Feast of the Precious Blood

jesus-precious-bloodJuly 1 used to be the Feast of the Most Precious Blood. It’s a good day for us to think about the Blood of Christ.

First, a word about liturgical reform. This feast was extended to the universal Church only in 1849. Until sometime in the twentieth century, it was the first Sunday of July; by 1920 it was July 1. It had also sometimes been celebrated on Friday of the fourth week of Lent. In other words, though July 1 is nice – I like to make it a special day of remembrance – it’s not hallowed by any long universal tradition.

From time to time in her history, the Church has pruned the liturgical calendar. Over the years, more and more feasts get added – and from time to time, you have to pare them back. Today, for example, the readings at Mass were a rousing call from Amos and the calling of Matthew. When you have too many feasts, you miss your chance for “ordinary” readings like these.

If it were up to me, maybe I’d take some of the Italian saints out of the calendar and put this one back in. But it’s not up to me. And one of the splendors of being Catholic is participating in a life that transcends our personal preference.

So let’s remember the Precious Blood, but not get too worried about the prudential judgments that, for the time being, have supressed this fairly recent feast.


We can appreciate the Precious Blood by considering some ways it is distinct from the Body of Christ.

First, it brings out his suffering. When Christ says, “this is my body,” he says something marital. Every spouse gives his body to his bride, and vice versa. That’s nice and happy.

But when he says, “this is my blood,” things take a more frightening turn. We don’t want to see our spouse bleed. I like to imagine how wonder turned to shock when, after Christ gave them his body, he then began to speak of his blood – parallel to when Peter professes Jesus as Christ, and then Jesus starts talking about the Cross.

Devotion to Christ’s blood is devotion to his suffering.


Second, the blood is the completion of the Eucharist. In the consecration, the prayers are unequal. First he says just, “Take this, all of you, and eat of it, for this is my body” – after Vatican II, they added a stronger sacrificial angle, “which will be given up for you,” but the prayer remains simple.

The consecration of the Blood is not simple. “For this is the chalice of my blood, the blood of the new and eternal covenant, which will be poured out for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins.”

The post-Conciliar reform restored the Scriptural order of the prayer, so it next says, “Do this in memory of me,” and only after the elevation and genuflection does the priest add, “the mystery of faith” – but in the traditional order of the prayer, even those words were in the middle of the consecration of the Blood: “the blood of the new and eternal covenant, the mystery of faith, which will be poured out.”

There’s a sense, in these prayers, in which the Body is only a prologue for the Blood. The prayers suggest that the Blood is the exciting part: the new and eternal covenant, the mystery of faith, for the forgiveness of sins.


We can only begin to unpack these words here – we’ll have to leave the rest to our devotion and meditation. But we could start with two senses of “covenant.”

The Greek word can be translated two different ways, yielding two complementary theologies. These days, it’s popular to talk about a “covenant,” which is a two-way agreement. In this angle, attention is brought to the Chalice – and the prayers of the Mass do emphasize the container as well as what it contains, down to the mysterious words in the institution narrative of the Roman Canon, “he took this precious chalice in his holy and venerable hands.” This one?

The sharing of the chalice is a sign of union, concord, like a peace pipe. It is the reverse of the traditional poison cup: we share the cup, acknowledging that what happens to you (in this case, down to the Cross) happens to me, too. He drinks our cup, we drink his.

The Precious Blood is a covenant. This covenantal cup-sharing is “the mystery of faith.”


But another translation of that covenant word, with a lot of Scripture to support it, is testament. A testament is a one-way decision: a decision that when I die, you will get what I leave behind.

And the Precious Blood is that, too. It is a pointer to his death. And it is a promise of inheritance, an inheritance of life. In Scripture, wine and blood are both double signs: signs of disorientation and death, but also signs of joy and life. With the Blood, he also says, I die, and I give you life: I pour out my blood for you.

How do you reverence the Blood of Christ?

Penance and the Precious Blood

jesus-precious-bloodOn this last day of July, the month of the Precious Blood, let us turn from our meditations on the Eucharist to consider Confession, the sacrament of Penance.

Each of the sacraments has multiple names. These names are not interchangeable, but each reveal a different aspect of the sacrament. The sacrament we are considering now is called Reconciliation, because that is its end, what it brings about. It is also called Confession, because that is its means, the thing we do. But a third name for it is the Sacrament of Penance, because that is its inner nature: what Confession consecrates, and what brings about Reconciliation.


The word penance is a rich inheritance from our Latin Catholic tradition. The Greek in which the New Testament was written uses the word metanoia, which means essentially a change of mind, or conversion. “Conversion” literally means “turning around,” and that is another important name for the sacrament of Penance. It is about changing our direction.

The Latin tradition expresses a key insight into conversion with the word poenitentia, penance, or repentance. The root word is poena, which is pain, or punishment.

That sounds ugly at first, but the point is that conversion really does involve change. Conversion would be painless if we were not set in a certain direction. Some of the shallowest modern philosophy (with roots, really, in a certain kind of Protestantism) pretends that each moment is completely unconnected with the moment before, so that we can painlessly make a complete about-face.

But that is not what it’s like to be a human person. We are more steady than that. We set our heart on things. (That’s what the whole business about “kidneys” refers to.) To give up on one way of life and begin another is painful.


Put it this way: there is no such person as Ebenezer Scrooge. One night, Scrooge changes his mind, and wakes up in the morning a radically different person.

But that’s not what it’s like for us. If you have had your heart set on riches – or on anything else – it hurts to turn away from that. In fact, this is something profoundly healthy about us: we do have hearts which get set on things. We do get attached. And we are supposed to get attached: that’s what our passions are for.

But that’s also why change hurts. You may know that Dickens’s A Christmas Carol is a reworking of Dante’s Divine Comedy. The difference, though, is that in the Catholic view, which is so much more human, it’s hard to change: that’s what Purgatory is all about. In fact, it’s what the Inferno is all about.

(Of course, Scrooge does suffer in the night – but our suffering is more than that.)


Or put it another way: it wouldn’t be a real change if our hearts weren’t really set on something. Painless metanoia is not really any change at all.


Jesus enters into the pain of our conversion.

Luke portrays this vividly with the story of the good thief. “Do you not fear God,” he says to the other thief, “seeing that you are under the same condemnation? And we indeed justly; for we receive the due reward of our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong” (Lk 23:40-41).

The good thief joins Jesus in Paradise because he accepts the pain of conversion. He recognizes the evil of his sin, and he literally feels the pain of conversion.

Punishment, you see, is not meant for the glee of the punisher. It is meant to give us an opportunity to acknowledge the evil of our turning away from God, and experience what it is like to turn back.

Jesus joins us in that penance. It is not so much that Simon the Cyrenean helps Jesus carry the cross. Rather “on him they laid the cross, so that he might carry it after Jesus” (Lk 23:26): Jesus walks the way of penance with us. It is he who gives us the strength to carry the cross.


In Confession, the priest has the power not only to “loose” us from our sins, but to “bind” us, by giving some penance, some cross of conversion, bound to Christ, that will help us walk the way of real personal change.

“They have washed their robes, and made them white in the blood of the Lamb” (Rev 7:14). The path to true conversion is by bathing in the Precious Blood of Jesus.

Are there crosses of conversion you are unwilling to carry? Bathe them in the blood of the Lamb!

Click here for the entire series on the Precious Blood.

Communion in Eucharistic Prayer

jesus-precious-bloodToday, in this month of the Precious Blood, let us pause to consider the theme of ecclesial communion in the Eucharist. Ecclesia de Eucharistia, St. John Paul II said: “The heart of the mystery of the Church” is that the Church comes from the Eucharist.

The Eucharistic Prayers are emphatic about this. We can pray them better if learn to hear this repetition. Again, we will focus on Eucharistic Prayer I, the Roman Canon, both lest we think there is anything un-traditional about this theology and because it is longer.

We will see that the more common Prayers II and III say the same thing, but less emphatically. In fact, we find that Vatican II’s insistence on the Church as communion – which, John Paul II never tired of repeating, was the central teaching of the Council – is no innovation, but a re-emphasis on a central teaching of the tradition.


The Roman Canon opens by saying of the sacrifice, “which we offer you firstly for your holy catholic Church.” It then emphasizes union within the Chuch: “to grant her peace, to guard, unite and govern her.” This is the context in which we pray “together with your servant Francis our Pope and N. our Bishop”: we pray for the Pope and Bishop precisely because they mark the unity of the Church.

Next we pray for the rest of us, “Remember, Lord, your servants . . . and all gathered here, whose faith and devotion are known to you. For them, we offer you this sacrifice of praise or they offer it for themselves and all who are dear to them.” The prayer emphasizes the communion gathered around the altar. Strength flows out, and draws us in.

The farthest the prayer reaches from the Eucharistic community is, “and all who are dear to them”: those who come to the altar only in our hearts.

But the prayer repeatedly emphasizes that we are precisely the community of those who offer the sacrifice: “we, your servants and your holy people, offer to your glorious majesty.” “Graciously accept this oblation of our service, that of your whole family.” This is the Church: the family of the oblation.

Later we pray for those who have died. But here, too, we do not just pray at random, but precisely for those who are part of the Eucharistic fellowship: “Remember also, Lord, your servants, who have gone before us with the sign of faith.” The Eucharist spills over even to its members who are gone.

And it draws us into the communion of heaven: “In communion with those whose memory we venerate, especially the glorious ever-Virgin Mary” – in the Roman Canon, a long list of saints follows. The other list, after the consecration, is introduced by “graciously grant some share and fellowship with your holy Apostles and Martyrs.” At the end of the list it says, “Admit us, we beseech you, into their company.”

The Church is the fellowship of the altar. We become the Church through our participation in the altar, and that altar truly builds up a fellowship. The Roman Canon is insistent on this image.

Or, as the tradition says, “The Body [on the altar] builds the Body [which is the Church].”


The newer, shorter prayers say it too. In Eucharistic Prayer II, we are defined as those “worthy to be in your presence and minister to you.” “Partaking of the Body and Blood of Christ” we pray that “we may be gathered into one by the Holy Spirit.”

Here too we pray for the Church. In this world: “Remember, Lord, your Chuch, spread throughout the world, and bring her to the fullness of charity, together with Francis our Pope and N. our Bishop.” Those who have died: “Remember also our brothers and sisters who have fallen asleep in the hope of the resurrection.” And in heaven: “that with the Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of God . . . and all the saints who have pleased you throughout the ages, we may merit to be coheirs.”

In Eucharistic Prayer III, “you never cease to gather a people to yourself, so that from the rising of the sun to its setting a pure sacrifice may be offered.” We offer “the oblation of your Church,” “that we, who are nourished by the Body and Blood of your Son and filled with his Holy Spirit, may become one body, one spirit in Christ.”


From the wounded side of Christ is born the Church. All who receive the blood and join in its offering are joined in one body.

Can you think of ways people make a false tension between worship and community? How could you and your parish more boldly discover their unity?

On The Precious Blood of Jesus

On Our Offering of the Precious Blood

“Accept These Sacrifices”: Our Offering of the Precious Blood

jesus-precious-bloodIn this month of meditation on the Precious Blood, we pause to consider the sacrificial aspect of the Mass.

In the Roman Canon (Eucharistic Prayer I, the longer, traditional one), the priest says:

“Be pleased to look upon these offerings

with a serene and kindly countenance,

and to accept them,

as once you were pleased to accept

the gifts of your servant Abel the just,

the sacrifice of Abraham, our father in faith,

and the offering of your high priest Melchizedek,

a holy sacrifice, a spotless victim.”

Now, this is an interesting way to approach the Eucharist. Because notice, we are asking the Lord to accept the Body and Blood of Christ the same way he accepted Abel’s plain old lamb, Abraham’s sacrifice (of Isaac? he made other sacrifices as well – but not of the Body and Blood of Christ), and Melchizedek’s just plain bread and wine. If we look at the thing being offered, it’s as if we’re asking God to treat what we have on the altar as if it were something less. Our offering is better than theirs.

It is odd, too, that we ask him to “accept” what is obviously acceptable. Why do we need to say this kind of thing?

The reason is because we’re not talking about what’s on the altar, the victim. We’re talking about what’s in our hearts, as we make our priestly offering.

See, what is on the altar is important precisely because of the way it relates to our hearts as we offer it. We want to offer not the things Abel, Abraham, and Melchizedek offered – we have something better. We want to offer the way they offered.

The deeper point is that they used what was on the altar to honor God, to acknowledge him, to give him thanks. That’s the true meaning of sacrifice.


That’s why, even before the gifts are consecrated, the Roman Canon says, “accept and bless these gifts, these offerings, these holy and unblemished sacrifices.” Even before what is on the altar becomes the Body and Blood of Christ, we are already talking about what we are doing with our hearts.

Now, the greatly abbreviated Eucharistic Prayers given to us after the Council (most priests use Prayers II and III almost exclusively) don’t talk about this as clearly. But it’s still there – in fact, it’s still the heart of what’s going on in the Eucharist.

In the offertory, the priest says, “we have this bread to offer.” Not “to eat,” not just “to receive.” We are going to do something – to give thanks by offering. We then pray, “May the Lord accept the sacrifice at your hands.” What is in the hands of the priest is our prayer of thanksgiving.

In Eucharistic Prayer II, the priest begins, “Make holy, therefore, these gifts.” Well, the translation doesn’t make clear who is giving gifts to whom. Certainly God gives the Eucharist to us. But we also give it to him: “gifts” is sacrificial language.

This comes out in the acclamation, when we say, “we proclaim your death.” That’s what we’re doing with the Body and Blood on the altar. Not just receiving, but proclaiming, offering, giving thanks.

And thus in the “anamnesis,” the priest’s prayer right after the consecration, he says, “as we celebrate the memorial of his Death and Resurrection, we offer you, Lord, the Bread of life and the Chalice of salvation, giving thanks.” We offer the Eucharist to him! And we give thanks “that you have held us worthy to be in your presence and minister to you” – again, in Latin, this is explicitly sacrificial language. We are doing something!


Eucharistic Prayer III, the slightly longer one, has more of this. “All you have created rightly gives you praise.” “You never cease to gather a people to yourself, so that from the rising of the sun to its setting a pure sacrifice may be offered to your name.” “As we celebrate the memorial . . . we offer you in thanksgiving this holy and living sacrifice.”

“Look, we pray, upon the oblation of your Church, and recognizing the sacrificial Victim.” The Latin verb for “offer” is irregular: oblation and offering are the exact same word in Latin. Both of them are about sacrifice: we life up a sacrifice to God.


Christ pours out his Blood as an act of praise. We drink that Blood, commune with that sacrificial Victim, so that we can life up our hearts to the Lord. So that “through him, and with him, and in him,” united to him “in the unity of the Holy Spirit,” as he is united to the Father, we may acknowledge that “all glory and honor is” to “God, the almighty Father . . . forever and ever.”

How could you remind yourself to lift up the Sacred Victim as your sacrifice of praise? How could you be like Abel, Abraham, and Melchizedek?

The Precious Blood of Jesus

jesus-precious-bloodOne of the goals of the liturgical reform after Vatican II was to simplify the calendar so that we could enter more deeply into the liturgical seasons themselves. This past Sunday is an example of the challenge: Peter and Paul is a really big, important feast, one they decided to keep; but this year it overran a Sunday, when we’d like to be doing our orderly/”ordinary” reading through the Gospel.

This is always a balancing act – they did the same thing after the Council of Trent, because there’s always a temptation to keep adding more and more things. Perhaps you’ve experienced this with the end of the rosary? You add the Litany of Loretto, then the Prayer to St. Michael, then invocations to the Sacred Heart, and then prayers for the Pope, and while you’re at it you add your ever-longer list of people to pray for, and maybe a spiritual communion . . . and eventually it gets out of control, and you have to pare things back.

It’s not that any of these things aren’t good. It’s just that there are only so many hours in the day, and when we add too many things, we end up rushing through all of them.

Like a hair cut, it always takes a little growing back after these prunings to get everything right again. But no one intended the 1970 Missal to remain unchanged forever.


One of the casualties of this paring back of the liturgical year was the feast of the Most Precious Blood of Jesus, which used to fall on July 1. (Of course, that also used to be the Feast of the Octave of the Birth of John the Baptist – you see how crowded things can become.)

We now celebrate Corpus Christi as the Solemnity of the Most Holy Body and Blood, but that used to be divided into two feasts. No matter when Pentecost falls, July 1 is after the great Thursday celebration of Corpus Christi – I think June 29 is the latest Sacred Heart can fall. And July 1 starts a new month, which is traditionally associated with meditation on the Blood of Christ.


In Scripture, both blood and wine have an interesting dual association: both life and death. Blood is the very stuff of life, even the word for kinship: those who share your blood (e.g. Prov 1:18). The Israelites are prohibited from eating blood precisely because it is like eating something still alive: “You shall eat blood of no manner of flesh: for the life of all flesh is the blood thereof” (e.g. Lev 17:14; 17:11).

But when blood is seen, it’s a bad sign, and most of the uses of “blood” in the Bible are for “bloodshed.” There’s something very visceral here. Even my little children know that when they see blood, it’s like death is near.

Imagine the drama of the Last Supper. Jesus says, “This is my body.” And thus far the Apostles might have said, “strange, but okay.” But then he says, “This is my blood, which will be shed.” Oh no! The blood is the sign of death – precisely because it is life, separated from the body.

It is in fact central to the traditional reading of Eucharistic symbolism that the distinction of Body and Blood manifests Christ dead. His Blood in the chalice means it is not in his Body.


The Old Testament actually uses “blood” (the Hebrew word dam) as a word for wine: “you drank the pure blood of the grape.” And wine too has this double association.

On the one hand, it is “wine that maketh glad the heart of man” (Ps 104:15; cf. Eccl 9:7, 10:19, Song 1:2, 1:4, 4:10, 5:1, etc.). But it is also “the wine of astonishment” (Ps 60:3) and “the wine of violence” (Prov 4:17). “Wine is a mocker, strong drink is raging” (Prov 20:1) – in fact, often the line is “wine with mixture,” which refers to a stronger, more alcoholic beverage.

A little brings joy; a lot brings stumbling. It is, perhaps, like having too much life in you, more spirit than we can handle.


Jesus gives us his blood as wine. He pours out his life. And it is his own death, his own loss of blood, that is our life. We come to life by entering into his death, drinking from his death. We enter the inebriation of death, and discover the joy of Jesus.

And all of this flows, of course, from the wound in his Sacred Heart.

How could you practice devotion to the Precious Blood of Jesus this July?