Sunday of the Passion; Palm Sunday

There is a hymn published in 1876 by Dr. Robert Lowry, a prominent Baptist preacher who was born in Philadelphia. It is not in our hymnal, so I had never heard it until it was performed by the Jars of Clay, on the album Redemption Songs, released in 2005.

The album featured many songs that the artists had sung in their Baptist or Methodist churches as youths, and they put their musical interpretation on them.

The song is Nothing but the Blood of Jesus. It starts out like this:

What can wash away my sin?
Nothing but the blood of Jesus;
What can make me whole again?
Nothing but the blood of Jesus.
Oh! precious is the flow
That makes me white as snow;
No other fount I know,
Nothing but the blood of Jesus.

At this time of my life I was just starting to listen to contemporary Christian music. I discovered the Jars of Clay through my boss at Verizon who raved about them. Their music is very complex, with great instrumentals and vocals, and when I heard this song performed on this album, I was just enthralled by it.

As you can tell, the focus of this song is the Blood of Jesus. To a non-Christian, and maybe to a few nominal Christians as well, all this talk of blood can be unnerving. Why are we focused on it?

The shedding of blood is a major theme in the Old Testament, or as I like to call it, the Hebrew Bible. To the Horite people, the ancestors of the Hebrews, who lived in the land of Canaan, blood meant life. They knew that to keep it in the body was life, and to shed it was death.

To them the fundamental difference between men and woman is how they shed blood. Women do it as a function of the reproductive system, but men do it by killing animals, or other humans while at war.

The first time in the Bible that a man shed blood of sacrifice to God is in Genesis 4 when Abel, who as a shepherd, sacrificed the firstlings of his flock and of their fat portions.

Abel’s brother Cain, who was a tiller of the land, and who gave his name to the land of Canaan, presented fruit of the ground as his sacrifice. The LORD had regard for Abel and his offering, but not for Cain. Why? Because the LORD knew that Cain was a sinner, whose offering was not pure. Cain was so angry that he killed his brother.

When the LORD asked Cain, where is your brother? He answered with that famous line, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” The LORD said, “What have you done? The voice of your brother’s blood is crying to me from the ground.” Blood is a living thing, and without it, there is death.

Fast forward to the Temple priests, the Levites, and their Code Book, Leviticus. The sacrifice of the firstlings of cattle, sheep, goats is described in all its gory detail. Why is this happening now? Verse 4 says, to make atonement for the offerer. Atonement means to rejoin that which is separated, to be At One. This is atonement for sin that the one offering it receives forgiveness for sin, and becomes righteous before the LORD.

In verse 5 of Leviticus, chapter 1, we read that the priests present the blood of the offering by throwing it round about against the altar. So we find that this is the role of the priest, to offer shed blood to God.

This is the blood work of men, and this is why only men become priests. The blood work of women is in child birth and the reproductive system, and these are clearly delineated in the Bible, and they are never to be confused.

Now fast forward to the blessed Passion of our Lord Jesus. As St. Paul wrote in the letter to the Hebrews, Jesus is the great High Priest, who is at once the priest who sacrifices and the Lamb who is the sacrifice.

William Chatterton Dix, another great hymn writer, wrote in the hymn, “Alleluia, Sing to Jesus, Born of Mary, earth thy footstool, heaven thy throne; thou within the veil hast entered, robed in flesh, our great High Priest: thou on earth both Priest and Victim in the eucharistic feast.”

The blood of Jesus is shed for our sins. In the 7th chapter of the letter to the Hebrews, verse 27, St. Paul writes, “He has no need, like those high priests (the Levites) to offer sacrifices daily, first for his own sins and then for those of the people; he did this once for all when he offered up himself.”

So, now, rather than the sacrifice of the blood of bulls and goats, and that making a huge mess of the altar, Jesus has made, at once, the sacrifice to end all sacrifices, his blood for the sins of the world. Hebrews Chapter 9, verse 12 says, “He entered once for all into the Holy Place, taking not the blood of goats and calves, but his own blood, this securing an eternal redemption.”

I read just this morning an article by a Catholic doctor, Timothy Millea who examined Christ’s passion from a medical perspective. In the Passion Gospel we heard today about how Jesus suffered under Pontius Pilate. He was scourged by the soldiers, which mean he was wounded and bleeding. He was given a crown of thorns, which caused more bleeding from his head, and you know how much a would to the scalp bleeds. He was then sent out to be crucified.

He was nailed to the cross, likely through his wrists, which would hold the weight of his body, causing more bleeding. Then his feet were nailed to the cross, and he would go on bleeing for hours on the cross.

In the letter to the Philippians, Paul wrote that Christ “emptied himself” on the cross. Dr. Millea, speculated that while most belief that Jesus died by asphyxiation, that a contributing cause to his death was that he bled out. The animals sacrificed by the priests in Leviticus also died by blood loss, and at the last Supper, which we will commemorate on Thursday evening, Jesus offered his blood of the new covenant, which is shed for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins.

The priests of today, myself included, stand at the altar of God and offer the sacrifice of blood of Jesus with the words, “Do this in remembrance of me.” The Greek for is ananesis, meaning, “to make me present among you again.”

When we do this, we don’t sacrifice Jesus again, because his sacrifice was once for all. We bring it to the table again. We bend space and time to make his sacrifice here and now for us, so that we can participate in it, just like those who brought offerings to the temple.

We do not pretend to sacrifice Jesus again. We communicate in his sacrifice. That’s why we call it Holy Communion. We become one with him through his sacrifice. At the breaking of the bread, we say, “Christ our passover IS sacrificed for us. Therefore let us keep the feast.”

This is the fundamental mystery of our religion, and one that is unique to Christianity. No other religion believes like we do, that Christ is made present among us again in his Body and Blood. It’s radical! It’s a stumbling block to very many people of this world.

How could it be that God came to earth to die on a cross! Why would an all powerful God submit to such humiliation? He is a weak God, they may think. How could he become present again and again, at every hour in every time zone, on every altar in this world? I don’t know! I can’t explain it! I just believe it. I believe it because my spirit tells me so; my spirit that is One with the Spirit of Christ.

Take eat, and drink, for this is my Body given for you, and my Blood shed for you. Do this for the remembrance of me, to make me present among you again.

This is why we celebrate Holy Week! We must recall his suffering and death to really appreciate what he did for us. He suffered, he bled out, he died. Why? Because he loves you and me. Don’t miss out on the services this week. Please come and appreciate what Jesus has done for you.

What can wash away my sin?
Nothing but the blood of Jesus;
What can make me whole again?
Nothing but the blood of Jesus.

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