by Frances Young.
A few weeks ago I’d been asked to do a Lent address in the context of Evensong on the subject of sacrifice. In the discussion afterwards it was blood that people focussed on, finding it a particuarly difficult thing to get their heads around.
So we need to talk about blood.
When I was a student there was a great debate going on about the meaning of blood in the Bible. Some argued that it meant violent death – witness that cry in the Gospel passion-story, “His blood be upon our heads!” Others pointed to Leviticus 17.11: “ For the life of the flesh is in the blood.” But surely that debate reflected a false dichotomy. The shedding of blood meant death because the blood was the mysterious substance of life, and life was sacred. So blood was a kind of taboo substance with extraordinary powers. Thus it was that God said, “ I have given it to you for making atonement for your lives on the altar.” (Lev. 17.11), and Hebrews 9.22 picked that up: “Indeed, under the law almost everything is purified with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins.” Blood was used to decontaminate the altar, the Holy of Holies, everything needed to worship God, the Holy One, because it was the sacred stuff of life. And it was released for that purpose by sacrificing an animal. The release of the life-blood meant death – through death comes life.
Now this was the fundamental principle of sacrificial practice. When Deuteronomy insisted that sacrifice could only take place in the Jerusalem Temple, it had to make special provision for secular slaughter – before that every time a herdsman killed a fatted calf it was a sacrifice. Kosher and Halal rules are survivals of that. No animal could be slaughtered for meat without religious acknowledgement of the seriousness of taking life – any life. Sacrifice was fundamentally about food – it was recognition that every time we eat, something dies that we might live. It was not just about meat, but bread and cakes, oil and wine – offerings to the God who supplied the necessities of life, recognition of dependence on God for life, acknowledgement that life was a gift, and something has to die that we may live, even if we’re vegetarian – for only living, organic matter sustains life. Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. (Jn. 12.24)
The problem for us is that we don’t any longer experience the realities of food production – it’s all hidden away in mills and abattoirs. So we get hung up about things which once were everyday – yet never taken for granted. Blood has become yucky where once it was taboo and sacred. And most of us have even given up on saying grace … Visiting a synagogue once I noted in their handout something like this: to pray asking God for bread is to hallow God’s name – for it acknowledges utter dependence on the Creator for our very existence and life. That is the main thing that sacrifice was once all about.
So how on earth did the crucifixion of Jesus come to be seen as a sacrifice? There was no altar, no fire, no priest, no meat to share, etc. etc. Well, clearly, sacrifices came to express everything to do with the relationship between God and the people: in everyday life, gifts and feasts are key to celebrating occasions, saying ‘thankyou’ or ‘sorry’, and in a parallel way, sacrifices reinforced prayer and were freighted with all kinds of meanings. In particular, the powerful substance, sacrificial blood, not only dealt with sin, but had protected the people from the angel of death in Egypt, and had sealed the covenant between God and the people, the Passover being a commemoration of the founding story of the Exodus. The Last Supper narratives, and much else in the New Testament and early Christianity, points to the notion that Jesus re-enacted the Passover and initiated the new covenant through his death, and through ‘eating his flesh and drinking his blood’ believers could receive both forgiveness and eternal life. Thus, through death comes life, both literally and spiritually.
Maybe we need to talk about blood to get it!