Saturday, July 2, 2016

There is (still) power in the Precious Blood of Jesus

On the 19th November, 1875, the great tractarian Edward Bouverie Pusey (1800-1882) made his last will and testament. It begins with these words: 

“I die in the faith of the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church, believing explicite (as I have for many years declared) all which I know Almighty God to have revealed in her; and implicite anything which He may have revealed in her which I may not know. I give my soul into the Hands of Almighty God, humbly beseeching Him to pardon all my sins, known to me or unknown, for the sole Merits of the Blood of my Redeemer, Jesus Christ (one drop of Whose Precious Blood might cleanse the whole world), and interpose His Precious Death between me and my sins.”

Those are powerful words - especially Dr Pusey’s reference to the Precious Blood of Jesus. Do you know, there was a time - as recently as my teenage years - when both Evangelicals and Catholics would preach about the Precious Blood, sing about the Precious Blood, seek forgiveness and healing through the Precious Blood, and fight against our ancient foe and the demons of hell in the power of the Precious Blood. In those days parishes at both ends of the Anglican spectrum sang William Cowper’s hymn with great devotion:

There is a fountain filled with blood
Drawn from Emmanuel’s veins;
And sinners, plunged beneath that flood,
Loose all their guilty stains.

The dying thief rejoiced to see
That fountain in his day;
And there have I, though vile as he,
Washed all my sins away.

Dear dying Lamb, Thy precious blood
Shall never lose its pow’r;
Till all the ransom’d church of God
Be saved, to sin no more.

E’er since, by faith, I saw the stream
Thy flowing wounds supply:
Redeeming love has been my theme,
And shall be till I die.

I do believe, I will believe
That Jesus died for me;
That on the Cross he shed his blood
From sin to set me free.

Cowper’s hymn is a meditation on Zechariah 13:1, “On that day there shall be a fountain opened for the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem to cleanse them from sin and uncleanness.” Its graphic imagery has always produced snooty reactions in sophisticated Church circles (the kind of places where you never see realistic crucifixes!), but I have used it in each of my parishes because it is exactly what people with hearts full of love for God who have come to know they have been redeemed by the Precious Blood of Jesus want to sing! 

Speaking of snooty reactions, I remember how predictably liberal Christians (and - to their shame - even some trendy catholics and evangelicals) bemoaned Mel Gibson's film, The Passion, as an orgy of violence, on account of how it emphasised the shedding of Jesus’ Blood. In fact, the Cross has always been a scandal, a laughing-stock, to the enemies of the Gospel. Do you remember the professional film critics stroking their chins, shaking their heads and warning people about the potentially negative effect of Gibson’s film on teenagers and others who “might not be able to take it.” (These are the same reviewers who acclaim cult movies dripping with violence like Pulp Fiction and Kill Bill, as great works of art and significant advances in cinematography, and who sneer at anyone who is worried about the long term effect of such films on our culture!)

Ordinary run of the mill Christians still believe in the power of the Precious Blood, not just as an article of faith, but as a reality that touches our lives. That’s why at the very beginning of Gibson’s film, the words “By his wounds we are healed” occupy the entire screen - a moment not to be missed. It is, of course, a phrase, from the suffering servant poem in Isaiah 53, used by the early Christians to reflect on the meaning of Jesus’ death, and it is the key to understanding all that follows.

In his Angelus address on 5th July 2009, Pope Benedict reminded the crowd in St Peter’s Square of the old custom of keeping July as the “month of the Precious Blood.” He then gave a teaching on the power of the Blood. Here are some quotes:

The theme of blood linked to that of the Paschal Lamb is of primary importance in sacred Scripture. In the Old Testament the sprinkling of the blood of sacrificed animals represented and established the covenant between God and the people, as one reads in the Book of Exodus: “Then Moses took the blood and sprinkled it on the people saying: ‘This is the blood of the covenant that the Lord has made with you on the basis of all these words of his’” (Exodus 24:8).

Jesus explicitly repeats this formula at the Last Supper, when, offering the chalice to his disciples, he says: “This is my blood of the covenant, which will be shed on behalf of many for the forgiveness of sins” (Matthew 26:28). And, from the scourging, to the piercing of his side after his death on the cross, Christ has really shed all of his blood as the true Lamb immolated for universal redemption. The salvific value of his blood is expressively affirmed in many passages of the New Testament.

. . . it is written in Genesis that the blood of Abel, killed by his brother Cain, cried out to God from the earth (cf. 4:10). And, unfortunately, today as yesterday, this cry does not cease, since human blood continues to run because of violence, injustice and hatred. When will men learn that life is sacred and belongs to God alone? When will men understand that we are all brothers? To the cry of the blood that goes up from many parts of the earth, God answers with the Blood of his Son, who gave his life for us. Christ did not answer evil with evil, but with good, with his infinite love.

The blood of Christ is the pledge of the faithful love of God for humanity. Looking upon the wounds of the Crucified, every man, even in conditions of extreme moral misery, can say: God has not abandoned me, he loves me, he gave his life for me - and in this way rediscover hope . . .

According to the Scriptures, the Precious Blood that Jesus shed on the cross out of love for you and for me cleanses us from sin (1 John 1:7), reconciles us to the Father (Colossians 1:20) purifies our consciences (Hebrews 9:14), gives us victory over the powers of evil (Revelation 12:11), and enables us to enter into the very sanctuary of heaven (Hebrews 10:19). And as Pope Benedict reminds us, Jesus said that the Mass is all about the Blood of Christ . . . “This cup is the new covenant in my Blood” (1 Corinthians 11:25). And St Paul says that “the cup of blessing which we bless, is . . . a communion (“koinonia”, “sharing”, “participation”) in the Blood of Christ” (1 Corinthians 10:16).  

Catholic Christians believe all that Evangelicals teach about the Precious Blood. But we also know that in the daily offering of the Lord’s Sacrifice of Love we actually gather on Calvary’s Hill where that Precious Blood flows for our forgiveness, healing and deliverance, for the blessing of those for whom we pray and for the redemption of the created order itself. “Were you there when they crucified my Lord?” asks the old spiritual. The answer is “yes, yes, a thousand times yes!” We have been to Mass so often. So many times we have stood with Mary and John at the foot of the Cross asking that Jesus’ Blood in all its power and grace fall upon us, to cleanse us, to liberate us, and to deepen our covenant union with the Lord. Our lips have touched the chalice so often as we have sipped that Precious Blood in Holy Communion. In the timelessness of the Mass we have also been swept up into the age to come where, with the angels, the saints, and that great multitude which no man can number, we enter the heavenly sanctuary through the same shed Blood and we worship Jesus the God-Man whose Sacrifice of Love is still the focal point of our attention, for, according to the Bible, there he is at the heart of the heavenly worship as “the Lamb who was slain” (Revelation 13:8). 

The Letter to the Hebrews puts it this way:

You have already come “to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the first-born who are enrolled in heaven, and to a judge who is God of all, and to the spirits of just men made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks more graciously than the blood of Abel.” (Hebrews 12:22-24)

That is why our church in the midst of the hustle and bustle and secular business of this city has an altar for weekday Masses. Jesus’ great Sacrifice of Love is continually offered, lifting us out of time into eternity, blurring the boundary between this world and the next, and sanctifying our little corner of space and time in an action that is both intimate and awesome.

And, yet, in so much modern worship it is trivialized and there is an absence of reverence, awe, wonder and real praise. Wherever the power of the Precious Blood shed on Calvary’s hill is not understood, not preached, and not sought by the people, the Mass so easily becomes just a kind of chummy fellowship meal, completely horizontalised. I thank God every day for our wonderful Anglican-Catholic patrimony of homely but reverent and awesome worship, offered for those present, as well as for all who do not believe or cannot beflieve.. 

We need to remind ourselves, in words attributed by eastern Christians to St James the Apostle:

When the moment of Consecration is arriving, every one should be silent, and trembling with reverential awe; he should forget everything earthly, remembering that the King of Kings and Lord of Lords is coming down upon the altar as a victim to be offered to God the Father, and as food to be given to the Faithful; He is preceded by the Angelic choirs, in full splendor, with their faces veiled, singing hymns of praise with great joy.

Or, as a Synod meeting at Oxford in 1408 said:

. . . the whole heavenly court is present during the Mass and if we had faith, we could see these Angelic hosts gathered around the altar in prayer during the Mass.

St Francis of Assisi (1181-1226) maintained that

Man should tremble, the world should vibrate, all heaven should be deeply moved when the Son of God appears on the altar in the hands of the priest.

And that loveliest of women saints, Bridget of Sweden (1303 –1373)  even tells of a revelation she received in church:

One day, when a priest was celebrating Mass, I saw, at the moment of Consecration, how all the powers of heaven were set in motion. I heard, at the same time, a heavenly music, most harmonious, most sweet. Numberless Angels came down, the chant of whom no human understanding could conceive, nor the tongue of man describe. They surrounded and looked upon the priest, bowing towards him in reverential awe. The devils commenced to tremble, and took to flight in greatest confusion and terror.

In 1970 the American gospel singer AndrĂ© Crouch wrote a song about the Precious Blood. It is very moving. In those far off days when some of us were involved with “folk Masses” and even “rock Masses”, we would sometimes use it as a Communion Hymn. I still catch myself singing it in my head today:

The Blood that Jesus shed for me 
way back on Calvary, 
The Blood that gives me strength from day to day, 
It will never lose its power.

It reaches to the highest mountain; 
It flows to the lowest valley; 
the Blood that gives me strength from day to day 
It will never lose its power.

It soothes my doubt and calms my fears, 
and it dries all my tears; 
The Blood that gives me strength from day to day 
it will never lose its power. 

It reaches to the highest mountain; 
It flows to the lowest valley; 
the Blood that gives me strength from day to day 
It will never lose its power

May God give us the grace to worship the Father “in spirit and in truth” (John 4:24), to humble ourselves before the self-giving of the King of Glory in the Blessed Sacrament, and to share with others our testimony of the power of his Precious Blood so that they, too, might come to know hiis saving grace.


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