The Biblical Meaning of Blood
With this being the month of the Precious Blood, I would like to examine the biblical meaning of blood in the Old and New Covenants.
The Old Testament people, the ancient Hebrews' thought of blood differently than we do. We should keep in mind that scientific terms such as the circulatory system, the heart as a pump, red and white blood cells, blood clots etc.. were not a part of their body of knowledge. Blood was mysterious and awe inspiring. A key part of the mosaic holiness code and of having a deeply religious experience of life, blood became a central feature in the temple liturgy rituals.
Sacrifices and Covenants
Anthropologists will tell us every culture, everywhere engaged in sacrificial offerings to the gods or God of their world. This begs the question, what exactly is a sacrifice? From the biblical point of view, it was an act of offering something precious to God on an altar. There were two types; bloody sacrifice (animal offerings) and unbloody sacrifice (grains, wheat, and wine).
There were four basic reasons why these sacrifices were offered. They all center around expectations in their a relationship with God. Frst, they were offered to ratify or seal a covenant with God, with the message, ‘I trust you’. Next, they were offered to worship God, with a message of ‘I adore you and love you’. They were also offered to give something back to God in gratitude for his goodness, with the message, ‘I thank you’ and finally, to atone or take away our sins and reconcile with God, with the message ‘I am sorry’.
All of these sacrifices either initiated a covenant or were done within the existing covenant. So what exactly do we mean by covenant? It is a sacred oath or promise between God and his people which includes terms. There are general terms: He to be their God and they to be his people. There may also be specific terms: not to destroy with a flood, to bless people with land, to bless one’s descendants, to ask for a specific blessing etc.. What God might ask in return could be circumcision, rituals, worship of God alone, obey the Ten Commandments, avoid idolatry etc.. Only a priest (Levite) was permitted to offer sacrifice and preside over religious rituals as a mediator of the covenant between God and the people. He represented God to the people and the people to God.
The Blood of the Covenant
For the ancient Hebrews, blood was seen as the life-giving force of the animal and therefore belonging to God. If a living creature lost its blood, death would ensue. Since bleeding leads to death, blood was a graphic warning that the covenant was not to be broken. Highlighting this theology, the red color of blood is a universal sign of warning or danger. It also means entering a family, or establishing a brotherhood bond. Those who enter into a covenant with you may now declare, ‘Now, you are my blood!’
Every covenant is sealed or ratified by the blood of the victim offered. The blood is sprinkled or splashed on the altar or sometimes on the people signifying that a pact is legally in effect. Blood also makes atonement for sin, spiritually and legally cleansing the place of worship, the altar and by extension, those engaging in the sacrifice. “Since the life of a living body is in its blood, I have made you put it on the altar, so that atonement may thereby be made for your own lives, because it is in the blood, as the seat of life, that makes atonement” (Lev 17:11).
When Moses mediated the Old Covenant, he used blood to ratify or seal the covenant. By splashing it on the people, he made the promises binding and sacred. “Then, having sent young men of the Israelites to offer burnt offerings and sacrifice young bulls as communion offerings to the LORD, Moses took half of the blood and put it in large bowls; the other half he splashed on the altar. Taking the book of the covenant, he read it aloud to the people, who answered, ‘All that the LORD has said, we will hear and do.’ Then he took the blood and splashed it on the people, saying, “This is the blood of the covenant which the LORD has made with you according to all these words” (Ex 24:5-8).
Jesus ratified and sealed the New Covenant with his own blood at the Last Supper. He uses the same wording as Moses, but he adds that it is also an atonement sacrifice (to take away sin). “Then he took a cup, gave thanks, and gave it to them, saying, “Drink from it, all of you, for this is my blood of the covenant, which will be shed on behalf of many for the forgiveness of sins” (Mt 26:27-28). Unlike the Old covenant in which animal blood is splashed in a temporary, external way, those who partake of the Eucharist drink the blood of an eternal God in an internal way.
This qualitative difference between these two blood sacrifices is made crystal clear in the letter to the Hebrews. “But when Christ came as high priest of the good things that have come to be…he entered once for all into the sanctuary, not with the blood of goats and calves but with his own blood, thus obtaining eternal redemption. For if the blood of goats and bulls and the sprinkling of a heifer’s ashes can sanctify those who are defiled so that their flesh is cleansed, how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal spirit offered himself unblemished to God, cleanse our consciences from dead works to worship the living God” (Heb 9:11-14).
The Power of the Precious Blood
Adam and Eve brought death to all because of sin. “The wages of sin is death” (Rm 6:23). This is why we have gratitude for Jesus going to the cross as our substitute. He had to do it that way because according to scripture, “Without the shedding of blood there is no remission of sin” (Hebrews 9:22).
It is only because of Jesus’ sacrifice that we get to hear these wonderful words of healing, “God, the Father of mercies, through the death and resurrection of his son has reconciled the world to himself and poured out the Holy Spirit for the forgiveness of sins; through the ministry of the church may God grant you pardon and peace, and I absolve you from your sins in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” When we hear those words, we should remember the blood of Jesus poured out like a fountain of mercy for the forgiveness of sins.
What the symbolism in Old Testament sacrifices points to, is that Jesus’ offering has real power to cancel out sin and reconcile the sinner with God. The difference is his sacrificial death is efficacious and not merely symbolic. We Catholics experience it. We are washed by his blood from the inside out in the sacraments. "The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ?" ( 1Cor 10:16) The Gospel of John chapter six reminds us that "Whoever ...drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day". When we have true contrition and confess our sins to a Catholic priest, we are given renewed hope for future glory. Like the white robe that we donned after our baptism, we long to be like those in heaven who “…have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb” (Revelation 7:14).
The bleeding of our Lord began in a garden before the arrest. The name of the garden, Gethsemane, gives us a clue as to why Jesus’ sweat became like drops of blood (Lk 22:44). Gethsemane means ‘olive press’. It was located on the Mount of Olives where they would grow and crush olives. To squeeze out the olive oil, large millstones were rolled over them. Likewise, Jesus, in Gethsemane, was crushed like an olive by the weight of the world’s sins. Under the mental stress, blood was squeezed out of his sweat glands. Thus began an unending torrent of the Precious Blood shed throughout his passion. As a fount of mercy, it still flows into the hearts of the faithful and has proven to be more powerful than the sins of the whole world.
"The blood of Christ is a mystery of ineffable beauty. It bestows courage, joy out of all earthly measure, sweetness, beauty, limitless enlargement and perception. It brings life in intoxicating excess, both to possess and to impart" - Fr. Romano Guardini
“O Blood and Water, which gushed forth from the Heart of Jesus as a Fount of Mercy for us, I trust in You.” - St. Faustina