After the consecration of the great pyramid of Tenochtitlan in 1487, the Aztecs boasted that they had ritually sacrificed 80,400 men in the course of four days. Some of those who were killed would have been criminals, but most were completely innocent. In Aztec society, handicapped children were segregated at birth and nurtured in relative luxury, until the next solar eclipse when they were the first to be led up the steps to the altar of sacrifice.
With the coming of Christianity, this religiously-sponsored slaughter came to an end. Luckily for the prospective victims of the Aztec priests, the Christian missionaries who arrived in the wake of the conquistadors brought with them the lifeline of the Gospel, and set about converting the Aztecs to the Catholic Faith.
The Church has always acknowledged that there are elements of truth interwoven through the beliefs and practices of other religions. Inasmuch as the Aztecs recognised the religious value of sacrifice, we have to admit that they were on to something. But the torrents of human blood cascading down the slopes of those Mexican temples illustrate what grotesque consequences an incomplete, or lopsided, interpretation of religious truth can lead to.
We Catholics, like the Aztecs, have the bloody sacrifice of a person at the foundation of our religious cult. But there is quite a significant difference. Those pagans knew that no amount of mere human blood would ever satisfy the appetites of their capricious and gluttonous deities. If the sun were to continue rising every morning, and if the crops were to survive until harvest, then the slaughter would just have to go on forever.
On the Cross, however, we find a Sacrifice that need not – could not, in fact – ever be repeated; because on Calvary it is God the Son – the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity – Who offers Himself to the Father in a single sacrificial act which is once and for all. He offers Himself in love for us. Because He is a Divine Person, the infinite value of that Sacrifice is capable of atoning for the sins of the whole human race. Just one drop of His Blood would have been more than enough to redeem every human being ever created. The water that eventually gushed from His pierced side on the Cross was a sign that there was no blood left in His Body. He had given every last drop of it, for us.
July is traditionally the month of the Precious Blood. The Feast of the Precious Blood was appointed for the first Sunday after June 30th by Pope Pius IX, the last day of June being the date on which the insurgents of the Roman Republic were expelled from Rome in 1849. Pope John XXIII raised this feast to the level of First Class, shortly before it was abolished altogether by his successor in 1969.
The greatest English apostle of devotion to the Precious Blood was the London Oratory’s own Father Faber. He established the Confraternity of the Precious Blood in London in 1850, with rich indulgences granted personally by Bl. Pio Nono. Within ten years more than thirty eight thousand members had enrolled all over the world. Members of the Confraternity would be encouraged to offer their own sacrifices and penances in union with the Our Lord’s Precious Blood to gain blessings for the Church and the world.
We might be forgiven for assuming that Father Faber’s first encounter with devotion to the Blood of Our Lord must have occurred during his travels on the Continent as a young man. In truth, however, he would have already been familiar with the idea from the literature of our home-grown evangelical preachers and poets. It was William Cowper (1731-1800), whose poetry and hymns were a formative influence on Faber, who wrote the lines:
There is a fountain filled with blood,
Drawn from Emanuel’s veins;
And sinners plunged beneath that flood,
Lose all their guilty stains.
This Protestant poem helps us to understand the symbolism of the Catholic Rite of Baptism, when the new Christian, fresh from the waters of regeneration, is clothed with a white shawl. He has been made pure and spotless – washed clean in the Blood of the Lamb. The priest says to Him: “See that you carry this white garment without stain before the judgement seat of our Lord Jesus Christ, so that you may have eternal life”; and we only realise the gravitas of this vocation when we remember that the price of this white garment was Our Lord’s Blood, poured out for us on Calvary.
Likewise, whenever we are washed clean of our sins in the Sacrament of Penance, we should remind ourselves that the price of this ablution is the Precious Blood that flowed from Our Lord’s wounds. Let us give thanks for this from the bottom of our hearts.
Where the Church parts company with the Protestants is in Her teaching that, while the Sacrifice of Calvary is once and for all, that very same Sacrifice is presented anew to God every day on the Altar. Just as God did not intend to restrict the Redemption that He worked on Calvary to those who happened to be witnesses, so has He ordained that all people, throughout all ages and in all places, may present themselves at this same Sacrifice by attending Holy Mass.
Invocation of the Precious Blood has the power to banish temptation and to send Satan fleeing. Through the merits of the Precious Blood, our prayers of petition take on great power before the Throne of Grace when they are accompanied by sacrifice and penance. Not long ago the Confraternity of the Precious Blood was revived at the London Oratory, and gathers in Our Lady of Dolours Chapel at 6.45pm on Saturdays.
On the Feast of Corpus Christi, we rejoiced in Our Lord’s gift of Himself in the Blessed Sacrament. During this month of the Precious Blood, we meditate on the cost of that gift. The white robe of our Baptism is the sign that we have been washed clean in the Blood of the Lamb. May we carry that priceless robe unspotted before the judgement seat of Our Lord Jesus Christ.
Fr Julian Large