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  • Kelly Sankowski

Wrestling with Blood

My two-year-old son doesn’t understand much about our faith yet, but he knows that the shape of a cross is associated with Jesus. One day, pointing at a vent in our house that had lines crossing each other at 90 degree angles, he said, “Mama, look! It’s like Jesus!”

It makes me uncomfortable that the first thing my son has learned to associate with Jesus is actually an instrument of death, not just for Jesus himself, but also for many others. And it also makes me uncomfortable how focused upon violent death and blood today’s first and second readings are. 

I had many questions about today’s first reading, which all piled onto each other: Did God really desire for these animals to be sacrificed as a peace offering? What does that say about how God views God’s creation?

And perhaps what makes me most uncomfortable of all are the direct parallels we draw between the animal sacrifices in the Old Testament and Jesus’s death on the cross, including in today’s second reading: “For if the blood of goats and bulls and the sprinkling of a heifer's ashes can sanctify those who are defiled so that their flesh is cleansed, how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself unblemished to God, cleanse our consciences from dead works to worship the living God” (Hebrews 9:13-14).

I can’t help but ask similar questions about Jesus that I asked about the bulls in today’s first reading: Did he need to be violently killed in order to restore God’s relationship with us? Why couldn’t he just die of old age? Or why did God require his death at all?

I’ve learned that the truth is, no one really knows the answer to this question. Much ink has been spilled by theologians trying to figure out the exact thing about Jesus’s life and death that brought about our salvation, and a lot of different opinions have arisen. Perhaps the most prevalent one in our tradition is St. Anselm’s idea that Jesus’s death was necessary to satisfy God and pay the debt that Adam’s sin created. Yet there are alternative interpretations that place greater emphasis on the Incarnation or the Resurrection as the moments that bring about salvation.

As I pondered these questions, I was reminded of a paper I heard at a conference while I was in graduate school titled, “Blood from the Womb of God: Imaging a Feminist and Nonviolent Soteriology of the Blood of Christ” (Soteriology being the academic name for the study of salvation). In her paper, Flora X. Tang poses the question, “How can we re-imagine how the ‘blood of Christ’ saves us without invoking a soteriology that is predicated on violence?”

She writes about how even if we accept alternative theological interpretations of the significance of Jesus’s death on the cross, “the Blood of Christ is a liturgical problem,” because each week the celebration of the Eucharist invites us back into the sacrifice of Jesus’s Body and Blood, and offers us the opportunity to participate in it. While I was taken aback by the sprinkling of the blood of bulls on the Israelites in today’s first reading, I ought to find the Eucharist equally – if not more – jarring.

To re-imagine the Blood of Christ in a non-violent way, Tang proposes that “the notion of blood of birthing from the womb of God – who gives birth and renews life in humanity – could also be an appropriate metaphor for the salvific value of the blood of Christ.” Just as the shedding of uterine blood through menstruation or giving birth – while painful – is not an act of violence, but rather an act of giving that brings about new life, so could we see the blood of Christ as an outpouring of self-gift that brings new life to humanity.

This doesn’t answer all of my questions, but it does help me to imagine God as generous and life-giving rather than wrathful, violent, and requiring punishment. 

And that’s a start.

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