The Liturgical Year devotes the month of July to the Precious Blood of Jesus. Just as blood is essential for human life, so Jesus’ blood is essential for our redemption.
Old Testament Sacrifice
In the Ancient world, blood sacrifice lay at the center of every relationship – whether marriage, the exchange of lands or peace treaties. These relationships were defined as covenants – an exchange of promised agreements. For each covenant, the parties involved would:
1. Declare a solemn oath (The word oath in Latin is translated sacramentum or sacrament.)
2. Offer a blood sacrifice to seal that oath.
3. Share a meal to further enjoin those in this covenanted relationship.
When the high priest Melchizedek, a descendant of Noah (and therefore the keeper of the Covenant), received the tithes of war conquest, he offered a blood sacrifice. When Moses brought down the Ten Commandments, he sprinkled the people with blood. The message this blood sacrifice entailed was like saying, according to Scott Hahn, “If I am unfaithful to my covenant oath, may I suffer the same fate as this mutilated beast.” The Sacrifice transmutes the promise concretely.
The Hebrew term for sacrifice means “something brought forward, an offering.” A sacrifice offered as a sin offering required a scale of value. For example, a high priest would have to offer a bull, while a common person could offer a goat or lamb; a poor person could offer a pigeon or grain. The burning of the offering transformed what was material into a “pleasing aroma” to rise up to heaven. This transformed the sacrifice from a material act to a divine connection. It restored right relations with God.
New Testament Sacrifice
Jesus makes the highest order of sacrifice — his very life, the life of God-made-man. Look at the sequence of events in Christ’s life: His ministry begins with Baptism in the Jordan. He gathers, heals and teaches, explaining and clarifying the Covenant. Then, at the culminating events of His earthly life:
1. Jesus establishes the New Covenant at the Last Supper. Becoming one with Christ – in Baptism and the Eucharist — re-establishes consanguinity between God and Man.
2. He sheds His Precious Blood on the Cross to seal the covenant.
3. We eat his flesh and blood – the meal that reaffirms the Covenant.
A further point: While Christ’s sacrifice was once and for all time, at each Mass the sacrifice is re-presented. St. Paul explains:
Indeed, under the law almost everything is purified with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins. Thus it was necessary for the copies of the heavenly things to be purified with these rites, but the heavenly things themselves with better sacrifices than these. For Christ has entered, not into a sanctuary made with hands, a copy of the true one, but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God on our behalf (Heb 9:22-24)
[Jesus] entered once for all into the Holy Place, taking not the blood of goats and calves but his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption. (Heb 9:12)
Jesus takes “his own blood” into heaven, where he continually participates in – re-presents Himself — the sacrifice of the Mass. The sacrifice at Calvary happened both once-for-all-times, and is continuously re-presented in each Mass.
The structure of the Mass
What do we do at each Sunday Mass? We hear the testimonies of those who have gone before us in the faith , culminating in Jesus’ own words recorded – the Liturgy of the Word, which the priest helps explain further in the homily. Then, the Mass reaches its climax where we must stand (take a stand).
1. We affirm the Creed. (our oath)
2. The Sacrifice of the Mass takes place, Christ’s Body and Precious Blood outpoured.
3. We eat the common meal: Christ’s Body and Blood shared.
Christ’s Precious Blood confirms our Covenant with God. God offers his abundant promises, and we offer ourselves. In the Roman army, the oath (sacramentum) taken meant a transformation of the soldier from being his own man to becoming the obedient servant of his leader. The soldier would give up his self-direction and yield to the direction of another.
Likewise we give up our self-centeredness to obey and follow God. This transformation requires more than our promise: It requires Christ’s blood as the sign and the consumption His Body and Blood to secure our connection to Him, as well as strengthen our ability to obey Him.
Moreover, we offer ourselves as sacrifice. We promise to suffer in some measure as our sins, and the sins of the world, require. Like the Ancients who saw the sacrificed beast as confirmation that they would suffer the same if the oath is broken, so we join Christ’s Body in suffering for our own failures and for those of the world.
Just as our mothers transmitted life to us through saving blood, so Our Lord sustains us with His Precious Blood.
For more information, see:
Scott Hahn’s Swear to God.
Explanation of Pope Benedict XVI’s Theology of Covenant.
William Gilder’s Sacrifice in Ancient Israel.