Solemnity of the Body and Blood of Christ (B) | Fr Greg Murphy on the Eucharist as medicine that heals and changes the Christian people.
Today’s reading from Exodus can be a bit off-putting: Moses dashes the blood onto the altar, and dashes it onto the people. Why? What seems repugnant to us was of central importance to them: symbolising a new life given by and lived toward God. For the people of Israel, blood meant life itself, a gift given by and belonging to God alone. That’s why even now Jews (and Muslims) will take the blood from an animal before it is butchered for food. The ritual described here then symbolises the new life that the God of Israel conferred upon his chosen people, and their mutual commitment to each other in the covenant thus made: the blessings of communion with God and the responsibility to live this out by observing “all the commands that the Lord has decreed”. This ceremonial involving blood consecrates the tribes of Israel into a new life as God’s holy people.
The Letter to the Hebrews picks up on this, understanding the rituals of the Old Testament as foreshadowing and pointing to their fulfillment in Christ, in God-with-us. Christ has entered the sanctuary “once and for all…offering himself as the perfect sacrifice to God through the eternal Spirit purifying our conscience from dead actions to worship the living God”. The work of Christ as high priest in the heavenly sanctuary has opened up a way of access to God that was not possible before his self-sacrifice. Following this “new and living way” Christians have access to God and confidence to enter the sanctuary – to come into the presence of God – “by the blood of Jesus Christ” (10:19-20). This purifies us from the “dead works” of sin and allows us to worship the living God. The sacrifice of Christ, then, into which we are caught up in the celebration of the Eucharist, brings about cleansing from and forgiveness of sins. Something even greater is at stake, however, as the last words of the passage indicate: “to worship the living God!” This purification has a purpose beyond that of rectifying the individual’s standing before God. It enables us to truly worship God. Our purification finally results in the sort of devotion to God that is as total as the sacrifice of Christ, who gave “his own blood [for] our eternal redemption”. By his self-giving sacrifice Christ created a new relationship between God and his people. When we receive the bread broken for us and the cup blessed for us in holy communion we acknowledge that the Lord gave his body to be broken and his blood poured out that we might live; and receiving the new life of the risen Lord we acknowledge also that our lives must also be poured out for him.
Pope-emeritus Benedict, writing as Josef Ratzinger, has noted that this understanding of sacrifice is precisely the converse of pagan sacrifices: there, a compensatory gift was given to repair the relationship between man and God. Here, in contrast, God comes to man, gifts himself, and heals and restores the relationship damaged by our sin. It’s useful to recall that many of the early Fathers of the Church referred to Christ as a physician. Writing to the Ephesians, St Ignatius of Antioch described the Eucharist as the “medicine of immortality, the antidote against death”. Similarly, the fourth-century Syriac hymnist St. Ephraem described the Eucharist as “living medicine” or “medicine of life”. The Eucharist heals and purifies us so that we can share in the life of God. A similar inversion characterises our receiving holy communion: normally, our food becomes a part of us; here rather, as Augustine reports Christ’s words to himself, “you will be changed into me”.
The realizing of our deification, our being made like God, our becoming embodied in the Body of Christ, takes time – for most of us, a lifetime. In the Eucharist, memory, experience and hope are woven together, summed up in the antiphon for this feast: O sacred banquet in which Christ is received: his suffering is remembered (past), [our] mind is filled with grace (present), and we receive a pledge of the glory that is to be ours (future).
Photograph by Fr Lawrence Lew OP.