As the first Adam’s sweat surrounds my face, May the last Adam’s blood my soul embrace. — John Donne
After rehearsing a gospel song, a musician friend who to our knowledge has never attended an actual church service asked, “What is this about being washed in the blood of the Lamb? It’s kind of gross.”
Many of us have for years sung the beloved hymns extolling Jesus’ blood as it flows down life-saving streams and washes believers white as snow.
We’ve heard our pastors speak of being covered by the blood and its saving power.
We forget that set outside the proper context, the Christian celebration of blood can seem creepy.
Indeed, hear these words from 1772 penned by William Cowper:
There is a fountain filled with blood,
Drawn from Immanuel’s veins,
And sinners plunged beneath that flood
Lose all their guilty stains.
There is, in fact, significant biblical precedence for this kind of language. Most of the blood verbiage is a mash-up of several scriptural passages. The writer of Hebrews uses the phrase “cleansed with blood.” Revelation foresees that the believers “have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.” Zechariah prophesied a fountain that would cleanse from sin and impurity.
The popular imagery of flowing blood seems to come from the piercing of Jesus’ side on the cross, “bringing a sudden flow of blood and water.”
And of course there are Jesus’ own words, “This is my blood of the covenant which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.”
I read through the Pentateuch recently and was overwhelmed by the graphic descriptions.
So. Much. Blood. With none of our enlightened squeamishness, God commanded blood to be waved, sprinkled, poured, spread and shed.
Lest you imagine these rituals as a subdued 18th-century bloodletting procedure, read Leviticus 4. No part of the animal was left undisturbed; God gave instructions to the priests on how to deal with the organs, hide and fat.
I’d like to see a movie with a literal depiction of the Tabernacle and its daily activities. Actually, I wouldn’t. Slaughterhouses don’t offer public tours for a reason.
Almost exactly three years ago, while we were reading through the events of Jesus’ crucifixion, my younger daughter asked, “Why did Jesus have to die like that? On the cross and with those nails?”
From the lower bunk her sister responded, “So we don’t have to sacrifice animals anymore.”
The spiritual significance in their exchange was so complex I just let it go. Then I thought about it for years.
Why did the ultimate sacrifice have to include a cross and nails that pierced skin and drew blood? Couldn’t Jesus have conquered sin and death via a massive heart attack or sudden, fatal brain aneurism? Why did the writer of Hebrews insist most emphatically that, “without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness?”
Jesus promised to fulfill the Mosaic Law, to the smallest letter and the least stroke of the priestly pen. In the repetitive and often tedious recording of those many letters and strokes, blood is not a question. It is assumed.
In our earthly reality, when blood leaves a living thing it becomes dark and cold, signifying loss and death. This is not so in the kingdom of God.
When a bull’s blood was poured at the foot of the altar, there was restoration with God. When Jesus’ blood fell at the foot of the cross, it symbolically restored all people to God, for all time. It is no wonder Christians have been singing about it ever since.
Sarah Kehrberg lives in Asheville, N.C.