Today’s readings connect many things: the blood of the sacrifice, the priest, the community, and the covenant. They show how these all come together in Jesus in the Eucharist.
The first reading from Exodus depicts Moses acting as a priest on behalf of the Israelites at Sinai. After God has told Moses some of the laws the Israelites must follow, Moses repeats them to the people, who affirm together that they will keep them. Later, the covenant is ratified by blood. Moses takes the blood of the sacrifices, splashing half on the altar, signifying God’s participation in the covenant, and he reads God’s laws that he had written down to the people. They again affirm, “All that the Lord has said, we will hear and do,” and Moses splashes the rest of the blood on them, saying, “This is the blood of the covenant which the LORD has made with you according to all these words.” This is a unique rite; it is not something they will repeat in the future, but rather a decisive moment for their covenantal relationship. God has told Moses what they must do to be his people; they now commit to it. Moses also goes up with a select group of Israelites who “saw God” and ate and drank—a remarkably intimate portrait of God and his people.
This passage is important source material for the Christian development of the Last Supper. At Mass, there is the reading of the Bible, similar to the giving of the Law, and the Eucharist, similar to the sacrifices and the rite described here in Exodus. Just as the Israelites said in “one voice” that they would keep God’s laws, the Eucharist is a unifying moment at Mass. As Moses and other Israelites encountered God, we too encounter Christ in the Eucharist. Both include eating and drinking. The ratification of the covenant and the Last Supper are also similar in that they do not take place in a sacred building, neither the tabernacle (which the Israelites receive instructions for beginning in the following chapter of Exodus) nor the temple, which was not constructed until far later in the chronology of Israelite history in the Old Testament and was destroyed a few decades after the advent of Christianity. And Jesus echoes the words of Moses at the institution of the Lord’s Supper: “this is the blood of the covenant.”
Like any development, however, there are also notable differences. These are worked out in the second reading from Hebrews. Hebrews depicts Christ as both high priest and sacrifice. Along the same lines, the sacrificial blood is not from animals but from Jesus himself. This is a significant development: if the blood of animals can sanctify, how much more can the blood of Christ do so? Similarly, the blood—the cup of the Eucharist—is consumed, while consuming actual blood was forbidden for the Israelites because “the life of the flesh is in the blood” (Lev 17:11). The sacrifice, the meal, and the high priest are all combined in the Eucharist. Finally, Hebrews refers to this as the new covenant, emphasizing its novelty, although even this has an element of continuity since a new covenant was already anticipated in Exodus (34:10).
This is also evident in narrative form in the Gospel reading. Here the institution of the Last Supper is the first night of Passover, coinciding with the sacrifice of the Passover lamb. The connection between Jesus as priest, Jesus as sacrifice, and the consumption of the meal are present in this passage as well. Jesus’ reworks Moses’ words into “This is my blood of the covenant,” while referring to his own broken body and blood, “which will be shed for many.” He shows a transformed understanding of the covenant that places Jesus at its center.
The Eucharist is strange. It is the communal, ritual consumption of Jesus’ broken body. If anything, the reading from Exodus drives home the strangeness of it. It starts with Moses splashing blood on people and ends with a group of them eating a meal with God! But the elements of Moses’ act in Exodus are powerful and holy—God’s words, the blood, the covenant, and the community. And just as in Exodus, the disciples in Mark have seen God and have eaten with him.
The role of the community at the Eucharist is not one of a passive audience. They are not supplementary to the main event. They are a necessary element and active participants. In Exodus, they promise to uphold the Law. In Mark’s Gospel, they receive the bread and wine that Jesus distributes and accept Jesus’ teaching. The faithful at Mass are not mere observers, who we fear may distract us from watching the priest. The presence of other people does not take away from our encounter with Jesus in the Eucharist, no matter how loudly a baby cries or how annoying someone’s off-key singing may be. The community at Mass, led by the priest, celebrates the Eucharist.
The Church, therefore, earnestly desires that Christ’s faithful, when present at this mystery of faith, should not be there as strangers or silent spectators; on the contrary, through a good understanding of the rites and prayers they should take part in the sacred action conscious of what they are doing, with devotion and full collaboration. They should be instructed by God’s word and be nourished at the table of the Lord’s body; they should give thanks to God; by offering the Immaculate Victim, not only through the hands of the priest, but also with him, they should learn also to offer themselves; through Christ the Mediator, they should be drawn day by day into ever more perfect union with God and with each other, so that finally God may be all in all. (Sacrosanctum Concilium 48)
Ultimately, the strangeness of the Eucharist facilitates its intimate and communal nature. Like Jesus himself, it unites what is earthly with what is divine: wine becomes Jesus’ blood, shed for us all. At Mass, all of us eat and drink together—something we do throughout each day both to survive and for enjoyment—as we partake of the Eucharist, and we encounter Jesus in an experience that is simultaneously mundane and sublime.
Image source: Giotto, Last Supper (https://search.creativecommons.org/photos/29dcdb82-233c-478c-be38-418deefd4f10)
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Angela Rasmussen has a Ph.D. in biblical studies. She teaches at Georgetown University and The Catholic University of America. She is married with three daughters.