June 7, 2015
Heb 9: 11-15
St. Vincent’s Hospital, Harrison, N.Y.
“When Christ came as high priest …, 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” (Heb 9: 11-12).
On this feast of the Body and Blood of Christ—in Latin, Corpus Christi—we celebrate the redemption that our Lord Jesus won for us by sacrificing himself as the atonement for our sins, and we celebrate the sacrament that he left us as a living memorial of his sacrifice, viz., the Eucharist.
Most ancient religions had some way of offering sacrifices to their God or gods. Often those sacrifices involved precious animals like the bulls, goats, and calves mentioned in today’s Scriptures (Ex 24:3-8; Heb 9:12), or lambs and sheep. Sometimes they even involved human sacrifice, which is recorded in several places in the Old Testament and was practiced by the Aztecs in Mexico and portrayed—you may remember—in one of the Indiana Jones movies.
Sacrifice is expressive of a relationship between the worshiper and God. It may be an act of praise, a tribute, a mark of honor and respect—like the gifts that heads of state exchange on official visits or the gift you give a friend for her birthday, anniversary, or Christmas. It may be an act of atonement for one’s sins or faults—the proverbial dozen roses after hubby has forgotten their wedding anniversary, or the penance we’re given in confession. Sacrifice may even be a bribe of some kind—as if we could bribe God! In the ancient world, it might have been tied to a plea for victory in battle, the easing of an epidemic, a successful harvest; and we might plead for good health, good weather, a safe journey, success on an exam, etc. Sometimes this is what people are doing when they light a vigil candle in front of a saint’s altar.
What takes place in the 1st reading this morning is a covenant sacrifice: Israel binds itself to God, to be his special people and to obey his commands; and God binds himself to protect them and to lead them to the Promised Land. They seal the covenant with blood: the blood of the sacrifice is sprinkled on the people and splashed on the altar, which represents God. God and Israel are now blood kin.
Jesus refers to that relationship too when he commands his disciples to drink “my blood of the covenant.” By consuming his blood (and eating his body) we become sharers in his flesh and blood, part of his body; and he becomes part of us: the nutritionist’s famous adage, “You are what you eat.” We are Jesus’ kin, his brothers and sisters.
The Letter to the Hebrews, our 2d reading, on the other hand, speaks of an atonement sacrifice. It alludes to the ritual of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, the one day a year when the high priest entered the Holy of Holies with a special sacrifice to cover all the people’s sins of the past year—like throwing a blanket over all our sins. This had to be done year after year; one sacrifice for one year. But, the author says, Christ’s sacrifice is different: as the Eternal Son of the Father, he offers his blood as a single, eternal sacrifice, “once, for all.” This sacrifice of his body and blood on the cross covers everyone forever.
And in the Eucharist that Jesus has left us as “a memorial of his Passion” (Collect), we join ourselves to, become partakers in, that one sacrifice. With Jesus we offer Jesus to the Father, and the blood of Jesus covers over our sins; no, more than covers them: wipes them away, washes us clean. Lift the blanket, and everything’s gone! “The blood of Christ … cleanse[s] our consciences from dead works to worship the living God” (Heb 9:14), i.e., cleanses us from the death that our sinful deeds (and words and thoughts and motives) deserve, and instead opens up to us “the promised eternal inheritance” (9:15), a place in the kingdom of God alongside our Lord Jesus.
It is the blood of Jesus that cleanses us in Baptism and in Reconciliation too. Let’s always come to the Lord in the sacraments, sisters and brothers, to be washed by his mercy, joining ourselves to the one sacrifice that he has offered for our redemption.