Saint Cecilia Catholic Community, Palm Springs, CA
June 03, 2018 – 10:30 AM
Exodus 24:3-8 Psalm 116:12-13;5-18
Hebrews 9:11-15 Mark 14:12-16;22-26
+ In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, AMEN.
Today is the feast of Corpus Christi, a Latin expression that means, “Body of Christ.” In many churches, the people will hear homilies on Eucharistic adoration, the image of the Church as the Body of Christ, and lots of music about identifying bread with Christ’s Body. We will be doing some of that, too. In fact, today’s Mass will include “One Bread, One Body,” and finish with a rousing rendition of, “I am the Bread of Life,” but this morning I’m going to talk specifically about the blood of Jesus. After all, the Church calendar denominates today as “The Solemnity of the Body and Blood of Christ,” so today we’re going to give the Blood of Jesus some semblance of equal time, which is particularly appropriate, considering that we commemorate the shedding of the blood of Jesus every time we celebrate Mass.
We often think of our blood as defining who we are. We think of ourselves in terms of our bloodlines. In Judaism, one is Jewish if one has a Jewish mother. A matrilineal system of kinship makes infinite sense: the blood that runs through a child’s veins in the womb comes from her or his mother. Applying that idea to myself, I am Polish. My mother was Polish, born of a Polish mother. Sharon, however, is Russian. She was born in New Jersey to a Russian mother who was born of a Russian mother. Poles and Russians are both Slavic people; that’s perhaps why Sharon and I get along so well. It’s also perhaps why we both have at least a small amount of musical talent. That Slavs are musically inclined is amply demonstrated by the lives of Poles like Frédéric Chopin and Ignacy Paderewski, and Russians Sergei Rachmaninoff and Peter Tchaikovsky, and of course,. Natalya’s fabulous piano-playing here every Sunday. Natalya, like Sharon, is Russian.
Just as the blood of our mothers gave us life, so too did Mary, from whom Jesus derived His blood. We as a church hold that Jesus is fully divine and fully human. Mary is essential to the incarnation, because She gave Jesus His human nature. That Jesus could bleed demonstrates that Jesus shared a common humanity with us. Just as we bleed, Jesus did, too.
But to truly understand Jesus, we must understand His Jewish background. Jesus was not a Christian. He was born a Jew, lived as a Jew, prayed as Jew, and died a Jew. For Jesus, the scriptures were the Old Testament, that compilation of forty-six books that comprises more of the Bible than do the twenty-seven books of the New Testament.
In the Old Testament, blood has significant theological meaning. The Passover celebration remembers the blood on the doorposts of houses of the Hebrew people in Egypt and their deliverance in the Exodus through the Red Sea. Blood can also symbolize woes and terrors. Traditionally, however, blood is associated by Jews with death and sacrifice. You may recall the story of Cain murdering his brother Abel. You may recall that they were arguing over what kind of sacrifice is most pleasing to God, perhaps the first recorded “worship war” in Judeo-Christian history, and like those of those resulting from the Protestant rebellion of the 16th Century, it resulted in the loss of human life. When God confronted Abel about it, Abel’s blood cried out to God from the ground, prompting God to ask Cain where Abel was and to remind him that he was his brother’s keeper.
Israelite worship is depicted in Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers, derived from what scholars called the P, or “priestly source” that originated after the Jews returned from the Babylonian Exile. A most prominent feature of ancient Jewish worship is animal sacrifice, which was quite typical of other religions of the tribes in the area where the Jews were situated. Like those other tribes, the Jews were known for bloody animal sacrifices wherein animals were slaughtered and burned on and altar, first in the moveable tabernacle of the Jewish tribes wandering in the desert after the Exodus from Egypt, and then in the Temple at Jerusalem. The Jews of that era had very specific regulations for animal sacrifices, described in considerable detail in the books of Exodus and Leviticus. The most important part of any animal sacrifice, however, was the disposal of the blood at the altar. Whether dashed against its sides, or smeared on its horns, this ritual act made the sacrifice valid; in fact, it distinguished sacrifice from mere slaughter.
Those sacrifices were offered as gifts to God. Most common was the so-called “burnt offering”, where entire animals were consumed by fire attempting to win God’s favor. And then there was also a so-called “sin offering”, wherein animals were sacrificed to appease God’s anger at human sin.
Blood can symbolize life rather than death, and can be regarded as an agent of purification rather than defilement. We can see the shedding of blood by Jesus as a source of life rather than death, because in Judaism, blood represents life itself. That when we are without blood we are dead is an undisputed biological fact. However, Jews believed people were not supposed to drink blood. That is why many of the Jews to whom Jesus preached could not stomach His sayings in the Bread of Life discourses in the Gospel of John, wherein Jesus said, “whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood will have eternal life.” Jews today who observe Kosher dietary restrictions that arose from the Book of Leviticus insist on meat being prepared such that the blood be drained from the animal after slaughter before it is butchered for human consumption. The theory is that no living creature can eat life itself because all the lives belong to God as does human life.
The author of our second reading from Hebrews, whose identity is unknown, contrasts the sacrifices of the Jewish high priest on the Day of Atonement with the sacrifice of Christ on Good Friday. In Judaism, the Day of Atonement, known as Yom Kippur, was anciently celebrated with the sacrifice of a bull and a goat. The bull would be killed and its blood spattered on the Ark of the Covenant (that’s the place in a Jewish house of worship where the Torah is stored), as a sin offering for the sins of the priest, while a goat was sacrificed and its blood spattered on the Ark for the sins of the people, whatever they may have been. (I guess they used a bull for the clergy because they’re more sinful!) In any event, however, the sacrifice of the blood of Jesus was different. His sacrifice happened in God’s heavenly tabernacle and involved His own precious blood, rather than animal blood.
The blood of Jesus as purifier reminds me of a prayer in the traditional Anglican liturgy that reads in part “…that our bodies may be made clean by His body [that is, the body of Jesus], and our souls washed through His most precious blood…” When I heard this prayer Sunday after Sunday as a little boy, I wondered if there was some bodily organ inside ourselves called the soul, hypothesizing that what I drank from the chalice would somehow find its way there and clean it. As I matured, however, I learned that the author of the prayer intended it to be allegorical, not literal.
The underlying message is that when we receive the sacrament of the Eucharist, it doesn’t just pass through us like common food. Holy Communion is beyond ordinary bread and wine. As the Real Physical Presence of Jesus within us, it operates on a mysterious, primordial level. Holy Communion does something to us. That’s why, since I was a little kid, I have always made it my business, come what may, to get myself to Holy Communion every week, and will continue to do so. I never take any vacation that does not include going to Mass at least once a week. As St. Theresa of Avila tells us, “There is no better help to perfection than frequent Communion.” Let us also not forget Venerable Father John of Avila, who said: “Whoever deters souls from frequent Communion does the work of the devil. Yes; for the devil has a great horror of this sacrament, from which souls derive immense strength to advance in divine love.”
Get that. The sacrament of the Eucharist gives us strength to advance in divine love. There, Father John hits the nail on the head. Christianity is a religion based on love, a love that begins with God. When we receive Holy Communion, we receive God’s grace, that is, another way of saying, we receive God’s love; therefore, it’s no surprise that Vatican Two declared the Eucharist to be, “the source and summit of Christian life.”
Holy Communion focuses our minds on God, and when our minds are truly and exclusively on God, the Devil cannot invade our conscience and lead us away into the path of evil. Holy Communion is just that, communion, a sharing of the Body and Blood of Christ. That is why we drink from a common cup rather than individual cups. I know some churches do use individual cups, but my opinion is that such a custom emphatically denies the solidarity of communion between brothers and sisters in Christ gathered around the Altar of God. But even more destructive of that solidarity is excluding people from communion, for whatever reason, which I regard as a total derogation of a person as a member of God’s family, a family based on God’s love freely offered to all. We as a church must offer communion made holy by God as a sign of human solidarity, if we are to credibly preach solidarity to the world beyond our walls. When we allow a crack in that solidarity, we give the devil an opening to sneak into us and do his mischief of dividing us against each other.
It is God’s love that made us what we are, and keeps us going. God’s love for humanity knows no boundaries. God’s love draws us all together as one family. Just as each individual person is created in God’s image as God’s beloved children, so too must human communities reflect God’s image.
The red blood running through our veins and arteries, the same blood that ran through the Body of Jesus, unites us in solidarity as one family of God. Yet so many forces in our world want to divide humanity into opposing camps in competition with each other for survival, natives versus immigrants, majority race versus minority races, taxpayers versus transfer payment recipients, and on and on. We saw that in the 2016 elections, as those controlling political advertising exploited those rivalries for their own gains. Public policy based on what will work most compassionately and efficiently, based on objective facts and neutral scientific criteria, was replaced by policy viewed through ideological lenses. The common blood that binds humanity to one another in solidarity was nowhere mentioned by either liberal or conservative politicians. The result is policies that benefit individuals and groups rather than the common good.
Until we replace competition with cooperation, all, not just a few, individuals will not truly be able to better their lot in life. Pope Paul the Sixth aptly crystalized the problem when he proclaimed, in his encyclical, Populorum Progressio, when he declared, “Development of the individual necessarily entails a joint effort for the development of the human race as a whole.” The language of that encyclical recognized human interdependence and its relation to the common good. Human rights and human solidarity are equally dependent on each other as mutual necessities.
Joint efforts require cooperation, not rivalries, but what has happened is that competitive individualism has been augmented with competition between rival groups, nation against nation, political party against political party, and so on, with the recognition of our common humanity as people created in God’s image as God’s children nowhere to be found. Whether we are talking about individual or group rights, the principle is the same: no one has any rights unless they are willing to accept duties of reciprocity and cooperation. Equality and mutuality are the cornerstones of a truly humane world grounded in solidarity arising from the recognition of basic human rights for all as the basics of human dignity: food, clean air and water, shelter, medical care, intimacy, and education.
Yes, I am proud of my Polish blood, but I am even prouder of my humanity, as a person created in God’s image, who shares human blood with every other person on the planet, the same blood as Jesus. As a priest, I serve not only Saint Cecilia’s as its shepherd, but the entire people of God. So too, must all of you also in your respective ministries, lay or ordained. You are not a better person than others because you are white, because you are educated, because you are wealthy, or because you are American. The same red blood runs through your veins as that of all of humanity. As difficult as that might be for you to accept, it is the truth.
I will close with some words from Pope Francis. I don’t agree with him on everything…I wish I could change his mind on ordaining women and same sex marriage…but he offers the entire world much of value. In July, 2013, in Rio De Janeiro, he declared,
“Everybody, according to his or her particular opportunities and responsibilities, should be able to make a personal contribution to putting an end to so many social injustices. The culture of selfishness and individualism that often prevails in our society is not, I repeat, not what builds up and leads to a more habitable world: rather, it is the culture of solidarity that does so; the culture of solidarity means seeing others not as rivals or statistics, but brothers and sisters. And we are all brothers and sisters!\” AMEN.