Today’s feast was at one time called the Feast of Corpus Christi, the Body of Christ. It was complemented by a second feast on July 1, the Feast of the Most Precious Blood. After Vatican II, the new liturgical calendar combined the Feast of the Body of Christ with the Feast of the Precious Blood and created one new solemnity. Now the Church refers to it as the Feast of the Body and Blood of Christ. The texts for today’s celebration focus their attention on the blood rituals of our Jewish ancestors. The readings for the A and C Cycle of the Lectionary focus their on attention on the Bread of the Eucharist and the ministers of the Eucharist respectively.
The first reading from the Book of Exodus tells us of the covenant ratification ritual first used by Moses at the base of Mt. Sinai. During the Easter Season, we used water to remind us of our baptism. I walked among you and sprinkled the congregation with Holy Water. Stop for a moment and imagine if I had been using blood instead of water. I am sure you would not be pleased at the effect it would have on your clothing. Yet that is what the covenant ritual which was celebrated by the high priest each year since the time of Moses dictated. First the Ark of the Covenant was sprinkled with blood; then the assembly was sprinkled. This rite signified the union between God, represented by the Ark, and the people.
Blood was considered sacred. The Israelites considered it sacred because they saw blood as life itself. They reasoned that the blood that coursed through their veins was their life essence. For this reason, blood rituals were considered sacred, and the covenant which was sealed by blood was an unbreakable bond.
The Letter to the Hebrews uses the ritual of the annual Day of Atonement, sometimes called Yom Kippur, to explain how Christ saved us from our sins. Just as the high priest offered forgiveness to the assembly through the blood ritual, Jesus offers us forgiveness of our sins through the shedding of his blood. Each year, a goat was led through the assembly. The men threw their outer garments on the back of the goat as it was led to the altar to be sacrificed. This action was symbolic. Using his outer garments, the sinner casts his sins on to the goat which is then slaughtered, its blood collected and sprinkled on the people. This is, in fact, where the term “scape goat” comes from. Through the blood of the goat, the Israelites escaped the punishment they deserved because of their sins.
The author of the Letter to the Hebrews does not denigrate the blood ritual. He readily admits that those who participated in the blood ritual were, in fact, cleansed of their sins. However, the ritual had to be repeated every year. Jesus, on the other hand, by shedding his blood, died “once for all.” His sacrifice is deemed greater because his blood is more precious than the blood of animals.
The Gospel reading is the familiar description of the Lord’s Supper in which Jesus declared that the bread and wine were changed into his Body and Blood. “This is my body. . . This is my blood of the covenant, which will be shed for many.” Ever since that night, Christians have recognized this ritual as our way of remembering that Christ is present in our midst.
This feast celebrates the incomparable love Christ has for us. It provides us with two portraits of this self-sacrificing Savior. In the first we see him offering himself as the victim to be sacrificed for the expiation of our sins. Having done that, he brings his own blood into the heavenly tabernacle to constantly witness, before the face of God, to his atoning action. In the second portrait, he spreads a banquet table for us at which we are able to eat the bread of companionship and share the blood of the new covenant. This banquet, which we have been given, is really the eschatological banquet, the meal on which we will dine for all eternity. How blessed we are that we have been called to share it! How blessed we are that we can approach it so frequently! The atoning action of Christ is really a magnanimous gesture of love.
Having celebrated this banquet, we are called to imitate Jesus’ sacrifice. Just as he gave his life for us, we are called to give our lives in service to others. The Eucharist is not a spectator sport. We must act upon the gift we have received. Not to do so would be to eat and drink unworthily. As the Blood of Jesus was shed to reconcile us to the Father, the Eucharist is the principle sacrament of reconciliation. In it our sins are forgiven, and we are called to forgive those who have sinned against us. Finally, it is the Sacrament of Thanksgiving in which we express our gratitude for God’s gift of love.
Fr. Lawrence Jagdfeld, O.F.M., Administrator