The Last Supper, Juan de Juanes, c. 1562, Museo del Prado
Fr. Smith’s Commentary on the First Reading
Solemnity of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ
Exodus: 24 3-8
June 6, 2021
Today’s reading narrates the LORD’s first attempt to make a covenant with the Israelites after freeing them from captivity in Egypt. We have seen covenants many times before and no passage can exhaust its meaning and importance. A covenant forms a relationship between persons. It is more than a contract. Although it can have stipulations, as we will see today, it is ultimately a sharing of life and thus will always include a meal. Today, this will be emphasized using blood, the primordial sign of life. There are many kinds of convents, but they are all invitations to become part of a family. We can only understand these passages in general, and today’s in particular, if we are awestruck at what the LORD is offering the Israelites.
Three months after their departure from Egypt, the Israelites reached Mt. Sinai. Moses has gone up this mountain and the LORD tells Moses:
Therefore, if you hearken to my voice and keep my covenant,(Ex 19:5–6)
you shall be my special possession,
dearer to me than all other people,
though all the earth is mine.
You shall be to me a kingdom of priests, a holy nation.
That is what you must tell the Israelites.”
The people respond:
“Everything the LORD has said, we will do.”(Ex 19:8)
Then Moses brought back to the LORD the response of the people.
Moses then went up the mountain again and returned with all the commandments (Ex 20:1-20) Moses then takes 3 chapters (20:21-23:33) to relate all the laws and rules to the people. When completed:
Moses himself was told,(Ex 24:1-2)
“Come up to the LORD, you and Aaron,
with Nadab, Abihu, and seventy of the elders of Israel.
You shall all worship at some distance
but Moses alone is to come close to the LORD;
the others shall not come too near,
and the people shall not come up at all with Moses
The Lord has called all the people, priests and elders to meet with him. However, they all do not have equal access. Only Moses may directly approach the LORD.
They know why they are there. The full law, the 10 commandments, and the ordinances are spoken to them. They indicated their willingness previously, but now they give their informed consent:
When Moses came to the people(Ex 24:3)
and related all the words and ordinances of the LORD,
they all answered with one voice,
“We will do everything that the LORD has told us.”
A covenant however needs to be written down and then be ratified:
Moses then wrote down all the words of the LORD(Ex 24:4)
and, rising early the next day,
he erected at the foot of the mountain an altar
and twelve pillars for the twelve tribes of Israel.
Except for holocausts in the temple era, a covenant always includes a meal. The altar is the place where the animal is sacrificed so it could be cooked. Remember that this was before the temple. These were nomadic people, and they would make an altar when needed. The 12 pillars for the twelve tribes were a sign that this covenant was not made with individuals but with the entire community.
This is a remnant of several ancient customs. Exodus like all the books of the Pentateuch took centuries to compile. The final edit was around the time of the exile in the 6th century.
That certain young men who were called to offer sacrifice reveals the practical reality that sacrificing young bulls was strenuous and difficult work which only the young and fit could do. They were also the first born. Although this passage speaks of a professional priesthood, it is most likely that priestly functions were carried out by the head of households, first born males.
We also see a blood ritual which is uncommon in the scriptures but might have been a part of ancient ritual in at least some of the tribes which formed Israel. Blood was a sign of life and life belonged to God.
The altar was only the place of sacrifice but a sign of the presence of the LORD. Thus, Moses shared the blood by spilling it, some on the altar – representing God – and some on the people. He did this after he had read the words of the law so that the people knew what they were accepting. Only then will he say:
See the blood of the covenant(Ex 24:8)
that the LORD has made with you
in accordance with all these words.”
This passage continues:
Moses then went up with Aaron, Nadab, Abihu,(Ex 24:9–11)
and seventy elders of Israel,
and they beheld the God of Israel.
Under his feet there appeared to be sapphire tilework,
as clear as the sky itself.
Yet he did not smite these chosen Israelites.
After gazing on God, they could still eat and drink.
Having formed a covenant with the people he summons Moses as the elders to the mountain. The reference to sapphire tilework is intentional. It shows that wherever the LORD may be found is more splendid than the most spectacular and luxurious palace. It was thought that to see God meant death, but they not only see them they are invited to dine with him. They not only complete the sacrifice with the traditional meal but are given this sign of honor. In this world, there would be no better image of the LORD inviting his people intimacy. This was not demanding obedience; this was offering love.
This was unprecedented and perhaps unthinkable, and the Israelites almost immediately failed to understand its meaning much less live up to its stipulations.
Moses we are told “went up on the mountain” and stayed there for 40 days and 40 nights. God tells him how he wants to be worshiped in the most incredible detail (Chapters 25-31) While away, they made the molten calf and worshiped it. (Chap 32)
It was a stunning reversal. After the great care with which the covenant was prepared and the enthusiasm with which it was received it was betrayed and abandoned within a month. Many things may be learned from this but let us look at just one.
Exodus is an exciting adventure but a large part of it is the recitation of the law and an even larger part the description of how and when their liturgies were to be celebrated and how the liturgical objects and dress were to be constructed. This is not riveting.
Yet it is a clear statement of something extremely important. We are created to worship God. This cannot be simply something which occurs in our heads or even hearts but must be expressed physically. This is Liturgy and demands both mental effort and bodily participation. Thus, the tremendous detail and repetition of what was planned and what was done. We can only obey the law if we worship the Lord who gave it to us.
There is an ancient saying: lex orandi, lex credendi – “The law of what is prayed is the law of what is believed”. More recently lex vivendi the “law of what is lived” has been added. Let us worship with sincerely and piety that we may live with justice and love.