Finding new meaning in ‘blood’ language

Can blood metaphors still communicate the power of redemption to 21st-century Christians?

By Andrew Gardner

For numerous people the sight of blood can cause a level of queasiness unmatched by anything else. In a somewhat related manner, for some Christians who characterize themselves as moderate, progressive or (dare I say) liberal, the religious imagery of blood can be theologically problematic. What are we in the 21st century supposed to do with a history filled with images of bloody, sacred, “redemptive” violence?

Within the Hebrew Scriptures, blood is understood as the life force of living creatures. The sacrifice of blood through animal sacrifices served to atone for misdeeds. Within the New Testament scriptures, Christians have often understood the crucifixion of Jesus as the ultimate blood sacrifice and atonement for the sins of humankind.

While numerous interpretations of the atonement exist, St. Anselm’s understanding of substitutionary atonement has permeated the Christian landscape. This particular theory supposed that humanity had accrued too high a debt of sin in order to render just compensation to God. Therefore, Jesus shed his blood in order to render to God just compensation for the sins of humanity. In essence, Jesus died for our sins.

Early Christians perpetuated bloody imagery through the scriptural practice of the Lord’s Supper. This practice often took place in secret and resulted in accusations of cannibalism, as Christians were known for eating and drinking the body and the blood of Christ.

The Lord’s Supper remained a contentious practice throughout Christian history. Aquinas developed the doctrine of transubstantiation that continues to be orthodox in the Catholic Church today. Aquinas believed that the elements of bread and wine were literally transformed into the body and blood of Jesus but retained the form of bread and wine.

Reformation thinkers challenged Aquinas’ doctrine of transubstantiation. Martin Luther believed that transubstantiation was not scriptural and therefore not Christian. For Luther, Jesus was physically present “under” the bread and wine. John Calvin disagreed that Jesus was physically present, and instead argued that Jesus was spiritually present within the bread and wine. Other thinkers like Ulrich Zwingli thought the Lord’s Supper was a symbolic memorial in which Christians remembered the sacrifice of Jesus.

Today, questions remain regarding the Lord’s Supper. Blood language makes some of us uncomfortable. Substitutionary atonement makes us feel that God deals in the currency of blood. This in turn raises questions about the character and nature of God. Does our use of blood language mean that we have to think violence and death are redemptive? If so, is all violence and death redemptive? Or only some?

As a divinity student, this question comes up practically regarding how ministers serve communion. Do we serve the “Blood of Christ?” Or “The Cup of Life?” Certainly, we may all have our personal beliefs and preferences, but in any act of service we must think of those we are serving. Serving communion is no different.

How do we make communion accessible to both those with an aversion to blood language and those who find meaning in blood language? Can we still sing, There is Power in the Blood or There Is a Fountain Filled With Blood?

I do not pretend to have a definitive answer or even a very well thought-out answer. For the past month, however, I have freely donated platelets once a week at the local Red Cross donation center in Winston-Salem, N.C. Platelets are a part of the blood that helps in clotting and repairing wounds. They have a lifespan of five to nine days and replenish in roughly three days so individuals can donate once a week. Donations can go to chemotherapy and organ transplant patients and burn victims among others.

For me, this weekly practice has offered a more redemptive way of looking at blood language in our 21st century context. Rather than blood being equated with a violent payment of debt to a God I struggle to understand, blood becomes something a little more life giving. Blood becomes an agent of healing and an agent of wholeness. Christ offers Christ’s blood to me, and so too I may offer my blood to those in need.

I would encourage others to look into giving platelets or even more simply whole blood at least once. How does it make you feel? What does it make you think of?

Despite my personal fears of needles and even watching the process take place, I cannot help but feel when I glance up at the bag filling above my head with a part of my own body that I understand a little better what Jesus meant when he broke bread saying, “This is my body, which is given for you.”

OPINION: Views expressed in Baptist News Global columns and commentaries are solely those of the authors.