Lectionary #168, Gospel Mark 14: 12-16, 22-26
The first reading today from the book of Exodus describes the sacrifice of bulls and the sprinkling of their blood in a ceremony at the base of Mount Sinai. Similar offerings of animal blood are mentioned again in the reading from Hebrews, where they are judged as being inferior to the blood of Christ, the mediator of “a new covenant”.
Saint Thomas Aquinas’ hymn Lauda Sion, which we hear as a sung “sequence” before the gospel today, echoes the theme of Hebrews—that the old covenant and sacrifices are passing away:
Here the new law’s new oblation,
By the new king’s revelation,
Ends the form of ancient rite.
Now the new the old effaces,
Truth away the shadow chases,
Light dispels the gloom of night.
What Hebrews and Lauda Sion note is true: the old covenant is surpassed in Christ, yet in a way that does not deprive it of value, but rather brings it to perfection. Taking this reflection deeper and sounding the depths of the origins of the Church, the gospel invites us to the Last Supper and the mystery of the Eucharist. This is the sacrament by which Christ anticipated bringing the old order to completion, and by which he extended to us a share in the new order. In doing so he said: “This is my blood of the covenant, which will be shed for many. Amen, I say to you, I shall not drink again the fruit of the vine until the day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God” (Mark 14:24-25).
Our Lord’s linking of the Eucharist with the Kingdom of God reminds us that the contingent state in which we live both draws from the past and looks to the future. Thus the old covenant, fulfilled and brought to flower in the Eucharist, still retains its validity (see Romans 11:29), though of course the rites and sacrifices associated with it have ceased. Similarly, while Jesus preached the Kingdom and announced that it was already present (see Luke 10:9-11), we still await its full unfolding in the world.
Lauda Sion, written in an era which had a different perspective, puts it starkly: “Now the new the old effaces, truth away the shadow chases”. I think it is best to conceive of the old covenant not as a fleeing shadow, but perhaps as the sort of shadow we often encounter in life’s ambiguous moments, when we know by faith that the Kingdom of God has indeed arrived in Christ, but it seems distant or even absent in a world marked by evil and injustice.
That what is described in Exodus and Lauda Sion is no longer practiced, or that the coming of the Kingdom in its perfection appears far off, does not mean that the old covenant or the new Kingdom are any less real or worthwhile. Rather, the salvation the old covenant promised and the realization of this promise in the Kingdom are both united in the Eucharist.
If our lives, this side of heaven, are filled with shadows of that for which we long, then at the very least we can rejoice that these things are of value in themselves and lead to heaven, even if they are not the perfection of the goal we seek. So it was with the book of Exodus and the promises of the Old Testament, as Saint Thomas so ably says: the old anticipates the new and the new fulfills the old in a beautiful reciprocal movement. In the symphony of God’s plan for our salvation let us pray at the Eucharist this day that Jew and Christian—the people of the old and new covenants—may one day come together at the heavenly banquet, gathered as one into the living Body of Christ.
Father Edward M. Mazich, O.S.B.