Scripture scholars point out a small but significant action in Sunday's Gospel (Mark 14:12-16,22-26). Many people overlook it when they hear Mark's version of Jesus' "words of institution": "Jesus took a cup, gave thanks and gave it to them, and they all drank from it."

Given the context of a Passover meal, everyone sitting around the table with Jesus that night had his own cup. According to the Seder ritual, they took several ritual drinks from it.

But, at this point in the meal, Jesus departs from the official rubrics and tells them not to use their cups for the next drink. They're to drink from His personal cup, the cup over which He said: "This is my blood of the covenant, which will be shed for many."

Moses' example

When Jesus employs the term "blood of the covenant," He can be referring only to the scene depicted in Sunday's first reading (Exodus 24:3-8).

"Taking the book of the covenant, Moses read it aloud to the people, who answered, 'All that Yahweh has said, we will heed and do.' Then he took the blood and sprinkled it on the people saying, 'This is the blood of the covenant that Yahweh has made with you in accordance with these words of His.'"

Those who regard the historical Jesus as the founder of a new religion often forget the obvious: At the Last Supper, He is a Jew. As such, He uses Jewish symbolism to convey the meaning of what He's about to do.

The cup that passes from disciple to disciple contains more than just His blood. Those who drink from it are agreeing to carry out the same covenant Jesus has made with Yahweh. Just as the blood splashed on their ancestors at Sinai was an outward sign that they had made the covenant with Yahweh, so drinking from Jesus' cup becomes the outward sign that His followers are committing themselves to carry on Jesus' ministry.

I presume if anyone around the table that night refused to drink from the cup, Jesus would have suggested that he might more profitably spend the evening eating and drinking somewhere else. He expected anyone who drank from His cup to imitate His value system.

The author of the second reading (Hebrews 9:11-15) treats a different aspect of Jesus' blood. For him, it's not the outward sign of a covenant; rather, it symbolizes something with which we're more familiar: the blood that guarantees the salvation that the covenant promises, a new covenant which Jesus makes part of our lives.

Because most of us were baptized as infants, we frequently long to make an adult commitment to Jesus and His faith, something only those baptized later in life can do.

Adult commitment

The late Bishop Fulton J. Sheen once tried to turn the Sacrament of Confirmation into such a commitment. As bishop of Rochester, he refused to confirm anyone not old enough to have graduated from high school. He reasoned that if people were confirmed at a younger age, many would do so just because they were part of a "Confirmation class," not because of a personal commitment to the faith of Jesus.

Bishop Sheen really didn't have to resort to such a drastic action. Following early Christian theology, we already have an adult commitment sacrament. Every time we take from the cup, we're proclaiming to ourselves and everyone around us that we're giving ourselves over to Jesus.

According to Sunday's Gospel, consuming Jesus' blood of the covenant isn't something we do for "extra credit." It's an essential Christian ritual. Refusing the Eucharistic cup means either we don't know what the ritual means, or we're not about to commit ourselves to carry on Jesus' work.