Blood: A Symbol of Salvation
By Rev. Cliff Reinhardt
As I write this, we are coming through the most intense time in the Christian year. It’s about life and death … and blood. For a long time I’ve been curious about blood.
Now, lest you become alarmed, I assure you that this curiosity is not morbid. It’s been prompted, rather, by several factors. For example, there’s the Olympic competitions, where blood-doping has become a big issue. I’ve also been inspired by conversations with a Lutheran scholar in Saskatoon, Christian Eberhart, whose recent book, The Sacrifice of Jesus: Understanding Atonement Biblically (Fortress Press, 2011), is an excellent resource for this study on blood as well as for broader themes of atonement in our Judaeo-Christian heritage.
And then there’s that conversation that I had about 25 years ago with an older man involved in street-evangelism in the Downtown Eastside. He told me that he proclaimed the blood of Jesus, poured out for sinners. He showed me the handout that he used in his ministry: a rather lurid 2-colour picture of a cross dripping blood. While I appreciated his zeal, and even his understanding of law and gospel, I wasn’t so sure about his literalistic emphasis on the blood of Jesus.
Even so, let’s start precisely there.
The Blood of the Lamb
“Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, ‘Who are these, robed in white, and where have they come from?’ I said to him, ‘Sir, you are the one that knows.’ Then he said to me, ‘These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.’”
You probably recognize that quote. It’s found at Rev. 7:13-14 and is part of a portrayal of the great judgement at the end of time. There are many features of this depiction that stir our imaginations, but the one that stands out for me is the jarring claim that the ones who came through “the great ordeal” are wearing robes that are white because they have been washed in the blood of the Lamb.
Blood is red, not white. Moreover, bloodstains are very persistent. It can be a very hard task to restore a piece of cloth to its original colour once it has been stained by blood. So how can it be possible for robes to turn white when exposed to the blood of the Lamb?!
Of course, we know who the Lamb is: Jesus Christ. He is the Lamb who was slaughtered who keeps secure all who have been entrusted to him (Rev. 13:5-8). Jesus is the power of God funnelled and focussed into flesh and bone … and blood.
Blood figures prominently in our Christian faith. We’re reminded of that every time we share the cup of Holy Communion, as we hear again the words of Jesus, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood, shed for you and for all people for the forgiveness of sin.” Jesus is alluding to his imminent death at the hands of those who want to get rid of him because he proclaims and enacts God’s forgiveness of sins in a way that runs counter to established standards. Because Jesus is at the centre of the New Testament, so is his blood.
But it’s not just Jesus’ blood that concerns the Bible. In the Bible’s various books we will also find the blood of ordinary human beings and animals. No surprise. All people and cultures are conscious of blood.
The Stuff of Life
One of the gifts I received at Christmas was the book, Blood: The Stuff of Life, by Canadian writer Lawrence Hill (House of Anansi Press Inc, 2013). The book is based on Hill’s 2013 Massey Lectures sponsored by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. It’s a fascinating study.
Hill himself notes the significance of blood: “Blood reveals us and protects us. It’s a curse, and it can be a sign.” (p. 11) He notes its frequency in the Bible (it’s mentioned over 400 times), and the key role it plays in contemporary Christian faith and in other religions, modern and ancient. He reminds us Canadians that we remain particularly conscious of blood because of the tainted blood crisis in the final few decades of the 20th century, and the policies that remain in place because of that crisis, some of which are controversial.
Hill points out that we are aware of blood in many other ways, too. For example, we hear about blood in high-performance sports … mostly when athletes try to gain an edge over their competitors by doping their blood with chemical enhancements. Because of technology, that’s a more recent phenomenon. Far more ancient and enduring is our revulsion over the spilling of blood, whether in extraordinary mortal combat or very ordinary female menstruation.
Blood is a persistent subject of our fascination, from ancient mythology, to medieval preoccupations with “blood-lines” (ancestry), to racial distinction and discrimination.
Blood and Sacrifice
Peoples ancient and modern know that blood is essential to animal and human life. Without blood, the person or animal dies.
Now, we moderns know that blood by itself is not the actual determinant of life or death; rather, the essential markers of life are the electrical activity of the brain and the vitality of the body’s cardio-vascular systems. In some ways blood is better understood as the conveyor system of the body. It delivers oxygen and essential nutrients to cells in various parts of the body, and also carries away metabolic wastes from those same cells.
Even so, blood is essential.
We see this reflected in the Bible. Blood is held in high regard. Sometimes it is equated with life itself: “For your own lifeblood I will surely require a reckoning: from every animal I will require it and from human beings, each one for the blood of another, I will require a reckoning for human life.” (Gen. 9:5) No surprise, then, that it’s considered sacred: “For the life of the flesh is in the blood; and I have given it to you for making atonement for your lives on the altar; for, as life, it is the blood that makes atonement.” (Lev. 17:11)
However, blood was not essential to the sacrificial rites of the ancient Israelites. Vegetal matter (like flour or whole grain) was a perfectly acceptable substance for some sacrifices. When an animal was ritually slain for the purposes of sacrifice, what was critical was the burning of it in whole or in part upon the altar so as to produce rising smoke; for the rising smoke of the burning substance – whether animal flesh or vegetal matter — symbolized the ascending prayers of God’s people.
To repeat: neither the slaying of the animal nor the outpouring of its blood was the essential part of the sacrifice. Rather, the critical thing was the burning of its flesh on the altar so as to produce smoke.
Even so, blood played a role. Because it was regarded as holy, itserved as a purification agent applicable to objects unintentionally polluted by sin. (Ex. 29:21) And blood therefore was regarded also as an agent for consecration of the priests and the rest of the people as well. (Lev. 8:22-24; Ex. 24:1-11)
The Blood of Jesus Reconsidered
God did not require the death of his only beloved son in order to redeem us. God did not need Jesus “to spill his blood” in order to heal the rift between heaven and earth. Why would God need the death of Jesus – or of anyone or anything – in order to effect forgiveness of sins?
That said, we know that Jesus’ death was inevitable, for he came among us resolutely forgiving sin in obedience to his heavenly Father’s will, with his own righteousness as the only standard. And when the world showed that it simply does not want God in its midst on those terms, then like a lamb readied for the slaughter, Jesus did not raise his voice in protest.
Together with St. Paul, we who are in Christ proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes (1 Cor. 11:26), for we know that God’s way simply is not welcomed by the world. And thus we cannot help but associate his blood with his death, the inevitable consequence of God’s will to forge a new covenant by the forgiveness of sin.
But the true symbolic depth of Jesus’ blood is his life – the life of his ministry that is recorded for us in the Gospels, and the new life of his resurrection as the First Being of a New Creation.
All this is ours by the faith that God creates in us through Word and Sacrament, so that we may take up this life with confidence as Christ’s people … and meet a waiting world with courage and love.