This coming Thursday (the Thursday after Trinity Sunday) is Corpus Christi, a Day of Thanksgiving for Holy Communion. Recently a friend wrote asking me why as Christians we are told to ‘eat the body’ and ‘drink the blood’ of Jesus when we take Communion. I offered some thoughts, and, as they may be of interest to others, I thought I’d lightly edit them and share them wider. They come, as I said to my friend, with the caveat that they will likely raise more questions than they answer!
In the sacrificial system of the Old Testament, the blood of an animal, such as a lamb, represents its vitality; and bringing the animal to God was a symbolic way of bringing our vitality to God. Of saying, ‘this (blood) represents my intention to live for God’.
By the way, it does not have anything to do with dealing with sin. That was the scapegoat, an animal on which the high priest placed his hands, confessed the sins of the people, and sent the animal out—alive—into the wilderness.
Now, the Last Supper is a re-imagining of the Passover meal. The Passover pre-dates the codified sacrificial system, but not the understanding on which it is based, about blood = vitality and vitality = desire to live for God, in covenant relationship (as we see in personal sacrifices offered prior to the codified system).
The people had been in slavery to a system behind which was a pantheon of gods in rebellion to the one creator God (Yahweh), whose ultimate agenda was the destruction of humanity, made in God’s image. For example, it is elohim—gods, created beings, some of whom are loyal to Yahweh (we often call these ‘angels’) and some of whom are rebellious—who decide to destroy the earth in the Great Flood, and Yahweh who acts to save Noah. It is elohim who tell Abram to sacrifice Isaac, and Yahweh who prevents it. This is essentially airbrushed out of translation because of an evolution of thought, through monolatry to ‘pure’ monotheism, through seeing Yahweh as so utterly different to the gods that they come to be viewed as having no genuine agency; but in fact, they do have agency (just as humans do). I did warn you this would raise questions...
In the lead-up to the Passover/Exodus, Yahweh has been in a series of confrontations with the gods of Egypt, defeating them again and again in order to free his people. Ultimately the only god left standing is the god of death, the dog-headed god we know by his later Greco-Egyptian name, Anubis. And yet, Pharaoh has consistently chosen to stand against God—he is dead-set to back his own elohim—and in the end, God gives us what we choose. That is free will. In the final plague, Yahweh demonstrates sovereignty over the Egyptian gods (including over the structure of primogeniture, and the claim that Pharaoh embodied Horus in life and Osiris in death) utterly defeating Anubis, so that the dog cannot even growl at any of the Israelites, human or animal, (Exodus 11:7) and providing a way out for those who accept it. He tells his people to share a meal, to strengthen them (physically and socially) for the journey ahead, and to daub the blood on the door posts and lintel. Vitality. The physical sign that they are choosing to live their life for God.
So, what has this to do with Jesus? Jesus says, to paraphrase, I replace the lamb as the sign that you are bringing your lives to God and choosing to live for him. My blood. My vitality, as a representative of your vitality. And my body, to strengthen you. Eat, and go. (Death is about to be humiliated, again.)
At the Last Supper, Jesus says his blood is shed for the remission of sins. Remission is a better translation than forgiveness (and so here the liturgy of the Book of Common Prayer is better than that of Common Worship). He is not saying his blood gives us God’s forgiveness, but that his blood—his vitality—not only symbolises our desire to live for God but sets us free from slavery to sin. That’s the exodus moment within the wider covenantal backdrop; the rescue to which God, as covenant partner, is bound.
Jesus does deal with our (collective) sin, of course; but by being the scapegoat who is removed outside the city wall, not by being the lamb who was slain. This is another aspect of the salvation won through his obedience, a salvation for which we have to resort to ‘thick’ symbolism to speak of, as it is beyond the scope of other forms of expression: it is messy, and graphic, and epic in scale, and catches us up in the drama.