Life Means a Person
If the blood of goats and bulls
And the sprinkling of a heifer’s ashes
Can sanctify those who are defiled
So that their flesh in cleansed,
How much more will the blood of Christ.
Who through the eternal Spirit offered Himself unblemished to God,
To worship the living God.
For Greeks a person was body and soul. For Hebrews a person was body and blood, with the understanding that the blood is the life. Without the shedding of blood, there could be no effective communication with the gods or with God, –remission of sins, a truth held not only by Jews and Christians, but by Greeks and Romans, for whom sacrifices, personal and as participation in civic liturgy, were part of daily life. In the superscript the author of Hebrews is drawing a comparison between the sacrifices of the Temple and the once-offered sacrifice of the Messiah. He does not deprecate the sacrifices of the Temple, which had been commanded by God to atone for sins, but points out that “it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sin” (Hebrews 10:4). The Sacrifice of Jesus makes new creatures because His Holy Spirit renovates the human heart, not forestalling God’s just punishment, but “taking away sin,” putting God’s law in their hearts and writing it on their minds (Hebrews 10:16–-17). And from the beginning there was this great difference. Romans would sacrifice to gain favorable treatment and bring good fortune. Christians sacrificed, inspired by love, in order to fulfill the Lord’s command given on the night He was betrayed, but also in order to share in the very life of Him who is God and man for knowledge of whom the soul longs.
That blessed ability to know God in the person of Jesus, is the consummation of a long education through long ages during which God became ever nearer to the people who had rejected Him in the garden. His drawing near has from the beginning been a bloody business, effected first by the sacrifice of all clean animals when He made the first covenant with Noah, promising the stability of the heavens and the earth (Genesis 8:20–22). The passage of Israel out of Egypt was secured by the offering and eating of the Paschal Lamb, whose blood would warn way the angel of death (Exodus 12:1–36). The covenant at Sinai was sealed by the sacrifice of young bulls, whose blood, scattered on altar and people made peace with God, at which time the elders saw God and ate and drank in His presence (Exodus 23). These are the ante-types. Each secures a great promise. For Noah the stability of the heavens and the earth, sealed by the rainbow; for Israel at Sinai the gift of moral form with the ten commandments, sealed by the presence of God with Israel in the tabernacle.
What these offerings, commanded by God, foreshadow is the offering of the Son of God, the Divine-Human Person whose sacrifice secured forgiveness, and bought the coming of the Holy Spirit with empowering sacraments or holy-makers, the chief sacrament for life on the way being the sacrament of the most holy body and blood of Jesus, remembered on this Sunday after Trinity each year since the feast was popularized by Julian of Liege in 1256. This great sacrament was instituted by Jesus on the night He was betrayed, mandated by Jesus’ words in John 6. In that text when the Jews asked, “How can this man give us His flesh to eat?” Jesus replied “Truly, truly I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in you.” “He who eats me will live because of me.” Christians live because in Paul’s words, “to live is Christ.” In the new and everlasting covenant the one who offers is the offering, and the offering made holy, which is then the food which joins us to Christ, not a token or symbol but His body and blood, that is, His very self sacramentally present. And the promise made and gift secured but eternal life.
In this consummate gift God offers His children not propositions or discarnate ideas but a person. That person has empowering gifts and has as well teachings possessed of divine authority, but the apostolic mission was not set on the road by even the most powerful of literary references but by a person. The apostles warrant was “We beheld His Glory” (John 1:14). “Did not our hearts burn within us as He talked to us on the road” (Luke 24:32)? “He said, ‘I am Jesus who you are persecuting’” (Acts 9:5). “We knew Him in the breaking of bread” (Luke 24:35).
The Hellenistic world was perhaps troubled by the evangelical mission of the Church episodically; there might be a disturbance when the Jews objected to Christian preaching or when the native population rose up against those they considered atheists. But the Roman world was accustomed to prophets and teachers making their case in public spaces, in baths and on street corners. What troubled pagans, aside from the exclusivity of Christian practice was the meal to which Christians attached such importance. Given their very partial knowledge, when pagans tried to understand the Christians’ sacrifice their minds would settle upon the story of Thyestes, who feasted on the bodies of his sons. That person whom the Christians knew, and upon whom they feasted was no figure from Greek mythology but was Christ. When the inquisitors came, as Pliny reported to the Emperor Trajan, they did not ask Christians to deny doctrine but to deny the person, to deny Christ, which Pliny reported, no Christian would do.
Typically, when one enters a church, there is to be seen a light burning on the apse wall, signaling the presence of a person, the sacramental presence of Christ into whose presence you have come. In that place there will be the reading of Jesus’ words and the words of His apostles. There will be petition and praise. But all this builds toward the moment when the priest will say, “Behold the Lamb of God; behold Him who takes away the sins of the world,” and finally, “The
Body of Christ.”
It was for this feast of the Body and Blood of Christ that Saint Thomas Aquinas wrote his hymn Pange Lingua.
Sing, my tongue, the Savior’s glory,
Of His flesh the mystery sing
Of His blood all price excelling,
Shed by our immortal King,
Destined for the world’s redemption.