Homily notes: The Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ Year B

Fr Brendan Byrne SJ 27 May 2024

The feast of the Body and Blood of Christ enables the Eucharist to be set in a broader scriptural context than is possible on Holy Thursday. This year the wider context appears in readings unified around the theme of the ‘blood of the covenant.’

First reading:
Exodus 24:3-8.
Responsorial Psalm: Ps 115(116):12-13, 15-18.
Second reading: Hebrews 9:11-15.
Gospel: Mark 14:12-16, 22-26.
Link to readings

The feast of the Body and Blood of Christ enables the Eucharist to be set in a broader scriptural context than is possible on Holy Thursday. This year the wider context appears in readings unified around the theme of the ‘blood of the covenant.’

The First Reading, Exodus 24:3-8, describes the solemn ritual in which the Sinai covenant was sealed. Moses has received the Torah (Law) from God and put it in writing. In the context of a sacrificial ritual, he reads out the law to the people and, following their consent to abide by all the commandments in the Torah, he sprinkles them with the blood from the sacrifices, saying ‘This is the blood of the Covenant that the Lord has make with you.’ In this way the covenant that bound God to Israel and Israel to God is formally ratified and sealed through blood. Of course, the blood in question is the blood of animal sacrifices. But blood is taken to be a symbol of the life-force. Hence its significance.

The old covenant had a ritual, celebrated yearly on the Day of Atonement, when the barrier to the covenant relationship created by the accumulated sins of the people over the past year were wiped away by God. On this one day of the year the High Priest entered the most sacred part of the Temple, the Holy of Holies, and sprinkled the blood of a sacrificed animal upon the cover over the Ark of the Covenant (Lev 16:11-16). This ritual enacted God’s wiping away the sin of the people and the renewal of the covenant relationship. The extract from the Letter to the Hebrews in the Second Reading (Heb 9:11-15) portrays Christ’s saving action in terms of this ritual, while insisting on its vastly superior efficacy and the fact that, unlike the older rite, it is ‘once for all,’ needing no repetition. The blood is not now the blood of animals but the precious blood of Jesus himself. And the sanctuary that he has entered is not the earthly Holy of Holies but the sanctuary of heaven itself, which he has entered in resurrection and exaltation to God’s right hand.

The Eucharistic traditions of the Gospels (and Paul’s account in 1 Cor 11:23-25) carry further this association of blood and covenant. Drawing in Jeremiah’s prophecy of a ‘new covenant’ (Jer 31:33), they see the sprinkling of Christ’s blood on Calvary as God’s establishment of a ‘new covenant’ for a renewed People of God. On the night before he died, Christ shared a final Passover meal with his disciples. Modifying the Passover ritual, he impressed a special meaning on the death he was to undergo the following day: the shedding of his blood, symbolised in the cup of wine, would be the inauguration of a ‘new covenant in his blood.’

Though the command to repeat the Eucharistic gestures (‘Do this in memory of me’) does not appear in the Markan account set down for today’s Gospel (14:12-16, 22-26), as it does in Luke (22:19) and Paul (1 Cor 11:24, 25), the inauguration of a ritual to be repeated is clearly implied. When believers of subsequent generations recall and repeat what the Lord did at that Last Supper, they place themselves in a situation similar to that of the Israelites whom Moses sprinkled with blood at the ratification of the first covenant. They appropriate to themselves all the saving benefits associated with the ‘new covenant’ established in Christ’s blood. They commit themselves anew to abide by the way of life required by that covenant, a life of obedient love modelled on the loving service of Christ.

The Markan account (cf. also Matt 26:28) specifies that the blood will be ‘poured out for many.’ The little phrase ‘for many’ echoes the climax of the Fourth Servant Song of Isaiah where the Servant’s suffering and death is stated to have meaning because in his death he ‘made many righteous’ and ‘bore the sin of many’ (53:11-12). In an earlier echo of the Song, Jesus had countered the false ambition of his disciples by explaining that he had come, ‘not to be served, but to serve and give his life as a ransom for many’ (10:45).

The Eucharist catches up this sense of the divine ‘service’ performed by Christ upon the cross: one innocent person giving himself up to death in order to free ‘many’ (potentially the entire human race) from the captivity and condemnation associated with sin. The Eucharist, then, continually re-enacts the loving, costly outreach of God in Christ to draw human beings into the life-giving covenant.

The pilgrim People of God celebrates the Eucharist in anticipation of the ‘new wine’ of the Kingdom and as a means whereby it is continually cleansed and renewed on its journey.

Brendan Byrne, SJ, FAHA, taught New Testament at Jesuit Theological College, Parkville, Vic., for almost forty years. He is now Emeritus Professor at the University of Divinity (Melbourne). His commentaries on the Gospels can be found at Pauline Books and Media


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