“This is my blood, the blood of the covenant,
poured out for many” (Mk 14: 24)
There are two feasts in the liturgical calendar that invite us to meditate on the mystery of the Eucharist: Maundy Thursday and the Feast of the Precious Body and Blood of Jesus, that is, today. The celebration of the Maundy Thursday reminds us that the Eucharist is a sacrificial meal. The altar is not only the place of sacrifice but also the table where a meal is being served. The Eucharistic-food offers us the possibility “to share in the divinity of Christ who humbled himself to share in our humanity.” When we receive the Eucharistic bread we commune with God.
Related to the theme of the sacrificial meal, the Liturgy of the Word today invites us to look at the Eucharist as a covenant. All the three readings highlight the symbol of blood being poured out as a sign of a covenant.
In many ancient societies, especially in “the Near-East”, an agreement became a covenant when it was sealed with the pouring of blood. The contracting parties would cut into each other’s arm and suck the blood, and mingle it; the mixing of the blood would render them “brothers of the covenant.” This ceremony had different variations. One such ritual was, instead of cutting their own hands, an animal would be cut into two parts and laid apart, and the contracting parties would pass between the parts showing that the one who breaks the covenant would face the same fate. However, since they promise to be faithful to the covenant they would eat together that animal, thus sealing the covenant.
The theme of the covenant is also played out in the relationship between God and humans. In this covenant we see some repeated patterns. It is always God who initiates the covenant – because human beings are really unworthy to enter into this covenant. Secondly, man is constantly the unfaithful partner in this covenant, thus deserving punishment. But since it is God who wants to have this covenant (because of His love for us), He is also ready to take the punishment on himself – paying the expiation for the unfaithfulness of man.
In Genesis 15, Abram is invited by God to contract a covenant with Him. Abram is told to take (15:9f) “a three year heifer, a three-year old she-goat, a three-year old ram…” and to split the animals down the middle and place each half opposite the other. Now as per the ancient ritual of the covenant both God and Abram were expected to pass between the two halves of the animals. But at night fall, it is the Lord God who alone passes between the carcasses in the form of fire, and declares, “I will be faithful to you and your descendants.” God knew very well that people (represented by Abram) would be unfaithful, and God was ready to take the odium for their unfaithfulness.
In the first reading of today, from the book of Exodus (24), God renews this covenant with the people of Israel. On Mount Sinai before the giving of the Law the people of Israel pledge themselves to keep His covenant. After the giving of the Law, Moses sprinkles “the blood of the covenant sacrifice” half upon the people and half upon the altar of the Lord (Ex. 24. 6-8), to signify the mystical union between Israel and God. The tablets on which the Law was inscribed then becomes the sign of the covenant. The people of Israel would keep those tablets within the tabernacle, and honour it as the Ark of the Covenant.
Nonetheless, in the practice of the covenant, we know that the people were not able to be faithful to this covenant. We are not able to be faithful.
But God wants this covenant to be everlasting. However, as they say, if you do the same things in the same circumstances, you get the same results. Therefore, God had to bring about a new type of a covenant. That is what we see in the history of God-becoming-man. In this context, our 2nd reading of today from the Letter to the Hebrews becomes very powerful.
In the New Testament – the New Covenant – God does not ask us to split animals into two halves as Abram did, nor use animal blood to be sprinkled upon us as Moses did. But he uses his own body, he pours out his own blood as the sign of this covenant. By doing this he not only pays the expiation – takes on himself the punishment – for the unfaithfulness of man, but he renews that covenant.
On the night before the Passover, the Gospel of Mark tells us, “And as they were eating he took some bread, and when he had said the blessing he broke it and gave it to them, “Take it”, he said, “this is my body” (Mk14:22). Let us pay attention to the phrases in this narration:
· As they were eating – the covenant was in the context of a meal.
· He took some bread – He took it on his own accord, he does it willingly, he is ready to offer up himself.
· He said the blessing – again the context of the meal, ‘blessing’ here means, ‘thanking God!’ – Blessed are you Lord God of Israel!
· He broke it – as the animals were split into two parts in the ancient covenantal ritual.
· Gave it to them – offered himself as an expiation and as a sign of the new covenant.
The narration continues: Then he took a cup, and when he had returned thanks he gave it to them, and all drank from it, and he said to them, “This is my blood, the blood of the covenant, which is to be poured out for many.”
Dear friends in Christ, today this same covenant is being enacted before our eyes. As we begin the 2nd part of our Eucharistic celebration, we can notice all the elements of the covenant that I have tried to describe. The most powerful thing about this enactment is that we are partners in this covenant. God wants to seal a new covenant with us – you and me, through the shedding of the blood of his son, our Lord Jesus Christ. And by partaking of that body and blood – by eating the body and blood of Jesus – we agree to be partners in this covenant.
Let the body and blood that we will consume also give us the strength to be faithful to this covenant with God, day by day.
Fr. Franco Pereira, S.D.B.