The topic of blood triggers a 25-year-old memory from a time when I lived in a small Jesuit community in St. Louis. Our landlady, who was African American, appeared at the door one morning with a question: “Does anyone in your house have type O-positive blood?” “Yes,” I said. “I'm O-positive.” “My grandson is going to have an operation and the doctor says he'll be needing some transfusion. Would you be willing to come down to the blood center and donate a pint?” I had the right blood. Her grandson needed it. I was healthy and had the time. So it was not hard to say yes and to go down to the center and make the donation.
Such thoughts help me appreciate the meaning of “blood” in the Bible. The ancient world had a way of seeing the obvious: blood carries the stuff of life. When an animal loses its blood the life goes out of it. It made sense to reverence blood as the carrier and, therefore, a primal symbol of life. Thus, offering animal blood in sacrificial ritual could symbolize the acknowledgment that life is a gift from God. Everything that modern hematology has to say about the function of blood as carrier of nutrients and components of our complex immune system only enhances our sense of blood as the stuff of life.
And it is from this natural symbolism that Moses' gesture in this Sunday's First Reading takes its power. When the assembly of Israel, hearing the words of the covenant of Sinai, agrees to carry them out, Moses takes large bowls full of the blood of young bulls, pours half of the blood on the altar (representing the invisible God) and sprinkles the other half on the community. Then he explains: “This is the blood of the covenant which the Lord has made with you in accordance with all these words of his” (Exod 24:8). The meaning of the blood sprinkling would have been obvious to all. This pact of promised relationships between the people and their God is a sharing of life, divine and human.
Jesus consciously builds on this tradition at the Last Supper. At the end of the meal he knows to be his last, he takes a cup of wine, gives thanks, and passes it around for the disciples to drink from it. Already, he has marked the gesture as something special, since the usual way of drinking a traditional cup of blessing was for each person to drink from their own cup.
But the disciples share the one cup. Jesus says, “This is my blood of the covenant which will be shed for many.” In so doing, Jesus associates his approaching death with the Sinai covenant. Instead of the blood of bulls, his own blood will renew and culminate the relationship between God and the People of God. Moreover, Jesus’ followers will participate in that covenant shalom by sharing in the cup of his self-offering.
On the road from Galilee to Jerusalem Jesus had asked the brothers Zebedee, when they naively requested to share in his coming glory, “Can you drink the cup that I drink … ?” (Mark 10:38). In the present passage they are given quite literally Jesus’ cup to share. Continuing to be his disciples will entail a full giving of self somehow like his. Such laying down of one's life—in a loving service that may or may not include martyrdom—is the life-blood of the covenant community called the body of Christ. Jesus’ giving of his blood provides not only the model but the source of this new covenant gift of life.
This Sunday's reading from the letter to the Hebrews (Second Reading) uses the language of temple worship to say the same thing. Jesus, who in his historical life was a layperson and not a member of the Levitical priesthood, can be called high priest because giving his own blood effects the reconciliation between the human and the divine that the Atonement sacrifices of the Temple only foreshadowed.
St. Paul could be very blunt regarding the social responsibility involved in this sharing of the cup of the covenant. Reprimanding the Corinthians’ failure to meet one another’s need for ordinary food, he warns, “Anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body, eats and drinks judgment on himself” (1 Cor 11:29). Sharing in the sacramental body and blood entails behaving as one body by donating the gift of life to one another.