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Thursday, 31 May 2018

The Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ Year B 2018

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

It was noticeable that today’s first reading taken from the book of Exodus and also the second one from the letter to the Hebrews mentioned only the blood sprinkled on the Israelites by Moses in the desert, or again the blood poured out by Christ on Calvary to cleanse His people from their sins.  At the Last Supper, however, as St. Mark’s Gospel told us, Jesus blessed and offered bread first of all, and only afterwards did He offer some wine.  Why did Jesus not simply offer wine become His Blood?  Why did He bless bread and offer His Body also?

Our Lord’s divine wisdom is beyond any merely human explanation or scrutiny; and that is why Mother Church offered us several readings at Holy Mass, so that we might gain some understanding and appreciation of Jesus’ actions in the Gospel by viewing them in the light of the other bible texts, both of which in this case, as I said, speak only of blood, thereby provoking and inviting me, and I hope you also, to wonder why Jesus took both bread and wine, and thereby offered both His Body and His Blood.

In our reading from the book of Exodus, Moses had led the people of Israel out of Egypt and they had arrived at their first destination, Sinai, where Moses had encountered God on the mountain top and been given the Law; then we were told:

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 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:

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, keeping His Word.

By those two readings we are encouraged, almost forced, to think, on hearing our Gospel passage: why did Jesus add the bread, His Body?   This question becomes all the more important when we realize that blood alone evokes easily and clearly that required cleansing from sin and commitment to God; but when bread is also used we begin to think of bread and wine as one, carrying an implication of food and drink, with the result that the Body and the Blood offered by Jesus seem likewise to take on a suggestion of nourishment, 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 ultimately and most disastrously, over the span of many centuries leading to the Messianic times, they failed, repeatedly, to keep their part of the covenant they had originally entered into with God at Sinai.

They failed because they tried to do the impossible: not that God had required what was impossible of them, but because they failed to recognize and appreciate the divine aspect of their calling, because the basic sin of devilish pride once again reasserted itself into mankind’s relationship with God.  Instead of invoking God’s help for their weakness and His grace for their ignorance, they tried to keep the Law not so much by aspiring towards, longing for, its spiritual fulfilment, as by reducing its scope to the level of their own natural understanding, and its requirements to their natural capacity for meticulous observance.  In that way their fulfilment of the requirements of the Law became more of a testimonial to their own spurious holiness and undeniable strength of character, rather than a means for their education into a spiritual understanding and appreciation of God’s choice of Israel for the good of all mankind, and an invitation and spur to a whole-hearted and humble personal response to His inconceivable wisdom and love.

The offering of sacrificial blood alone came to remind the Israelites above all of obligations, requirements, to be met -- as promised -- in a vain attempt to legally fulfil their side of a 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 material and specific obligations of praise, honour, and service as His servants; such treaties, among the nations around, were not commonly considered as involving -- let alone binding -- the minds and hearts of those obeying.   

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:

God knows well that when you eat of it (the apple) your eyes will be opened, and you will be like gods, who know good and evil. (Genesis 3:5)

Indeed, such is the extent of human pride, that human beings even try 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, however, out of His great love for His Father and compassion for our suffering and subjection, came as One among us to offer both His BODY and His BLOOD; and at the Last Supper Jesus offered His Body first of all:

He took the bread, said the blessing, broke it, gave it to them, and said, “Take it, this is My Body.

Thus, Jesus gives His Body first to make His disciples one with and in Himself, indeed, as closely one with Him as conceivably possible, before associating them with Himself in the sacrificial offering of Himself by His Blood:

Which will be shed for many.

Under the Old, Mosaic covenant the victims blood … the blood of goats and bulls … was sprinkled upon the people of the covenant; it was their sacrificial offering of their animals, it was a pledge that: 

            We will do everything that the Lord has told us.

In the New Covenant the sacrifice is Jesu’s, His blood is shed for us and we are invited to be one with Him in that sacrifice by the fact of His previously making us one with Himself by the gift of His Body.  Our partaking of His Body, whereby He assimilates us into Himself and thus invites us to sacrifice with Him, is a union far more intimately loving and efficacious than any superficial sprinkling, even with blood:

Jesus said to them (James and John), “You do not know what you are asking. Can you drink the cup that I drink or be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?”  They said to Him, “We can.” Jesus said to them, “The cup that I drink, you will drink, and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized. (Mark 10:38–39)

In order to convince His People of their constant need for both cleansing and strength: Jesus’ divinely wise gift of Himself takes on the symbolism of bread and wine, our essential food; It becomes our Eucharistic Food, our essential Bread and Wine, meant to enable to us become a humble and grateful People, constantly aware of our need for heavenly nourishment, whereby we can – in the power of the Spirit -- walk safely and successfully through the desert of this world towards our promised heavenly fulfilment in and with Jesus: our Lord so intimately one with us, God’s eternal  Word, the heavenly Father’s only begotten Son, our Saviour.

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 do His will, we are also made aware of our calling to an eternal banquet with God in heaven, where we will find ourselves being given a place at the divine table that we could never have stolen for ourselves, a position of honour and – in Jesus, by the Spirit -- of a certain equality with God, as 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 bond of mutual love, by the Spirit, in Jesus, wherein we share in the very relationship that exists between Jesus and His Father: we are to become children of the Father, adopted indeed, but most truly His children, because the Spirit uniting Jesus and the Father is our very life: the blood coursing through our veins and in our heart, the breath of life that fills our lungs.

Today therefore, dear People of God, thanks to the readings Mother Church chose to give us along with the Mark’s Gospel account of the institution of the Eucharist, we have seen something of what Jesus’ offering of bread and wine can mean for us: it both humbles and exalts us.  By humbling us it can save us from the folly of human pride, while our exaltation is above anything we could ever have imagined.  Let us therefore, dear friends, give truly heartfelt thanks to our Saviour God and loving Father for such undreamt-of blessings.