This Sunday the Church in the United States celebrates the Feast of the Body and Blood of Christ. In most of the rest of the world this feast day was celebrated on the previous Thursday. In many European countries it was a national holiday. Because of its importance however, the American church transfers it to the following Sunday when it can get the attention it deserves. The readings call us to consider the meaning of the Holy Eucharist in the life of the Church and in our own personal lives. Mark’s Gospel calls us to ponder the reality of Christ’s presence in the Eucharist. Hebrews calls us to reflect on the sacrifice of Jesus as the foundation of the New Covenant while the first reading looks at the formal establishment of the Old Covenant. Each of us must consider our own relationship to Jesus in the Holy Eucharist. With what faith do I approach our Eucharistic Lord and to what extent am I truly aware of the presence of Our Lord as I receive Him?
First Reading: Exodus 24:3-8
3 When Moses came to the people and related all the words and ordinances of the LORD, they all answered with one voice, “We will do everything that the LORD has told us.” 4 Moses then wrote down all the words of the LORD and, rising early the next day, he erected at the foot of the mountain an altar and twelve pillars for the twelve tribes of Israel. 5 Then, having sent certain young men of the Israelites to offer holocausts and sacrifice young bulls as peace offerings to the LORD, 6 Moses took half of the blood and put it in large bowls; the other half he splashed on the altar. 7 Taking the book of the covenant, he read it aloud to the people, who answered, “All that the LORD has said, we will heed and do.” 8 Then he took the blood and sprinkled it on the people, saying, “This is the blood of the covenant which the LORD has made with you in accordance with all these words of his.”
NOTES on First Reading:
* 24:3-8 Moses reports the “words” (Ten Commandments) and “ordinances” (Covenant Code) of God to the people who immediately assent to the covenant.
* 24:4 A solemn ritual is prepared to mark the beginning of the new relationship with Yahweh. Pillars were stone shafts or slabs, erected as symbols of the fact that each of the twelve tribes had entered into this covenant with God. they were not idolatrous as the ones in Exodus 23:24, even though the same Hebrew word is used in both passages. The building of such monuments to mark a significant event was common in the ancient world.
* 24:6-8 The altar is a symbol of God. The people and God are joined by being sprinkled with the blood of the same victim. Thus the covenant is ratified in blood as the new covenant would later be in the blood of Christ.
Second Reading: Hebrews 9:11-15
11 But when Christ came as high priest of the good things that have come to be, passing through the greater and more perfect tabernacle not made by hands, that is, not belonging to this creation, 12 he entered once for all into the sanctuary, not with the blood of goats and calves but with his own blood, thus obtaining eternal redemption. 13 For 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 is cleansed, 14 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.
15 For this reason he is mediator of a new covenant: since a death has taken place for deliverance from transgressions under the first covenant, those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance.
NOTES on Second Reading:
* 9:11-15 Much is said of the blood of Jesus and of the sacrifice of Jesus in the New Testament. In order to make any sense of the way in which the early church spoke of the blood and the sacrifice of Jesus it is necessary to have some understanding of the sacrificial system of Israel.
We need to have several points clearly in mind:
The concept of the sacrifice as food for the deity was common in Mesopotamian and other religions but was rejected by Israel (Ps 50:12, 13; Dt 32:38; Judges 6:18-22; 13:15-20). The sacrifice was a gift to God. It was burned in order to make the gift irrevocable and to place it in the realm of the spiritual.
Atonement offerings, which the writer of Hebrews has in mind, were offered to make expiation for offenses of the people, leaders of the people or the priests. If expiation was being made for the priests and all the people, some of the blood was sprinkled seven times toward the veil in the Holy Place and some was rubbed on the horns of the Altar of Incense in the Holy Place. The rest of the blood was poured out at the base of the Altar of Holocaust. If it is done for individuals or for the leader of the people the rite was the same except for the sprinkling toward the veil. The fat of the animal was then burned on the altar and the rest of the animal was given to the priests if it was for the leader or an individual. If it was for the priests or for the people the remainder of the animal was burned in the remains of the ashes outside the sanctuary. The most complete set of rules for sacrifice are found in Lev chapters 1-7. These expiation sacrifices were intended to reestablish a communion with God that had been interrupted by sin. Although many pagan religions of the neighboring lands had rites intended to placate their angry gods, Israel never shared that view of sacrifice. In Israel, the expiation sacrifices were not aimed at God with the intent of satisfying His justice or anger. Nor were the animals killed as substitutes for the death of the sinner despite what has been written by many commentators and preachers through the years. Rather, the sacrifices were intended to remove the barrier between God and His people that had been erected by sin. The power of the expiation sacrifice was connected to the use of the blood. While breath was considered the principle or life-source, blood was seen as the seat of life. Since only God had the absolute power of life and death, the blood of the sacrificial animal was sacred to Yahweh and belonged to Him alone. This made blood sacred. The blood was poured out at the base of the altar as an avowal of God’s absolute dominion over life. Because it was sacred and contained life, blood could expiate or purify. Blood was sprinkled toward the veil and rubbed on the horns of the altar in order to banish the impurity that had established a barrier between God and His people. These places and things were where God met His people. They were cleansed of the sin that had broken the relationship by the sacred blood containing life. The life in the sacred blood restored the relationship with God and made it possible for the sinner to once more approach God. This was the model that the earliest Christians, who were all Jews, used to help them understand the meaning of the death of Jesus. This was the context in which the vocabulary of Christianity concerning the cross was developed and it was this context that the writer of Hebrews had in mind when he wrote of the heavenly tabernacle. Hebrews Chapter 9 used the Jewish rites of the Day of Atonement as a type for the sacrifice of Jesus.
* 9:11-12 Much ink has been spent in scholarly argument about this passage. These verses are usually interpreted as meaning that Christ, being the high priest of the spiritual blessings foreshadowed in the Old Testament sanctuary, has actually entered the true sanctuary of heaven that is not of human making and has there performed the tasks of the high priest.
This text has also been taken by some to refer to Jesus’ risen body which is the tabernacle rebuilt in three days not by men but by God.
The words translated as “The good things that have come to be” actually read “the good things to come” in the majority of later manuscripts. Hebrews 10:1, where it is translated as “to come,” uses the same Greek form.
* 9:12 Just as the high priest had access to the Holy of Holies because of the blood of the sacrificial victim that he brought with him so Jesus enters the true Holy of Holies with His own blood. His own blood, having so much more value, achieved eternal redemption.
* 9:13 A heifer’s ashes refers to the ashes from a red heifer that had been burned and were mixed with water. The mixture was used for the cleansing of those who had become ritually defiled by touching a corpse (Numbers 19:9,14-21).
* 9:14 There is a contrast here between death and life. The emphasis is on life without end (eternal). Jesus’ priesthood is never-ending.
* 9:15 Jesus’ death brought about deliverance from transgressions committed under the Old Covenant, which the Mosaic sacrifices were incapable of removing. Until they were removed, the eternal inheritance promised by God could not be obtained. Jesus’ role as mediator of the New Covenant is based upon his sacrificial death (See Hebrews 8:6). The inheritance, like the sacrifice that won it, is eternal.
Gospel Reading: Mark 14: 12-16, 22-26
12 On the first day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread, when they sacrificed the Passover lamb, his disciples said to him, “Where do you want us to go and prepare for you to eat the Passover?” 13 He sent two of his disciples and said to them, “Go into the city and a man will meet you, carrying a jar of water. Follow him. 14 Wherever he enters, say to the master of the house, ‘The Teacher says, “Where is my guest room where I may eat the Passover with my disciples?”‘ 15 Then he will show you a large upper room furnished and ready. Make the preparations for us there.” 16 The disciples then went off, entered the city, and found it just as he had told them; and they prepared the Passover.
[17 When it was evening, he came with the Twelve. 18 And as they reclined at table and were eating, Jesus said, “Amen, I say to you, one of you will betray me, one who is eating with me.” 19 They began to be distressed and to say to him, one by one, “Surely it is not I?” 20 He said to them, “One of the Twelve, the one who dips with me into the dish. 21 For the Son of Man indeed goes, as it is written of him, but woe to that man by whom the Son of Man is betrayed. It would be better for that man if he had never been born.”]
22 While they were eating, he took bread, said the blessing, broke it, and gave it to them, and said, “Take it; this is my body.” 23 Then he took a cup, gave thanks, and gave it to them, and they all drank from it. 24 He said to them, “This is my blood of the covenant, which will be shed for many. 25 Amen, I say to you, I shall not drink again the fruit of the vine until the day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God.” 26 Then, after singing a hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives.
NOTES on Gospel:
* The portion of the text shown in brackets above is not included in the reading but was included here only for completeness.
* 14:12 See Exod 12: 3-20 for the laws concerning the Passover derived from the first Passover. Also derived from this incident are the rules for the first-born which are given in Exod 12:3-20. Numbers 9: 1-14 gives an account of the second Passover.
* 14:13 This was an odd thing to see. In the mid-eastern culture of the time, men usually carried water skins not water jars. Women carried water jars on their heads.
* 14:16 Some have suggested that the text’s lack of an expression of amazement on the part of the disciples may indicate a prearrangement that was known to them. This may be correct but it could also be a case of reading too much into what is not there.
* 14:17-18 Jesus chooses to be remembered by/with a meal. The Passover meal (Seder) made the past present to those who celebrated it in the present in order to inspire and strengthen them to deal with the future. Jesus’ meal does the same thing.
* 14:18 Jesus quotes Psalm 41: 10 (verse 9 in some translations).
* 14:20 That the traitor is one of the twelve emphasizes the enormity of the treachery.
* 14:21 God’s plan does not excuse us of our responsibility for what we do.
* 14:22-24 The parallels for this event are found in Matt 26:26-29 and Luke 22:15-20. John does not relate the institution of the Eucharist at the Last Supper. The parallel in John is found in John 6:48- 58 (especially 6:51-58). The earliest written description of the Last Supper is found in 1 Cor 11:23-25. Blessing, breaking and giving the bread is part of the Passover Seder ritual.
The Greek word used for body at the end of verse 22 is “swma or soma” meaning body and carries the sense of the whole person.
The institution of the Holy Eucharist is placed in the context of the Jewish Passover sacrifice and the Passion and Death of Jesus which is to begin almost immediately afterwards. By instituting the Holy Eucharist at a Seder Supper the Lord establishes the roots of the sacrament in the central element of celebration and remembrance of the Old Covenant. By doing it on the night of His betrayal He establishes a very strong connection to the paschal events of Holy Week. Thus Jesus transforms a ritual meal which was the central religious celebration of the Old Covenant into a ritual meal that is the central celebration of the New Covenant. Every time the Holy Eucharist is celebrated both the Exodus events and the death, resurrection and exaltation of Christ are made present and real to us so that the grace of God’s presence in those events is available to us to strengthen and enable us in the present to move forward into the future. The Council of Trent (October 11, 1551, in “The Real Presence of our Lord Jesus Christ in the Most Holy Sacrament of the Eucharist,” chapter 1) said concerning Mt 26:26 ff; Mk 14:22; Lk 22:19 ff; and 1 Cor 11:23 ff that … in the nourishing sacrament of the Holy Eucharist after the consecration of the bread and wine our Lord Jesus Christ, true God and man, is truly, really, and substantially [canon 1] contained under the species of those sensible things. For these things are not mutually contradictory, that our Saviour Himself is always seated at the right hand of the Father in heaven according to the natural mode of existing, and yet that in many other places sacramentally He is present to us in His own substance by that manner of existence which, although we can scarcely express it in words, yet we can, however, by our understanding illuminated by faith, conceive to be possible to God, and which we ought most steadfastly to believe.”
* 14:24 The language used here comes from Exod 24:8; Zech 9:11; and Jer 31:31.
The word translated as many actually may be better translated as “multitude” or “all.”
* 14:25 This statement is an act of trust and faith in the coming of the kingdom. This statement also places the Last Supper and the Eucharist in the context of the Messianic or eschatological banquet.
* 14:26 The hymn spoken of here is the great Hallel which is a long praise of God which includes Psalms 113 through 118.</font