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Blood of Jesus

With the coronavirus pandemic raging, members the Solid Rock Church in Lebanon, Ohio continued to gather for services, despite pleas from public health officials and the state’s governor for citizens to practice “social distancing” to stop the spread of the virus. The governor’s emergency stay-at-home order had exempted religious organizations, and the Pentecostal mega-church near Cincinnati had elected to continue services. The church’s website cited a passage from the New Testament’s Book of Hebrews to justify their decision: “Let us not give up the habit of meeting together, as some are doing….” A woman parishioner gave a more startling justification to those not schooled in hard-core Pentecostal beliefs. “I wouldn’t be anywhere else,” she explained to a CNN reporter as she was driving out of the church parking lot. “I’m covered in Jesus’ blood.” The reporter asked whether she wasn't concerned about infecting other people. But the woman merely repeated, “I’m covered in Jesus’ blood,” as if this somehow provided an antidote to deadly pathogens.

The Solid Rock Church makes explicit what remains implicit in most mainline denominations, which is that Christianity as a religion is essentially rooted in blood sacrifice. Start with the fact that St. Paul, who laid down most of the basic precepts of the Christian faith, was a Jewish Pharisee inculcated in the belief that atonement for sin required the shedding of blood. Priests at the temple in Jerusalem practiced an elaborate system of animal sacrifices to atone for sin. Paul’s refinement was to proclaim that Jesus’ crucifixion constituted a "full, perfect and sufficient sacrifice for the sins of the whole world," as later expressed in the Anglican Book of Common Prayer. The blood sacrifices of ancient temple priests are symbolically preserved in the Christian Eucharist, in which the body and blood of Christ are offered up. As John the Evangelist affirmed, “The blood of Jesus Christ cleanses us from all sin.”

Starting in the fourth century, the faithful began venerating more tangible connections to the divine than mere sacramental reenactments. There arose a robust traffic in relics associated with Jesus, Mary or one of the saints. So many purported fragments of the True Cross had surfaced in Europe during the Middle Ages that the Protestant reformer John Calvin quipped there was enough wood in circulation to make up a large shipload. Among other artifacts were an astonishing variety of body parts, including fingers, toes, teeth, hair, hearts, and even nail clippings. The cathedral at Chartres is one of dozens of churches where you can find breast milk from the Virgin Mary. More than 20 churches claimed to be in possession of the Holy Prepuce, the foreskin from Jesus’ circumcision as an infant.

Medieval crusaders and pilgrims to the Holy Land brought back arguably the most prized relic of all: quantities of blood shed by Jesus for the sins of the whole world. The Precious Blood of the Passion of Christ is housed in a crypt in the Basilica of Sant’Andrea in Mantua, Italy. According to legend, Jesus' blood found its way to Mantua via the Roman centurion who pierced Jesus’ side at Calvary to verify that he was dead.* The blood was buried for safekeeping, then unearthed on two separate occasions in 804 A.D. and 1048 A.D. The centerpiece of an annual religious procession in Bruges, Belgium is a cloth that Jospeh of Arimathea reputedly used to wipe the blood-soaked face of Jesus after his crucifixion. The cloth turned up in Bruges by at least 1256 A.D., brought back from the Holy Land either after the Second or Fourth Crusade. Altogether, relics featuring drops, vials or even cups of Jesus’ blood can be found in more than 100 religious sites.

Jesus’ blood and other saintly relics have long been associated with miracles of one sort or another, a phenomenon that folklorist James Frazer called “contagious magic.” Anything that a holy person touched or wore or trod upon — better yet, anything that was once part of his or her body — was believed to possess miraculous properties. In this sense, the magical thinking of churchgoers at the Solid Rock Church in Ohio was consistent with long-standing church beliefs, although their faith in the blood of Jesus was not meant in quite such a tangible sense.

Believers can cite biblical precedent for the strategic deployment of blood to ward off the effects of a plague — in this case, the final plague the Lord God visited upon the Egyptians to force them to release the Hebrews from bondage. The Hebrew slaves were instructed to smear lamb’s blood on the doorposts of their houses so the Lord would pass over them when he slew the first-born in every Egyptian household. However, there is no comparable biblical support in the New Testament for the notion that Jesus’ blood is good for anything other than the forgiveness of sins.

The good people of Solid Rock Church might do well to ask themselves what Jesus would do if confronted by a pandemic. We note he was demonstrably reluctant to put himself in harm’s way just to prove a point. During his battle of wits with the devil in the wilderness, Satan tries to talk him into throwing himself from the pinnacle of the temple in Jerusalem. The Deceiver quotes Scripture: "If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, 'He will give his angels charge of you,' and 'On their hands they will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone.’” However, Jesus is no less adept at citing Scripture to prove a point: “You shall not tempt the Lord your God.”

*The spear, or Holy Lance, allegedly used for this grisly task is another prized relic on display at rival sites, including St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome.

Hebrews 10:25
1 John 1:7
Matthew 4:1-11

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