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Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Precious Blood (Body and Blood of the Lord, Year B)

I wasn't a part of the Twilight craze, which is pretty amazing since I am such a follower of pop trends. I guess I feel too old for it, and I’m happy with the way the vampire legend rests (so to speak) in the line that runs from Bram Stoker through Nosferatu and Bela Lugosi to Anne Rice and Lestat, with a brief detour through Mel Brooks. Recently I saw a lovely and disturbingly insightful Swedish film entitled Let the Right One In, which was about a chillingly young vampire who had been twelve years old “for a very long time,” a movie that revisited those universal connections between rejection and friendship, persecution and solidarity, and most uncomfortably, love and obsession. But at its heart, the vampire legend and our ongoing obsession with it is about the desire for immortality and the inevitability of death as an apparent obstacle to it, and the intimacy of sexual union and obsession as a sort of foretaste or substitute for it. This was possibly never quite so apparent as it was in the sensual free-for-all called The Hunger, a rhapsodic cinematic response to the AIDS awakening, when blood suddenly became an obstacle to love and, in a sense, a kiss of death.

Where on earth was I going with this?
 Ah, I remember! 😊

Sunday for Catholics is the Solemnity of the Body and Blood of the Lord, the feast formerly known as Corpus Christi. There is a different set of readings for this feast for each year of the lectionary, and this year the central image is the image of blood, particularly the blood of the covenant. Moses seals the Lord’s covenant with Israel by the sprinkling of the blood of sacrificed bullocks; Jesus pronounces “a new covenant in my blood” at the last supper with the disciples; the author of the letter to the Hebrews waxes eloquent on Christ as sacrifice and priest, ending animal sacrifice and through his death bringing eternal life to the human race.

Now, while the scriptures (and the vampire legends) are fairly clear about blood and its meaning for the community, we ourselves, stuck in our enlightenment literalism, are not. For us, blood is, literally, blood; for Catholics, we can’t deal with saying that blood is “just” a “symbol” of anything — we have to be belligerent and defensive that, for instance, the consecrated wine at Mass is literally the blood of Christ. But surely, transubstantiation is more than that. Since what is seen does not change, it is the meaning of what is unseen that must be changed, and we end up being caught in a polemic battle whose terms we not only don’t understand but to whose possibly infinite wonder we aren’t able to be open because we’ve chosen to block the pathway to it by narrowly understanding what a sign or symbol might be.

For Moses and Israel, the sprinkled blood of the bulls was a symbol of life and death. Blood was both the life-force of the bull (and for that matter, of the people as they well knew), it was also a sign of death. Blood drained was life drained. The sprinkling of the blood of the animals sacrificed to God was both a bonding with that God and a way of saying, “may the same thing that happened to the animal happen to us if we fail to keep this promise.” But the sacrifice was essentially a symbol of life: the slaughtered animal was seen as food for the gods; sometimes, this food was shared by those who took place in the rite.

With the resurrection eyes of the evangelist looking backward toward the events in the life of Jesus and seeing them through the eyes of a church only a few decades old, the food Jesus shared in his meals, including the last supper were also matters of life and death. Life, in the sense that all meal-sharing is life-sharing, that the meals of Jesus in particular were ways of restoring or re-forging the bonds of community between outsiders and friends, and that the remembered meals in the agape, the breaking of the bread or Eucharist, were also life-giving to the fledgling community which asserted the living presence of the Lord in their midst while affirming and strengthening the spirit that held them together in unity. At the same time, as Paul had made clear in the first letter to the Corinthians, the food that symbolized “the body and blood of the Lord” (by which he meant the living and risen presence of Christ in the community) proclaimed the death of the Lord. That death was in no small way the direct result of the solidarity with sinners that the meal-sharing of Jesus had come to represent. By claiming relationship to God and at the same time eating and drinking with sinners, Jesus’ life became a kind of blasphemy to some of the Jewish leaders. It was this crime, at least in part, that led them to their collaboration with the Romans to have him executed.

Blood is a powerful symbol, because within it is the reality of the sign it conveys. Think of how we use the words “blood brothers” - in common usage, it means friends who are bound to one another in a way that is as important and intimate as family, but, ironically, not by being “blood relatives” but through the sharing of actual blood in an oath. The words themselves are so powerful that they are often used to describe a relationship that doesn’t include a blood oath, but that strengthens the sign, and doesn’t dilute it. Blood constitutes a group, whether it’s a group of blood relations or a clan, a military platoon, a gang of thugs, or a family of vampires. But for Christians, the real thing is that our covenant, what binds us together, is the blood of Christ. This blood was once and for all poured out in love for the life of the world, but is now a sign in a shared cup of sacred wine that is a symbol with bread of the living Christ. In the paschal mystery of God, as we continue to meditate upon it, death and life are mysteriously intertwined. The pouring-out of self that is agape, the divine love in which the Christian shares through the baptismal life of the Holy Spirit, looks a lot like death, and in fact shares much in common with death. Only faith tells us that God is, at the heart of this self-emptying love, the God of life, abundant life, and communion. The myth of the vampire, the blood-brotherhood of gang life and violent militarism, are all counterfeits and shadows of the true reality of communion in the blood of Christ. There, in the shadow of the cross, in a death embraced by the innocent one who lived for and sought the reconciliation of all the children of God, we can discover how precious life really is, and how rich and complex a sign it is to partake of the body and blood of the Lord. For it is a living Christ whose life it is we share, a living Christ head and members, the sacred body and precious blood of every person at the table, every person served by any of them, every person who has ever lived or who is yet to be born who participates in agape by truly living for another. It’s something to sing about for another week as we come to join in Christ’s banquet of love.

Gathering: Table of Plenty (Schutte)
Psalm 116: Our Blessing Cup (Cooney)

Gifts: We Come to Your Feast (Joncas)
Communion: May We Be One (cup verses) (Daigle-Cooney)

Recessional: All Are Welcome (Haugen)

"The blood is the life!" (Dracula, by Bram Stoker)

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