Solemnity of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ, Year B

By Father Paul Nord, OSB

Sunday Scripture

First Reading: Exodus 24:3-8; Response: Psalm 116:12-13, 15-16, 17-18; Second Reading: Hebrews 9:11-15; Gospel: Mark 14:12-16, 22-26

The first chapters of Exodus record the Israelites’ escape from Egypt by God’s power. In Exodus 19, the people of Israel arrive at Mount Sinai, where the LORD God offers to enter into a covenant relationship with the Israelites. In Exodus 20, God proclaims the Ten Commandments directly to the Israelites. In Exodus 21–23, God proclaims additional ordinances and laws to Moses since the Israelites asked that God not continue speaking directly to them, out of fear.

In today’s reading (Exodus 24), Moses recounts to the Israelites all the ordinances and commands that the LORD had given directly to him. The Israelites publicly declare their willingness to keep these ordinances. So Moses writes down all the words of the LORD. After he makes various holocaust and peace offerings to the LORD, Moses reads aloud “the book of the covenant” which contains these words of the LORD which Moses had recorded. Again the Israelites agree to keep these ordinances. In this way, the Israelites freely agree to the covenant which the LORD God is offering them.

Moses ratifies this covenant with the ritual ceremony described in today’s reading. The first element of this ceremony is the assent of the people already discussed. The second element is the sacrifice of young bulls which provides both burnt offerings and peace offerings. The blood of the bulls is sprinkled in two places — on the altar and on the people. It seems that this represents the two parties to the covenant — God and the Israelites — who are now permanently joined together in covenantal relationship.

Our next reading, from the letter to the Hebrews (9:11-15), contrasts Jesus Christ’s priesthood versus the priesthood of the old covenant — which is described in the previous verses (9:1-10). Our section begins, “When Christ came as high priest.” The exact comparison is the actions of the high priest on the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur) in the old covenant versus the actions of Christ as high priest in atoning for our sins in the new covenant. This is shown first by verse 9:7, which describes the high priest — once per year — “taking the blood that he offers for himself and for the sins committed unintentionally by the people.” Second, 9:13 describes “the blood of goats and bulls and the sprinkling of a heifer's ashes.” Both of these verses indicate that the actions of the high priest on the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur) are being compared to Christ the high priest.

The Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur) is the Jewish day dedicated to repentance and atonement for sins. With long prayers and fasting from food and water, the Jewish people ask God to purify them of their sins.

Our reading contrasts “the blood of goats and bulls” offered on the Day of Atonement versus the blood of Christ which he offered to God on the cross. Likewise, the sanctification and cleansing offered by the blood of goats and bulls is contrasted with the power of “the eternal Spirit” to “cleanse our consciences from dead works to worship the living God” — as given by the new covenant of Christ. Jesus is “mediator of a new covenant” which fulfills and perfects the sacrifices of the “Day of Atonement” which sought forgiveness of sin in the old covenant.

Today’s Gospel is the Lord’s Supper, as recounted in the Gospel of Mark. It occurs during the Passover feast. First, Jesus’ disciples ask him where he wants them to prepare the Passover meal for him. Jesus sends two disciples, and he instructs them to “go into the city” — that is, Jerusalem. Today’s passage (Mark 14) has similarities with Mark 11:1-7 where Jesus likewise sent two of his disciples to prepare for his triumphal entry into Jerusalem riding on a colt — an action with Messianic symbolism. In today’s Gospel, Jesus again enters into Jerusalem — but this time for the purpose of giving his life on the cross.

Passover is a very important Jewish feast, so naturally Jesus wanted to celebrate it in Jerusalem. But Jesus also was facing the threat of arrest by the authorities. This concern is behind the disciples’ question about where to eat the Passover meal. They knew it must be done quietly.

The Temple was the spiritual heart of Jerusalem — it was the place of God’s presence among his people. At Passover and other major feasts, many Jews would go to the Temple in Jerusalem to renew their commitment to their covenant with God. It is during this Passover meal — in Jerusalem — that Jesus announces to his disciples that he is establishing a new covenant — “this is my blood of the covenant.”

With the bread, Jesus “took,” “blessed,” “broke” and “gave.” With the cup, Jesus “took,” “gave thanks” and “gave.” The word “eucharist” means “give thanks,” but has come to describe the entirety of this ritual establishment of the new covenant by Jesus. In the sacred words of consecration at Mass, the priest repeats precisely the same words and actions of Jesus.

Jesus’ words and actions are very similar in Mark 6:41 — where Jesus feeds 5,000 people — and in Mark 8:6 — when he feeds 4,000 people. Thus, Jesus’ actions of feeding these hungry crowds foreshadowed Jesus’ establishment of the new covenant in today’s Gospel.

Jesus’ words and actions at the Last Supper anticipate his self-sacrifice on the cross. As Jesus recalls the old covenant, he anticipates the ratification of the new covenant. Jesus says: “This is my blood of the covenant, which will be shed for many.” Jesus indicates that he will ratify a new covenant by shedding his blood on the cross. Jesus reveals that “the kingdom of God” is soon to arrive when he proclaims, “I shall not drink again the fruit of the vine until the day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God.” By commanding his disciples to take and eat of his body and drink the cup of his blood, Jesus is calling them to participate in his self-sacrifice on the cross.

Benedictine Father Paul Nord is a monk of Saint Meinrad Archabbey, and teaches at Saint Meinrad Seminary. His Sunday Scripture columns are © Father Paul Nord, O.S.B.