Last Supper (h. 1562), The first Eucharist, depicted by Juan de Juanes, mid-late 16th century, Museo del Prado Public domain

God's word on Sunday: Ancient world offers lesson in covenants

  • June 2, 2018

Body and Blood of Christ, June 3 (Year B) Exodus 24:3-8; Psalm 116; Hebrews 9:11-15; Mark 14:12-16, 22-26

The signing of a contract, treaty or agreement is a rather sobering event. We realize that we will be bound by certain obligations and some of them can be onerous. Penalties are imposed if we do not live up to the terms of the document. 

But usually a simple signature — perhaps several — and those of a witness or two are sufficient to seal the agreement. Often legal manoeuvring is called into play to escape the terms of an agreement and these cases often wind up in lengthy court battles. 

In the ancient world, there was a lot more drama involved and the symbolism invoked was charged with emotional and psychological power. Covenants and agreements were taken very seriously, and all were conscious of the presence of supernatural power. 

The agreement was always sealed in the context of a sacrifice to the gods, after which the signatories would be sprinkled with the blood of the sacrificial victim. Blessings for adherence to the terms of the covenant or contract were listed, along with the curses and disasters that would flow from breaking the terms. 

For the ancient Hebrews, blood was very powerful and was believed to contain the life principle itself. Blood that had been unjustly shed had to be atoned for. In sacrifice, blood could purify and atone for sin. 

Throughout the history of Christianity, the blood of the martyrs has been the seed of the Church. The blood of victims of oppression becomes the impetus for change and reform. 

During the first Passover, sacrificial blood smeared above the door lintels warded off the angel’s destruction. Small wonder, then, that their covenant with God was sealed in blood. If blood was powerful in covenants and agreements between nations and kings, how much more when covenanting with God. 

One did not simply walk away from the covenant. Whenever Israel treated the terms of the covenant with indifference or lip service, catastrophe usually was right around the corner. Our own culture has a great deal of difficulty with commitment and perseverance. People sometimes change jobs, relationships, careers and locations with regularity, or live them out in a lukewarm fashion. 

Spiritual commitments often suffer the same fate. When we renew baptismal vows during the Easter Vigil, it is a recommitment to the covenant in Christ’s blood into which we are all baptized. It would be helpful if we took it with the same seriousness and sense of awe as the ancients did. One’s solemn word should always be treated as if it were sealed in blood.

The Letter to the Hebrews describes Jesus Christ almost exclusively in sacrificial terms but with a twist. The author recognizes that if the blood of bulls and goats could atone for sins, how much more the blood of Christ, the ultimate sacrificial victim. 

Since Christ obtained eternal redemption for humanity by the shedding of His blood, sacrifice is no longer needed. It isn’t that Jesus had to die in a sacrificial ritual to satisfy or placate God, but His self-giving to the point of death was an incomparable act of love. In Hebrews, an older theological understanding based on a model of sacrifice was used to explain the significance of Jesus in a new theological light.

Jesus prepared for a special Passover — His last, and the supper that would inaugurate the reign of God. At the last supper, Jesus offered His own blood to renew and strengthen the covenant. His body and His blood would be given for the sake of humanity and the world. 

In New Testament terms, the cup is the symbol of discipleship and martyrdom. By drinking from that cup, the disciples promised to adhere to the covenant and to continue the work of Jesus regardless of where it might lead. 

The same applies to us. Our participation in the Eucharist is not a reward for good behaviour, nor is it to fulfill an obligation or to receive a spiritual “charge.” It is a recommitment to the covenant and true discipleship in service to others. 

The body and blood of Jesus nourish and sustain us. Both the sign and the substance of our covenant, which is our strength and blessing. We are sustained and blessed by it to the extent that we are faithful and committed. 

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