“Then [Moses] took the blood and sprinkled it on the people, saying, ‘This is the blood of the covenant that the LORD has made with you in accordance with all these words of his.’” This culmination of the story of the ratifying of the covenant between God and the Israelites in the first reading today is a rather gruesome affair. Why is Moses sprinkling blood on the people, and why does making an agreement with God necessitate burnt offerings and sacrificing bulls in the first place?
For millennia, people have instinctively known that the heart of the worship of almighty God is sacrifice. In every culture that has been studied by anthropologists, sacrifice has formed the heart of how people worship God. Why is that? Sacrifice is about setting something aside for God, a recognition that the best of what we have received from His infinite generosity belongs to Him.
In the Old Testament, we see God, to use a contemporary phrase, meeting the Hebrew people “where they are.” He takes those sacrifices of animals and grain from pagan antiquity and purifies them, directing them to worship of Himself. The blood of the sacrificial animals is sprinkled on the people at this critical point in their history to remind them of their part of the covenant: “We will do everything that the Lord has told us,” as we heard them exclaim.
Throughout the history of the Israelites in the Old Testament, this notion of sacrifice gradually gets purified. The prophets told Israel: “For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God, rather than burnt offerings” (Hosea 6:6), and “What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices? says the LORD; I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams” (Isaiah 1:11).
This does not mean, though, that God is doing away with the idea of sacrifice. Mary and Joseph, after all, while presenting our Lord in the Temple, offer the traditional sacrifice of two turtledoves, and our Lord and the Apostles frequently went up to the Temple for the sacred feasts. Rather than eliminating sacrifice, Jesus fulfills the sacrifices of the Old Testament with His own perfect sacrifice.
Every sacrifice is made up of several elements: the object or animal being sacrificed, called the victim, the ones for whom the sacrifice is offered, the one who offers the sacrifice – the priest – and the consuming of the victim (usually be burning or eating). I was explaining this our fifth-grade students and one particularly insightful young man observed, “So in the Eucharist, Jesus is both the victim and the priest.” Bingo. The sacrifice of Christ on the Cross, made present for us in the Holy Mass, is absolutely unique. At no point in pagan antiquity, nor in the Jewish scriptures, do we find someone who is both the victim and the priest of the sacrifice. It is Christ alone who offers not something else, but Himself. When the prophets in the Old Testament began to remind the Jews that God desires not burnt offerings or the blood of rams but rather steadfast love, the knowledge of God, and a contrite heart, they were already pointing to Christ, who offers the greatest love and obedience to the Father on our behalf.
The Jewish priests had to enter the sanctuary of the Temple, the inner sanctum accessible only to them and only on certain days throughout the year, over and over again in order to plead with God for the people, their hands dripping with the blood of rams, goats, and bullocks. But Christ enters into the true sanctuary of Heaven once and for all, not with the blood of mere creatures, but with the blood of the God-man Himself. As St. Paul points out in today’s second reading, if the blood of these animals could cleanse the Jewish people, “how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself unblemished to God, cleanse our consciences from dead works to worship the living God” (Heb 9).
When we approach the altar to receive Holy Communion, we are coming to be sprinkled with the true blood of Christ of which the blood of Moses’s sacrifices was merely a foreshadowing. The Israelites were sprinkled with the blood of the sacrificial victim as a reminder of the covenant they made with the Lord: “We will do everything that the Lord has told us.” Being filled with Christ’s Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity is also a sign of our own commitment to the Lord. This commitment happened at our Baptism, being made on our behalf by our godparents, but is something that we have renewed over time.
In the sequence for today’s Mass we heard, “Bad and good the feast are sharing, Of what divers dooms preparing, Endless death, or endless life. Life to these, to those damnation, See how like participation Is with unlike issues rife.” In this text, we are invited to reflect on how the effects of receiving the Eucharist are not visible to us, and can even be very different for those who approach the great and awesome Sacrament in different ways. For those who have ratified their covenant with the Lord by fulfilling their vows to Him to live according to His statutes, the Eucharist is a source of life. But for anyone who would dare to approach the Lord’s Body and Blood without ratifying that covenant, what is given as a source of life can indeed become a source of death.
This truth is expressed in a beautiful prayer that the priest prays silently before receiving Holy Communion, usually while the congregation is singing the “Lamb of God.” In this prayer, drawn from one of the letters of St. Paul, the priest says: Let the receiving of Thy Body, O Lord Jesus Christ, which I presume to receive, though unworthy, turn not unto me for judgement and condemnation, but, according to Thy mercy, let it be profitable to me for the receiving of protection and healing, both of soul and body.”
The Eucharist is a medicine for the soul. It has the power to heal our spiritual infirmities, to renew God’s love in our hearts, and to make us taste Heaven here on earth. But a powerful medicine always comes with a prescription. Those who have not received the prescription, who are not ready for the medicine, run the risk of harming themselves with something that is meant not for harm but for bringing about their spiritual health. Such is the case for anyone who dares to receive the Body and Blood of the Lord in a state of mortal sin, having committed any grave sin since Baptism that has not yet been submitted to the power of God’s mercy in Confession. To such as these, presuming to take the Lord’s Body is a source not of life, but of spiritual death (or, more precisely, the sin of sacrilege).
None of this, though, need be a cause for fear. Christ Jesus died to redeem us from our sins and desires to share that forgiveness with us in the sacrament of Confession so that we can worthily partake of His Body and Blood. Made worthy by the blood of the Lamb, we are invited to partake of a sacrifice far greater than that of rams and goats like Moses did. Just as the prophets in the Old Testament gradually pointed the Jewish people back to the meaning of their sacrifices, so too must we recall the meaning of the Eucharist.
The sacrifices of the Old Testament served as a remedy to the Israelites’ tendency to worship false gods, from which the prophets were constantly calling them back. Just as the Israelites would fall away from the worship of the true God, so too does our world hold out many potential objects of worship that would take us away from Christ’s presence in the Eucharist. Those things could be sins that would keep us from being able to receive the Eucharist worthily, or maybe distractions that keep us from attending Mass every Sunday, or from really devoting our hearts to Him while we are here.
Here in the Eucharist we have all that we truly need. All of the dead works of sin that would keep us from receiving the Body and Blood of the Lord worthily pale in comparison to the great and inestimable gift that is offered to us in Holy Communion. Ratifying our covenant with the Lord by keeping His law, we are sprinkled with the blood of the true Lamb, Jesus Christ, as we offer ourselves in union with His sacrifice.
The Rev. Royce V. Gregerson
Parish Church of St. John the Apostle and Evangelist
Corpus Christi, A.D. MMXVIII