One of the songs often sung at Mass in the seventies was ‘Take our Bread.’ As a teenager, I was struck by the words in the second verse of the song: “Your holy people standing washed in your blood, Spirit-filled yet hungry we await your food.”
The imagery is striking! What does it mean to pray to God, “We are washed in your blood!”? That image is gruesome and awesome. It evokes for us God’s prodigious and permanent love. Whoever wrote that verse was thinking of the covenant at Mt. Sinai when Moses sprinkled the people with “the blood of the covenant” (Ex. 24:8). In the Hebrew religious culture, Blood is sacred. Blood is the life-source of animals. Since God is the source of life, then blood is sacred.
Because the altar is a symbol of God’s presence, sprinkling the altar and the people with blood signifies a communion between God and the people. This is a covenant ritual, a permanent bond between God and us. Ancient covenant rituals were the most solemn agreement you could make. They were lifelong and unconditional. To sacrifice an animal with a covenant was like saying, “If I break this covenant, then let what happened to the animal happen to me.”
This Sunday, our celebration of the Solemnity of the Body and Blood of Christ is centered on the Eucharist as a COVENANT. We’re in Ordinary Time, but this feast is an extension of the Easter Mystery. The gospel is from the passion account read on Palm Sunday. The preface for the Eucharistic prayer is the same one used for Holy Thursday. As Jesus celebrates the Last Supper he says, “This is MY blood of the covenant, which will be shed for many” (Mk. 14:24). The Hebrew word for ‘many’ means ‘multitude.’ The Eucharist is the new covenant, sealed with Jesus’ blood for the multitude of humanity.
Some verses are missing from this gospel passage, important verses that give a much stronger meaning to the Last Supper. The missing verses describe a disturbing context for the covenant of the Last Supper. After the preparation for the meal and immediately before Jesus breaks the bread and gives it to them, he predicts Judas’s Betrayal. Immediately after the narrative institution Jesus speaks about Peter’s Denial. The Church probably eliminated these verses from today’s reading because they would lengthen the gospel by ten verses. Or maybe it was to narrow our focus on the institution narrative of the Last Supper. Nevertheless, we need to remember that the context of the Last Supper was one of betrayal and denial.
This is how Mark sets the scene:
- Jesus shocks them by declaring that one of the Twelve will betray him.
- Then he celebrates the Last Supper by faithfully giving his life to them. He says, “This is MY blood of the covenant, which will be shed for many.”
- Next, Jesus warns the disciples, “You will all fall away.” When Peter objects, he says, “This very night, you will deny me three times” (Mk. 14:30).
Jesus’ faithful covenant is sandwiched between BETRAYAL immediately before and DENIAL immediately after. The New Covenant of the Eucharist emphasizes God’s fidelity despite humanity’s infidelity. That is what it means to be washed in Jesus’ blood when we receive Communion. A bond is forged between God and us that is pure gift.
A few months ago, a woman spoke to me after Mass and she said, “I am so tired of hearing all this talk about MERCY.” I had preached about mercy, and it seems that she feels that the Church has over emphasized the mercy of God. Yet, if we stop talking about mercy, then we cannot talk about the Eucharist. It is pure mercy. I wonder what the Eucharist means to someone who is tired of hearing about mercy?
In today’s preface you will hear this prayer: “We approach the table of this wondrous sacrament, so that bathed in the sweetness of your grace, we may pass over to the heavenly realities here foreshadowed.” “Bathed in the sweetness of your grace” recalls how we are “washed in his Blood.”
The first goal of religion is WONDER. It is to be bowled over by who God is and by what God does. Today, stare in wonder at the gift of the Eucharist. Drink in the faithful love of Christ, while you are aware of your constant stumbling in sin. We are God’s holy people standing washed in his blood.