In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
“Alleluia, Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us: Therefore let us keep the feast, alleluia.”
Last week I announced my intention to spend some time talking about the mass and its meaning, and I talked about Christianity’s ambiguous relationship with time and history, in virtue of the mass – how the Lord, so to speak, reaches forward into time and gathers us into himself by means of this memorial meal. Today I would like to flesh that out a little bit in terms of the Passover of Israel, which I mentioned last week.
In our Eucharistic liturgy, there is a brief prayer, immediately after what we call “the fraction,” when the priest breaks the consecrated host: “Alleluia, Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us: Therefore let us keep the feast, alleluia.” This prayer, called the “Pascha Nostrum,” is based on a text from St. Paul’s letters (1 Cor. 5.7-8), and I mention it here because in it we refer to Christ as “our Passover.”
At the Maundy Thursday mass, just before Easter, I mentioned that there is an ambiguity in the gospels around the question of the timing of the events of Holy Week, and among those events, about whether the Last Supper took place on the feast of the Passover itself, or the day before, on the “Day of Preparation.” It is an important question because how we answer it will determine whether the Last Supper was in fact a Passover meal. In one of his books, Pope Benedict says that this ambiguity itself helps to point us toward the deep truth about the Last Supper, namely that it is the fulfillment of the Jewish Passover and all that it commemorated, but that the Last Supper itself was something new and pointed to something new. Just as Jesus had told the Pharisees about himself as the archetype toward which the temple pointed when he said to them, “Something greater than the temple is here,” (Matthew 12.6), so we might say with respect to the meal that Jesus instituted, “Something greater than the Passover is here.”
Pope Benedict said:
“Jesus knew that he was about to die. He knew that he would not be able to eat the Passover again. Fully aware of this, he invited his disciples to a Last Supper of a very special kind, one that followed no specific Jewish ritual but, rather, constituted his farewell; during the meal he gave them something new: he gave them himself as the true Lamb and thereby instituted his Passover.”
But what exactly is the Passover? As you may know, the Passover is the meal that Jews, to this day, eat to commemorate their deliverance from Egypt under the leadership of Moses. The Lord smote the Egyptians with plagues and death, but when the angel of the Lord saw on the doorposts of the Jews the blood of their sacrificed lambs, he “passed over” their homes, so that they lived.
The Jewish Passover was the way that the Jews demonstrated their membership in Israel – in the family that God delivered from Egypt. God smote the Egyptians, but his Angel, the blue smoke in Charlton Heston’s version of these events, “passed over” the Jewish door posts that were marked with the blood of the Passover Lamb.
And this was the first of many “passovers” for Israel. They passed over the Red Sea, passed over the wilderness, passed over the Jordan river, and finally entered the land that God had promised to give them. And the Passover meal, which God commanded the Jews to observe year by year, throughout their generations as an ordinance forever (Exodus 12.14), was a commemoration of these events. And the Jewish prophets seemed to intimate that all of these, as it were, little “passovers” prefigured a great and final “Passover,” a Passover for all mankind in virtue of which the power of death itself would be destroyed, and a new kind of intimacy with God would be inaugurated. Isaiah, for example, said that on Mount Zion, the physical, geographical apex of the fulfillment of God’s promises to Israel, on that mountain, the Lord…
“…will swallow up death for ever, and the Lord GOD will wipe away tears from all faces, and the reproach of his people he will take away from all the earth; for the LORD has spoken. It will be said on that day, “Lo, this is our God; we have waited for him, that he might save us. This is the LORD; we have waited for him; let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation.” (Isaiah 25.8f)
This is the history that Jesus embodies at the Last Supper, and it is the history of these events and these prophecies – and these events AS prophecies – that he fulfills by dying and rising from the dead. And it is this history of God’s people, and this fulfillment of it by God’s anointed one, that we invoke when we sing after the breaking of the bread: Alleluia! Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us: therefore let us keep the feast, alleluia!”
But the mass is more than just an invocation of this history, and more than merely a memorial of Jesus’ and his saving actions. It is a PARTICIPATION in them. It is the means by which we are incorporated into him, and so it is the means by which we share in his immortality and, in the words of the old Anglican liturgy, “all other benefits of his passion.” Jesus himself spoke very plainly of this. And on account of the scandalous plainness of his words, many of his disciples left him. He said:
“Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you; he who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. For my flesh is food indeed, and my blood is drink indeed. He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him. As the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so he who eats me will live because of me. This is the bread which came down from heaven, not such as the fathers ate and died; he who eats this bread will live for ever.” (John 6.53-58)
The Mass is the means, given to us by Jesus himself, for us to be incorporated into him, to be made constituent parts of his Body which, though dead, is now alive forever. And so the mass is, in a very fundamental sense, the way that we receive eternal life. That is why Jesus gave us the gift of the mass, why he commanded us to “Do this” in his memory:
“By celebrating the Last Supper with his apostles in the course of the Passover meal, Jesus gave the Jewish Passover its definitive meaning. Jesus’ passing over to his father by his death and Resurrection, the new Passover, is anticipated in the Supper and celebrated in the Eucharist, which fulfills the Jewish Passover and anticipates the final Passover of the Church in the glory of the kingdom.” (CCC 1340)
Speaking of the Our Father, and our asking God to give us “today our daily bread,” and speaking as well of the invitatory Psalm of Matins, Psalm 95, where we are exhorted: “Today if you will hear his voice, harden not your hearts,” the Catechism says:
“When the Church celebrates the mystery of Christ, there is a word that marks her prayer: “Today!” — a word echoing the prayer her Lord taught her and the call of the Holy Spirit. This “today” of the living God which man is called to enter is “the hour” of Jesus’ Passover, which reaches across and underlies all history:
“Life extends over all beings and fills them with unlimited light; the Orient of orients pervades the universe, and he who was “before the daystar” and before the heavenly bodies, immortal and vast, the great Christ, shines over all beings more brightly than the sun. Therefore a day of long, eternal light is ushered in for us who believe in him, a day which is never blotted out: the mystical Passover.” (CCC 1165, quoting Hippolytus)
“Alleluia, Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us: therefore let us keep the feast, alleluia.”
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.