God on the mountain top and was given the Law; then we were told:
When Moses came to the people and related all the words and ordinances of the LORD, they all answered with one voice and said, "We will do everything that the LORD has told us." Moses then wrote down all the words of the LORD.
Our second reading from the letter to the Hebrews spoke of Jesus ascending, not simply to the top of a mountain, but to heaven itself with His blood:
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.
Both readings emphasize the blood, used by Moses and given by Jesus, and both tell us what the blood was for:
Moses took the blood and sprinkled it on the people, saying, "This is the blood of the covenant that the LORD has made with you in accordance with all these words of His."
If the blood of bulls and goats and the sprinkling of a heifer’s ashes can sanctify those who are defiled so that their flesh is cleansed, how much more will the blood of Christ, Who through the eternal Spirit offered Himself unblemished to God, cleanse our consciences from dead works to worship the living God?
The blood was, therefore, for a sacrificial cleansing leading to a commitment to God by observing His laws, following His teaching, and loving His Word Incarnate.
By those two readings we are encouraged, indeed almost obliged, to think, on hearing the Gospel passage: why did Jesus add the bread, His Body? This question becomes all the more important when we realize that blood offered and sprinkled evokes easily and clearly cleansing from sin and commitment to God; but when bread also is offered we begin to think of bread and wine as one -- food and drink -- with the result that the sacrificial Body and Blood are not only to be offered to God but also to be received by disciples for sacramental nourishment and spiritual refreshment.
The People of Israel, the original Chosen People, as you heard, pledged themselves to keep the Law given to them through Moses by the Lord:
All the people answered with one voice and said, "We will do everything that the LORD has told us."
However, both early on in their desert wanderings and increasingly over the span of many centuries leading to the Messianic times, they failed, repeatedly and seriously, to keep their part of the covenant they had originally entered into with God at Sinai, and they failed because they tried to do the impossible. It was not that God had required what was impossible of them, but because, over the centuries, they had gradually failed in their recognition and appreciation of the divine aspect of their calling; and this, because the basic sin of devilish pride was ever gnawing into and gradually eroding and destroying the integrity of Israel’s ‘official’ worship of, and ‘personal’ relationship with, their God. Instead of invoking God’s help in their weakness and His grace for their ignorance, they tried to keep the Law not so much by aspiring towards and praying for its spiritual fulfilment, as by reducing its scope to the level of their own natural understanding, and its requirements to the limits of their own personal capacity for meticulous observance. In that way, their fulfilment of the requirements of the Law became a testimonial to their own undeniable strength of character bolstering an ever more spurious holiness, rather than a means for their education into a truly spiritual understanding of God’s choice of Israel, and an invitation to their whole-hearted acceptance of and response to the wisdom and love of His plan for their privileged participation in the salvation of all mankind.
The offering of sacrificial blood alone came to remind the Israelites above all of obligations to be fulfilled and requirements to be met in a vain attempt to legally fulfil their side of the bilateral agreement made at Sinai. For the old covenant entered into by Moses at Sinai had been one of the type made between a sovereign Lord and his vassals, a type of treaty common in the Near East of those early days, a treaty in which a Great King would offer a binding covenant to His subjects, whereby He would protect them, and they, in return, would fulfil certain specific obligations of praise, honour, and service as His servants. However, such treaties were not commonly considered -- by the subject nations around – to bind the minds and hearts of those obliged to obey.
Humankind has always striven, since stretching out a grabbing hand for forbidden fruit in the original temptation of Eden, to become like to God without in any way becoming godly:
For God knows that in the day you eat of (the apple) your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil. (Genesis 3:5)
Indeed, such is the extent of the human version of devilish pride, that some human beings will even seek to make themselves superior to God: trying to force Him, for example by magical practices and incantations, to do their will.
The Son of God, out of His great love for His Father and compassion for our suffering and subjection, came as One among us offering both His Body and His Blood, in order to convince His People of their constant need for both cleansing and strength. The Gift of such Eucharistic Food -- Bread and Wine, Body and Blood -- is meant to help us become a humble and grateful People, constantly aware of our need for the purification and the power of that heavenly nourishment whereby we can walk safely and successfully, by the Spirit, along the way of Jesus through the desert of this world towards the promised fulfilment of our heavenly Father’s home.
But there is yet more, for by bringing in the aspect of food and nourishment whereby we constantly look to God for help and strength to follow His guidance and do His will, we are also made aware of our calling to an eternal banquet in heaven, where we will find ourselves being given a place at the divine table that we, most certainly, could never have grabbed for ourselves: a position of honour and – in Jesus, by the Spirit -- of a certain equality with God, as His adopted children in the Kingdom and Family of their eternal Father. The New Covenant is no longer a mighty-Lord-and-vassal covenant but a living bond of mutual love -- in Jesus by the Spirit -- which allows us to share in the very relationship that exists between Jesus and His Father, as children of the Father, adopted indeed, but most truly His children, because the Spirit uniting Jesus and the Father is our very life, the spiritual blood coursing through our veins and in our heart, the breath of life that fills our lungs.
Today, therefore, thanks to the readings Mother Church has chosen to give us along with Saint Mark’s account of Jesus’ institution of the Holy Eucharist, we have come to recognize something of what Jesus’ offering of Bread and Wine can mean for us: it both humbles and exalts us. By directly humbling us it can save us from the folly of human pride; while the exaltation it promises us is above anything we could ever have imagined, and thereby, indeed, humbles us yet more, spiritually this time, in a gratitude that knows not what to acclaim loudest, “Thank you Lord for such unimaginable blessings”, or “Lord, I am not worthy.” And since neither acclamation can ring pure and true without the other, let us, therefore, most whole-heartedly embrace both, and, leaving aside our own cogitations, calmly trust the Spirit both to guide us in our choice and form us by their use.