Commentary on the Readings
The Body and Blood of Christ – Year B – June 3, 2018
The Alliance: The Ring of the Bride
The word covenant occurs 286 times in the Old Testament. This gives an idea of the importance that Israel has given to this institution. She used it as an image to express her relationship with the Lord. But what does it mean to make a covenant with God?
Talking about bilateral contract is approximate and even misleading. The first covenant, stipulated with Noah and, through him, the whole of humanity and “with every living animal, birds, cattle, all living creatures of the earth that came out of the ark” (Gen 9:8-11) was one-sided. The Lord alone took on commitments and demanded nothing in return. He promised that there would be no more flood waters, though he knew that man would continue to be unfaithful, “because man’s heart is set on evil from childhood” (Gen 8:21).
He called Abraham from Mesopotamia to give him a land though Abraham had done nothing to deserve this gift. He was only asked to believe in gratuitous love. To convince him, God made a covenant with him and sanctioned it with a ritual (Gen 15). The patriarch did not have to be afraid. He would come into possession of the land, because the covenant of the Lord was inviolable. It was founded on his word, solemnly confirmed by an oath.
The gratuitousness and unilateral commitment characterize the covenants of God. Throughout its turbulent history, Israel maintained its memory and, even in the most dramatic moments, she never lost hope. She was aware that the predilection of the Lord for her would never have come less. She could have sinned as long as she wanted, the Lord would not have revoked his covenant, because, without asking anything in return, he promised to bless his people. The covenants of God are contractual; they are pure grace.
Yet the Lord expects an answer from man. He does not ask him to sign a deal, but to accept his proposal of mutual belonging, as it happens between the groom and the bride. The Eucharist… is the exchange of rings.
To internalize the message, we repeat:
“The Eucharistic celebration is the wedding feast with the Lord.”
Humans need to validate with a gesture the commitments taken. In the African tribe where I lived for a few years, the covenant is ratified in a very simple way. The two parties take a long blade of grass, break it and each one throws behind him the piece in his hand. In so doing they declare the mutual commitment to throw away from themselves every division, disagreement, conflict.
The rituals which, in ancient times, the great kings ruled the alliance with their vassals were solemn and complicated. The Bible refers to some, also used by the Israelites. The bloodiest was to cut a calf into two parts. The contracting parties passing between the halves, declaring to be willing to suffer the fate of the animal if they had broken the covenant (Jer 34:18). The covenant made by God with Abraham refer to this rite (Gen 15), but it should be noted that, on the occasion, it was only the Lord who passed in a burning flame, between the cut animals.
The inviolability of a covenant could be established through the act of eating together bread and salt or only salt. This agreement was called “covenant of salt” (2 Chr 13:5), because, like salt, it had to be kept incorruptible.
Today’s passage refers to another ritual: the one with which Israel sealed its alliance with the Lord. The fact happened on the third month of departure from Egypt (Ex 19:1).
The people were gathered at the foot of Sinai. Moses, after repeatedly going up the mountain to talk to the Lord, told the Israelites the words he had heard from God.
The people did not hesitate, convinced and resolute, twice repeated its commitment: “Everything that the Lord has said, we shall do” (vv. 3,7).
Moses wrote down the words of God. Then he made the necessary preparation for the celebration: he built an altar and placed around it twelve blocks of stone. When all was ready, he commissioned some young people to offer animal sacrifices to the Lord (vv. 4-5). He took the blood of the victims and poured half on the altar and the other half on top of the twelve stones (vv. 6-8).
To understand this rite it should be noted that for the Semites the blood was the seat of life (Lev 17:11-14). To shed human blood, that is to kill, was absolutely forbidden (Gen 9:5-6). To shed animal’s blood was up to God, Lord of all life. For this reason, in the bloody sacrifices of the temple, the blood was sprinkled on the altar, which represented God.
The meaning of the celebration of the covenant at the foot of Sinai now becomes clear. Pouring blood, half on the altar and the other half on the people, symbolized by twelve pillars, Moses established a close bond of communion between God and Israel. Since that time, God and his people came to share in the same life, like members of one body, bound together by a common destiny. The vicissitudes, sufferings, joys of one involved the other, touching the people was tantamount to hitting God, because, the Lord says: “For just as a belt is to be bound around a man’s waist so was the people of Israel and Judah bound to me to be my people, my glory and my honor” (Jer 13:11).
To be happy, to be free, Israel would have to keep the promise made at Sinai, would have to believe that the Ten words she heard were not unwarranted precepts, but a gift from God that showed her the way of life.
Israel made the experience that “man’s life is not within his own control and it is not for him to direct his steps” (Jer 10:23). Breaking the covenant, she betrayed the commitments taken, but God did not give up and decided to make a new covenant, not a remake of Sinai’s, but a qualitatively new one: “The time is coming—it is the Lord who speaks—when I will forge a new covenant. It will not be like the one I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand and led them out of Egypt. For they broke my covenant. I will put my law within them and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people” (Jer 31: 31-33). “I shall give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you. I shall remove your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh” (Ezek 36:26-27).
To sanction this alliance, the blood must necessarily be, not of animals which proved ineffective, of the one who will offer himself in sacrifice “for the new and everlasting covenant.”
To expiate one’s sin commonly means to atone the fault by undergoing punishment. In pagan religions atonement was done through sacrifices and offerings that were intended to appease the offended deity. In the Bible, atonement has another meaning. It is not intended to calm the angry God, nor punish the human being for the harm he or she has done, but to act on what have ended their relationship.
This different way of understanding the atonement comes from a different way of conceiving God and sin. The God of Israel never strikes his own people, even if she has been unfaithful. He wants her to convert, to come back to life, for this he calls for a change of thoughts and actions.
Humans, however, need to demonstrate, also through rituals, his repudiation of sin. This is why, at the beginning of each new year, Israel celebrated the great Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur, entirely devoted to fasting, prayer, reading the Word of God and the expiatory rites. The ceremonies and sacrifices were held in the temple. They culminated in the rite of sprinkling with the blood of animals—as it did at the foot of Sinai—the cover of the ark of the covenant which was found in the Holy of Holies that indicated the presence of the Lord. With this gesture, the high priest intended to restore the communion of life between God and the people, which had been sanctioned by an alliance and that sin had destroyed.
The author of the Letter to the Hebrews refers to this rite of Yom Kippur in order to establish a comparison between the old sin offering and the redemptive work of Christ.
The blood of goats and calves was used in the Old Testament. How could the blood of animals get the desired effect? The high priest had to repeat the same ritual every year because of its ineffectiveness.
But Christ has entered heaven and not in the stone sanctuary. He offered, once and for all, his own blood, blood that really expiates, that is, restores forever and permanently the relationships between God and man.
This is why the evangelists noticed that, at the time of Jesus’ death on the cross, “the curtain that enclosed the temple sanctuary was torn in two from top to bottom” (Mk 15:38). The material breaking of the curtain, that separated the Holy from the Holy of Holies in the Temple of Jerusalem, did not happen. Instead the barrier, erected by sin, that separated men from God was taken down forever.
The blood of animals, which has always been ineffective, is no longer needed. The blood of Christ is offered today to those who participate in the celebration of the Eucharist. Who approaches to receive it obtain the forgiveness of sins, and in him the bond of life with God is re-established.
Reading the first part of the passage (vv. 12-16), one feels the approach of a dramatic moment. One senses that Jesus and the group of disciples move with caution because they are in danger due to hatred and threats of the high priests. They are in Bethany and, to celebrate the Passover, they must go to Jerusalem, the only place where they can eat the lamb. There is a sign of recognition, agreed—it seems—by Jesus with the owner of a house. It is located in the upper part of the city, where the rich people live. This particular sign accentuates the aura of mystery surrounding the whole scene. Two disciples precede the group to prepare, on the top floor of the house, a large hall for dinner.
To get the message that the evangelist wants to convey, we must go beyond what, at first glance, seems a simple stenographic transcript. The first noted detail is that the initiative to celebrate the Passover does not come from Jesus, but from the disciples (v. 12). They are the ones who want to remember the deliverance from Egypt, liberation which began their history. They cannot imagine what will happen that very night during dinner. As representatives of the twelve tribes of Israel they will be involved in the new Passover.
A second particular: the one in-charge of accompanying the disciples in the banquet hall is a servant who performs a service reserved for women. It is not a trivial detail, but the sign of the change of social relations. It is the perception of this reversal that leads his disciples toward the place of the feast, the one in which Jesus is about to begin. One who sees people in a different way, who is guided by the surprising signs given by Christ, enters the banquet hall: the rich who become poor, the great who choose to become small, people who take the imposed menial services, until then, done by women.
Even the accurate description of the room is important. It is spacious because it is intended to accommodate many people. It is located on the top, like the mountain on whose top echoed the word of the Lord (Ex 24:1-4). It is furnished with sofas, so that everyone who comes in, even if poor, unfortunate or slave, acquires freedom. These details clearly allude to the Lord’s Supper celebrated in the Christian communities.
Evening comes and the Twelve meet with Jesus to eat the paschal lamb. They think of celebrating their liberation from Egypt and the Sinai covenant. They become, instead, witnesses of the new covenant foretold by the prophets and they receive the true Lamb as food.
In the second part (vv. 22-26) we approach with trepidation because it is the liturgical text used in the early Christian communities for the celebration of the Eucharist. It is the text composed in the early years of the church and conserved for us by Mark, author of the first gospel.
In the story there is no allusion to the Jewish Passover. The Twelve who prepared the lamb see the Jewish Passover meal transformed into the dinner of Jesus in the Eucharistic banquet.
“While they were eating, Jesus took bread, blessed it and broke it, and gave it to them” (v. 22). So far nothing new compared to the traditional rite. As head of the table, Jesus prayed before the distribution of bread: “Be praised, O Lord, our God, king of the world, for you let bread spring from the earth.”
The invitation directed to his disciples is a bit unusual: “Take this and eat” and, above all, the value attributed to the bread, “This is my body,” that is, “It’s me.”
The disciples are able to understand the meaning of the gesture and words. The Master’s whole life is a gift. He has become bread broken for people, now he wants his disciples to share his choice. They enter into communion, they become one person with him, so they will share in his own life.
Now it is clear, even to us, what it means to approach the Eucharist: this is not a devotional meeting with Jesus, but the decision to be like him at all times, broken bread at the disposal of the brethren.
At the end of the meal, Jesus drinks the cup of wine.
His gesture is laden with symbolism because it is the last cup, that of parting from the old covenant, in fact he states: “I will not taste the fruit of the vine again, until that day when I drink the new wine in the kingdom of God” (v. 25).
Unlike the Baptist, Jesus ate, drank (Mt 11:18-19) and accepted invitations to dinner. To a group of Pharisees and followers of John the Baptist, who had asked him the reason for not fasting, he answered: “How can the wedding guests fast while the bridegroom is with them? As long as they have the bridegroom with them they cannot fast. But the day will come when the bridegroom will be taken from them and on that day they will fast” (Mk 2:19-20). He foresaw, for the community of his disciples, a time of mourning, sorrow, abstention from intoxicating drinks. The message is clear: wherever he is absent, the bridegroom, lacks wine; there is no joy of the feast. The signs of triumph of evil and death are in the world. This saddens the disciples, but the “feast of rich food and choice wines, meat full of marrow, fine wine strained” (Is 25:6) will take place. Jesus will be present at the party and will give to all his wine, “I will drink it (with you), anew, in the kingdom of God.”
The cup is that of his blood, “the blood of the covenant, poured out for many.”
The covenant made at Sinai had not reached the goal of keeping the people in communion with the Lord. It was sanctioned with the blood that, being of animals, did not have any life-giving power. The covenant of Jesus is celebrated with blood, his own, in which the divine life is present and offered to anyone who is willing to accept it.
The blood of the new covenant is poured out for many, that means for all. The Eucharist is not instituted for the individuals, so that everyone can personally meet Christ, to encourage individual fervor or some form of spiritual isolationism. The Eucharist is the food of the community, is bread broken and shared among brothers and sisters (at least two), because the community is a sign of the new humanity, born of the resurrection of Christ.
The door of the great hall, which is located at the top, it is always wide open for all to enter. The banquet of the kingdom of God, proclaimed by the prophets, is prepared “for all peoples” (Is 25:6). All must be welcomed, no one is excluded. For God there are no pure or impure, worthy or unworthy people; in front of the Eucharist are all on the same level; all are sinners, unworthy, but invited to enter into communion with Christ.
The bread is Christ and the cup of his blood creates a community of “blood relations” with Christ and with one another, so as to form the new people whose only law is the service to the brothers and sisters to the point of giving one’s life as “nourishment” to satisfy all forms of human hunger.
There is a video by Fr. Fernando Armellini with English subtitles commenting on today’s Gospel reading: