Sealing the Covenant with Sacrificial Blood

I’m not sure whether we are sneaking up to Holy Week or it is thundering toward us.  In either case, many of us will hear the reading of the passion narrative on Palm Sunday.  In it is one very brief sentence from which we take a significant part of our understanding of Holy Communion: “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.”  At least that’s Luke’s version. 
I imagine that the disciples had an almost instantaneous, instinctive grasp of what Jesus meant because they were familiar with scripture’s promise of a new covenant and the importance of sealing it with a blood sacrifice.  That is not to say that they would have been able to formulate a sophisticated theological argument, but only that, in the context of their religious lives and beliefs, it made perfect sense. 
That is not true for most contemporary Christians.  They hear it, or something like it, every time Holy Communion is celebrated.  Some believe it.  Others accept it without much thought.  Others never pay the slightest bit of attention, and still others reject it as barbaric.  Almost none of them connect it with the promise in Jeremiah 31 of a new covenant, nor to the explanation in Leviticus 17 that the (God given) life of the flesh is in the blood, nor, and this is important, to the description in Exodus 24 of the sealing of God’s covenant with the Israelites by sprinkling sacrificial blood on them.
The disciples knew all of that.  The symbolism of the post dinner cup of wine would have been very clear.  If Jesus really is who he says he is, then the life of the flesh that flows within him is not simply God given but God’s actual presence in a way that cannot be replicated in any other creature.  If the sprinkling of sacrificial blood on the people of Israel sealed their covenant with God, how much more would the holy blood of Christ seal the new covenant, especially when it is not sprinkled on but taken in.  No longer was God’s seal on them, it was in them.   They would not fully understand that for days, and perhaps years, to come, but the significance of it would become an essential piece of what it meant to be a Christian. 
No doubt someone will observe that the wine is not sacrificial blood, it’s just wine, and besides, Jesus had not yet been crucified when he uttered those words.  My only response is to cite what was once attributed to Queen Elizabeth I:
“Twas God the Word that spake it,
He took the Bread and brake it:
And what the Word did make it,
That I believe and take it.”
That aside, I believe that we who are called to teach must be more diligent in helping today’s followers of Christ understand these kinds of connections because, without them, we loose too much of what is essential.  Finally, and for what it’s worth, I have tried to teach these connections for many years with only marginal success.

7 thoughts on “Sealing the Covenant with Sacrificial Blood”

  1. Today's post is, indeed, important for me, Steve, since as I suspect you already know, my stumbling block with Christianity (yes, the skandala) is over what has been done with \”blood atonement.\” So let me respond to \”This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.\” in terms of yesterday's comment on the generosities of God's love and (Buddhist) compassion.God's love is sheer overflow, the outpouring gush. The original gesture here, in the West at least, is pouring a libation: not as a quid pro quo, but in gratuitous celebration.What needed to be made new here was the temptation to turn gratuitous celebration into an exchange relation, a quid pro quo. The worst version of this tempation is blood for sins.So why bring in blood at all? Why take that worst of all risks (as the sordid history of religious warfare makes all too clear)?––Because Spirit is Incarnate, and its incarnation is perpetually renewable right here and right now. Make the act of incarnate renewal sacramental. Make that sacrament the foundation of the life of the body of those who take up such renewal day by day. Have all that as concrete as the blood of life transfigured. ––Yes. But, again, at what risk? Or is the point that this particular risk must be run? That Incarnation itself demands it? That there is no other answer than celebrating the transubstantiation of blood?And here I would be, as I said yesterday, very interested in learning from an exchange of generosities between Jesus and the Dali Lama.

  2. Tom,Well said. I recall the parishioner who constantly assaulted me with the citation from Hebres that without blood there is no forgiveness of sins. Her's was the God whose wrath could only be asuaged by a bloody sacrifice. I doubt if she ever even heard of Anselm, but there is a sense that the Western Church has been stuck with and often distorted him for 900 years. My (attempted) point is that unless we are able to make the connections between the Last Supper and O.T. citations, and are able to suspend our own cultural biases, we miss essential elements of the meaning of Jesus' words and actions, which are not in response to a wrathful God's need for satisfaction, but a pouring out of God's grace, yet in words and actions that make it sensible to the people of that day. If we can understand that sensibility from their point of view, then we are in a position to say that satisfying God's wrath has nothing to do with what is going on.We will be wading into the blood sacrifice texts in Hebrews tonight and I'll see if anything I might say will be of value to those present.

  3. Good luck CP.I have found that in many groups, blood is all important this time of year. The bloodier the corpus the better, sighThat line of thought says more than I want to hear.

  4. I understand, Steve, that you're interested in a kind of translation: part of the evident power of the last supper is its uncanny ordinariness: nothing more common than \”our daily bread,\” nothing more commonly celebratory than imbibing wine; and then of course: all that blood; they were literally close to the gush offered up to this or that god upon slitting an animals throat. So, yes, I have some feel for the power of transfiguring the bread, the wine, and that bloody gush into the outpouring of gratuitous love. But Mel Gibson showed not all that long ago just how powerfully tempting indulging a passion for all that blood still is.It's hard to move a hard heart, so people crave bloody miracles in compensation. But Jesus in Galilee appears decidedly uninterested in such compensations, indeed in much any kind of exchange. Nothing is less bloody-minded than turning the other cheek. Which he did on the cross. Which somehow gets obscured on Good Friday in favor of the bloody miracle. So let's say that I strongly suspect that before they parted ways, Jesus and the Dali Lama would share a common interest in the generosity at work in turning the other cheek even, or especially, on the cross. ––How does that sense of what it means to bear the cross become uncannily ordinary, a day by day practice?

  5. Tom and Bru,It's not just Mel Gibson, although he is the most graphic. We have generations of theologians obsessed with God's demand for a bloody sacrifice. To my mind it does a viiolent disservice to Scripture. As for the mutual outpouring of generosity between Jesus and the Dali Lama, and as a Christian, I suspect that the DL would find himself submerged in a pouring out of generosity that he could not hope to reciprocate, but, since this is not about exchange, would simply rejoice in. He would do what the Pharisee in Luke's story of the woman who was a sinner could not do. Moreover, I fully expect that that is exactly what will or has happened.CPPS You two might enjoy getting to know each other. You have much in common.

  6. I think you're right, Steve, to bring out that reciprocity is a kind of exchange in contrast to what it would mean to \”simply rejoice in\” the outpouring of gratuitous generosity. Rejoicing in generosity would allow each to go their separate ways, learning from the difference, and not insisting on reciprocity. My resistance to \”Sealing the Covenant with Sacrificial Blood,\” has to do with the sense of final closure that (inevitably?) comes with sealing-with-blood. As if some kind of final \”deal\” is sealed-with-blood and thereby can be trusted, thereby is worthy of faith.I find myself asking, well, myself: so why do I insist on reciprocity where it's just a matter of simply rejoicing in the generosity that is given? Just given. —Answer: lack of faith. At least so far….

  7. CP, Tom, Bruno – Thank you for wading in here and splashing around the, uh, conversation. There are plenty of us out here who are happy to just exercise our faith without any reason. I don't know if that's the good or the bad news. I believe I might think more about \”turning the other cheek\” on the Good Friday coming up than the outrageously painful method of killing the Son of God and Man.

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