Have you ever resolved to read the Bible from cover to cover?
You take the Bible down from the shelf, blow the dust from it and start at the beginning. Genesis and Exodus go rather well. But when you start reading Leviticus, you bog down.
Leviticus opens a strange world to us: all this talk about the ritual of sacrificing animals and about the shedding of their blood. “He shall then slaughter the bull before the Lord” (Lv 1:5).
Puzzled, you stop there and put the Bible back on the shelf until your next resolve to read it. Many people, I think, know the first two books very well from repeated reading. But they never get through Leviticus.
The fact is that the contents of Leviticus are important to us Christians.
All the key terms the New Testament uses to describe our Lord Jesus’ life, death and resurrection are drawn from the Old Testament sacrificial system. Obviously, then, to understand the sacrifice of Christ, we need some understanding of Old Testament animal sacrifice.
The Purpose of Sacrifice
First, here are some preliminary facts to keep in mind. Worship in the Jewish temple centered on the offering of sacrifice. The purpose of Old Testament sacrifice was to bring about “atonement”: the process of reconciling sinful man with God.
Leviticus assures us blood is holy, because life is holy and blood equals life: “Since the life of every living body is its blood. . . . You shall not partake of the blood of any meat” (17:14).
Since human blood could not be shed in sacrifice, the blood of sacrificial victims was substituted. There were several kinds of animal sacrifice for this purpose.
The most common was the “peace offering,” or better put (as in the Jerusalem Bible), the “communion sacrifice” (see Lv 3:1ff). The emphasis in communion sacrifice fell not on death, but on life.
The life of the sacrificial victim was surrendered (shed) in order to be transformed, in order to be shared. The offering of sacrifice necessarily presupposed that the offeror (the one who was offering) sincerely desired to be reconciled with God.
Here is a brief outline of communion sacrifice.
It began as the offeror approached the altar with the animal victim. He placed his hands on the head of the victim to identify himself with the victim. He said, in effect, “The life which is about to be surrendered is my life.”
Then he slew the victim by slitting its throat and drained the blood into altar receptacles.
Next, the work of the priest began. He took some of the blood, the surrendered life, into the nearer presence of God by sprinkling it on and around the altar.
Then he placed some of the flesh on the holy fire to be burned.
The purpose of the burning, symbolically, was not destruction but transformation. In the more ethereal form of smoke, the flesh of the victim could be taken up into the presence of God. God thereby received His portion of the surrendered life.
In the final stage of communion sacrifice, some of the flesh burning on the holy fire was removed while still edible. The offeror ate that portion. He thereby partook of a meal with God, and atonement between God and him was brought about.
Among the ancient Jewish people, common partaking of a meal had deep significance. They believed that sharing a meal with another person created a deep bond with that person.
So strong was this bond for them that if you happened to eat with your mortal enemy, you could never do that enemy any harm. Today we do not think of any dinner companions as mortal enemies, but we do believe sharing a meal deepens friendship.
The atonement accomplished through offering animal sacrifice was limited to what we would call venial sins. It did not apply to serious sins, what one old Bible translation aptly calls “sins done with a high hand.”
The Meaning for Christians
What does all this have to do with us as Christians?
God centered the worship of his Old Testament people on sacrifice because it was an essential part of His plan of salvation. He was preparing them for the ultimate and perfect sacrifice His Son would offer for the atonement of the human race.
As St. Paul declared, “Christ loved us and handed himself over for us as a sacrificial offering to God” (Eph 5:2; see also Hebrews chapters 9, 10).
See how our Lord Jesus displayed all the dimensions of Old Testament communion sacrifice. He fulfilled a threefold role: offeror, victim and priest.
In the first stage of animal sacrifice, the offeror approached with his victim, then identified himself with the victim. In Our Lord’s perfect sacrifice, He came among us in the Incarnation, thereby perfectly and literally (not symbolically) identifying himself with every human being.
In the second stage of animal sacrifice, the offeror released the life of the victim. Jesus Christ released His own life in “a death which he freely accepted,” as our second Eucharistic prayer says.
In the third stage of animal sacrifice, the priest took some of the blood, the surrendered life, into the nearer presence of God by sprinkling it on the altar. Jesus Christ the High Priest took the whole of His surrendered life into the fullness of God’s life.
In the fourth stage of animal sacrifice, some of the flesh of the victim was placed on the holy fire, not to be destroyed but to be transformed. By His death and in His ascension to heaven, Jesus Christ has become free of all limitations of space and time.
Now He is fully available to all persons of all time: past, present and future. The life of God’s Son has been surrendered, in order to be transformed, in order to be shared.
Finally came the communion meal. The holy Eucharist is our communion meal. We share in the meal with God, not merely symbolically, as in Old Testament sacrifice, but literally. God in Christ gives us His very self — Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity — as our spiritual food.
Approaching in Faith
Receiving Christ’s gift of himself in the Eucharist is not merely an option for us. “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life within you” (Jn 6:53).
We approach the Holy Sacrifice in faith. But no matter how deep our faith may be, we can receive Jesus Christ fully only in the way which He has prepared for us.
Are you ready now to try again to read the Bible from cover to cover? Go to it, and sail right through Leviticus on your way to the Book of Revelation.