Several years ago I had the opportunity to see a production of Shakespeare’s Macbeth that was co-directed by Teller of the Penn and Teller magic duo. Teller used a number of magician’s tricks to enhance the performance; he also used quite a lot of stage blood.
Macbeth is a violent story of political intrigue, and the players didn’t miss an opportunity to use stage blood liberally in the fight scenes. By the time the play concluded there was stage blood everywhere, including on some of the audience members. I hope the cleaning crew was paid for their efforts; their efforts would have been herculean.
I thought of that play when I read the Scriptures for this Sunday; there is quite a lot of blood being shed and spread around. In the first reading Moses took the blood of a large number of animals that had been sacrificed by his assistants. He poured half of the blood on an altar and the other half on the assembly of the people. (Exodus 24:6-9)
It must have been quite a scene: blood covering everyone and everything. Today, an event like that would get the attention of a wide variety of people from the Police Department to PETA. At the time, it was intended to get the attention of only two parties: God and the People.
Blood was used in religious sacrifices because of the finality of offering an animal’s life. Once an animal’s blood was spilled, there was no going back. The sacrifice of animals was final, in this sense, and it was also irrevocable. For this reason Moses used a blood sacrifice to seal the covenant between God and God’s People. The People’s acceptance of the Ten Commandments as the terms of the Covenant was intended to be irrevocable, a covenant without end.
Moses (and God), wanted to be certain that the People understood: in this Covenant, their fate was sealed; they belonged to God, and God belonged to them. God would be faithful to God’s part of the Covenant, because to do otherwise would bring shame on God’s Name. In a like manner, the People were now obliged to be faithful to God, because to fail to do so would bring shame and condemnation on them. This Covenant was not a casual relationship. This blood was not a mere token. It was an irrevocable vow of fidelity.
These readings, and all the blood contained therein, were chosen because of how they speak to us about the Eucharist. Just as the Covenant with Moses was irrevocable, so the New Covenant in Jesus’ death is an irrevocable vow. Jesus’ death on the Cross was not a token expression of God’s love for us; rather, it was the full gift of God’s love, poured out in Jesus’ death, in his own blood.
The Didache, a Christian document from the late first or early second century, says, “Do not stretch forth your hands in order to receive but draw them back when it’s time to give.” (4) This was instruction about being generous toward one’s fellow believers, but it is applicable also to one’s relationship with God. In a short time, each of us will stretch out our hands to receive the Sacrament of our Lord’s Body and Blood. If we do so only with the intention of receiving, we have failed to experience communion with the Risen Lord. Our participation in Holy Communion is truly what the words “Holy Communion” imply when we both receive and give. We give to God our pledge of fidelity; we give to God our promise to love one another, and we give to God our vow to forgive those who sin against us.
In today’s second reading the author of the Letter to the Hebrews points out that if, in ancient times, the blood of sacrificial animals signified an irrevocable promise between God and God’s People, then in our own time the blood of Jesus signifies an even greater promise of fidelity and forgiveness. (Hebrews 9:13-14) We are recipients of that final and irrevocable promise from God when we give to God our promise of faithfulness.
There is no going back when we come forward to receive the Body and Blood of the Lord. When we receive the Eucharist we make an irrevocable vow before God and one another that we will be faithful to God, loving toward our neighbor and forgiving toward our enemies. When we eat this bread, and drink this cup, our fate is sealed – one way, or another. In this Sacred Blood we are pledged forever to God, or we are judged unworthy of the promise.