Corpus Christi: The blood of the new covenant

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Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ, Year B:
June 10, 2012

Exod 24:3-8; Ps 116; Heb 9:11-15; Mark 14:12-16, 22-26

Introduction
Today we celebrate the feast of Corpus Christi: the feast of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ. Traditionally, it comes this past Thursday—exactly 9 weeks after Holy Thursday, when Christ first instituted the Eucharist. From then on, in that sacrament—in the Mass—our Lord changes bread and wine into his own Body and Blood, to make present his one perfect sacrifice; to nourish the faithful with himself; and to make himself present to us always, as we journey through life.

One traditional practice of Corpus Christi is the Eucharistic procession. As Pope John Paul II urged eight years ago, “our faith” in our Lord who gives himself to us in this way “needs to be everywhere proclaimed, especially in our streets and homes, as an expression of our grateful love and as an inexhaustible source of blessings.” At the conclusion of this Mass we will have a short Eucharistic procession, and each of you is invited to join in following behind our Lord, present in the Blessed Sacrament, as we process out the front doors, go left, turn around in front of Bartholomew House, and return inside the church here, where we will conclude with Benediction.

Homily
“Where is my guest room?” is what our Lord Jesus directed the disciples to ask the master of the house that they found. “Where is my guest room where I may eat the Passover with my disciples?” For this most important event, when he would wash the disciples’ feet, and would institute the Eucharist and the priesthood, and would feed them with his own Body and Blood, and would join that ritual meal together with his passion and death on the cross—our Lord wanted to be welcomed as a guest.

And what a fitting connection to the emphasis on the New Covenant that we hear in our readings on this particular Corpus Christi.

What is a “covenant”? We can begin by saying it is a kind of contract: two parties agreeing on what they are going to do or not do for each other, in a sort of exchange. Even in our legal system, a “covenant” suggests something more serious or enduring than your average contract. But when we turn to the Scriptures, we find that a covenant goes even further: that it establishes an ongoing relationship between the parties, often forging something like a family tie between them.

And we can trace the many covenants made by the Lord through the Scriptures: including covenants with Adam, with Noah, with Abraham, Moses, David, and finally the New Covenant established by our Lord Jesus Christ. Who he is making the covenant with keeps growing larger, eventually seeking to encompass the whole world within his Church; and the kind of relationship he is establishing keeps growing closer.

In our first reading, we hear about the ratification of his covenant with Moses and the People of Israel. On the Lord’s side, he has rescued them from Egypt, and he will protect and provide for them. On the People’s side, as they say, “All that the Lord has said, we will heed and do.” He expects of them faithful, exclusive worship, not going after false gods. And he expects them to be like him: just, as he is just; merciful, as he is merciful; and so on.

And we see that there is a blood ritual that is central to this. The blood of young bulls is poured out, half upon the altar, in sacrifice to the Lord; and the other half is sprinkled upon the people. Why was that? Why this use of blood?

  • First, it certainly signals that something deliberate and serious is going on, not just casual.
  • It may symbolize the curses connected to not fulfilling the covenant: as in, if I do not live up to my agreement, may this happen to me.
  • It serves to purify and cleanse, as we hear in the second reading.
  • It also could be used to consecrate to special, holy service, as it was used to consecrate their priests and their altars (Exod 29:20-21; Lev 8:23-24, 30; Ezek 43:20).
  • And it was a sort of way of the People sharing a meal with the Lord—as in some sacrifices some parts of the animal were burnt up, while other parts are cooked and eaten by those making the sacrifice—a sort of shared meal. But the blood, the life, was never drunk—because the blood belonged completely to the Lord. So this sprinkling of the blood upon the People is the closest they could come.

But I think this use of blood in the first reading still remains a little mysterious. After all, it is the blood of an animal that, in and of itself, has nothing to do with the covenant. And yet its blood is given this central role.

This, then, was the solemn making of the covenant. And how did they do at living it out? The Lord was completely faithful; the People, not so much. Again and again the prophets called them back to fidelity to the covenant. And year after year, on the Day of Atonement, the High Priest would, as it were, patch up and renew the covenant. He would again take blood—of bulls and of goats—and he would sprinkle the Ark of the Covenant—which contained the tablets of the covenant and the jar of manna and the staff of Aaron, all tokens of the covenant—and also the altar.

And the Lord began to tell the People that a new covenant was coming—stronger, deeper than the one made at Mount Sinai. Through the prophet Ezekiel (36:26), he promised a new heart and a new spirit; through Joel (3:1-2), that he would pour out his spirit upon all mankind; through Jeremiah (31:31-34), that he would write his law upon their hearts, and that all would know him.

That new covenant was made by our Lord Jesus Christ—and now, at last, the importance of the blood becomes clear.

  • For he is not some random animal with no connection to the covenant. He is the mediator of the new covenant, the perfect mediator between God and man, as he is both true God and true man himself, knowing our weaknesses, and knowing the Father.
  • He has fulfilled the old covenant perfectly in his life, and in his death has made satisfaction for all the transgressions under the first covenant.
  • And his blood is not just sprinkled upon us, but he gives it to us to drink. For this is not the blood of an animal, but the very life of the God-man, freely given by him so that we might share in his divine life.

As St. Peter writes (1 Pet 1:18-19), it is with the precious blood of Christ that you have been ransomed from your futile conduct. As St. Paul writes (1 Cor 6:11), you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified. What our Lord offers on his side of this new covenant is amazing: rebirth; union with him; adoption into his sonship; the Holy Spirit dwelling within us; communion with the Father. Real change, real healing, real forgiveness, real transformation. By the sacrifice of his own body, he has made us his Mystical Body the Church; by pouring out his own blood, he has made us participants, sharers, in his divine life.

And our part of the new covenant? To receive that gift; to respond; to cooperate. So that, like St. Paul, we may say, “the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” (Gal 2:20) And sometimes that can be the hardest thing of all: to empty our hands and receive.

“Where is my guest room?” our Lord asks. Who will receive him, making room for him in their very heart? Our Lord has made this new and eternal covenant in his own Blood, which he makes present at this and every Mass: to nourish, to cleanse, to consecrate, to share his life. May we renew our acceptance of his covenant this day, truly receiving him, welcoming him to the guest room he seeks—our hearts.

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