Exodus 24, 3-8; Heb. 9, 11-15; Mk 14, 12-16.22-26.
Why is there such an intimate bond between religion and sacrifice, strengthening the common perception that religion is violent by nature? Many Bible passages seem gratuitous in their depiction of violence. This is a major concern voiced very often and by so many, asking why God demanded the violent suffering and death of Jesus in order to save mankind.
These are very pertinent questions in our religion and they are concerns that today’s Scripture readings evoke. Going through today’s three readings from Exodus, Hebrews and Mark’s gospel, blood is all over the place.
The link between religion and violence, and violence almost rendered as sacrifice, has found constant corroboration in the old and popular teaching that the price of our redemption was the blood of Christ “which has been poured out for many”. It points to God as a most harsh and just judge who, having been offended by the sin of humanity, demanded a high price that only Christ, the God-man, could afford.
It is the satisfaction God requires to atone for the limitless offence of human sinning. This comes out clear even from today’s reading from the letter to the Hebrews: “His death took place to cancel the sins that infringed the earlier covenant”. Yet little do we notice and emphasise that in the Bible itself there is a moving away from such a violent idea of sacrifice.
Abraham was ahead of his time in moving away from human sacrifice. This is basically the meaning of the narrative of God keeping him from sacrificing his son Isaac. Even the Hebrew prophets were ahead of their time in their criticism of sacrifice as something that is an end in itself. Jesus himself clarly put mercy above sacrifice as an order of priorities.
The Exodus account in the Old Testament is is not simply to be taken historically, but also metaphorically. The Exodus is also a passage out of a religion that revolves around sacrifice to constitute a community around something completely new, a covenant. Basically God’s worship is no longer seen in terms of offering sacrifices, as in other pagan rituals.
Yet, as author Paul Neuchterlein claims, “God makes the offer to us to live in another way, and we keep listening to the gods of our own making, our idols”. This can be an eye-opening accusation if we really and honestly want to review some basics of our religion on the day when we are celebrating the mystery and meaning of the Eucharist as the source of true life for the Church and for us individually.
The sacrificial dimension of the Eucharist has always been considered important in our understanding of this sacrament. At the end of the day, what St Mark in his gospel account highlights most is the gift Jesus is making of himself in the words: “This is my body” and “This is my blood”.
The author of the letter to the Hebrews speaks of two covenants and emphasises the discontinuity between the old and the new. The letter refers to the priesthood of Christ, emphasising that “he has entered the sanctuary once and for all”, meaning that now the life of Christ is “the perfect sacrifice”. It is not a sacrifice to be repeated as the sacrifices of the old covenent.
The Eucharist is the new covenant which, rather than focusing on the past in terms of atonement for sins committed, launches us towards the new future of grasping God’s covenant of His healing love. This is no longer a covenant seen as an appeasemnt for an offence committed. It cannot be reduced to a ritual practice as if to calm down God’s anger.
Christ’s sacrifice has nothing to do with pagan rituals, though we persist in perpetuating wrong ideas in the ways we transmit religion. Jesus’s last supper overturns all that, and the gift of his own life for many assumes a radically new prophetic nature. The Eucharist is the basis for a new religion, for a completely new relationship with God not constructed on fear or abuse. It is the basis for a completely new network of relationships within communities where abuse cannot be left uncondemned and where oppressive structures cannot be left unchallenged.
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