Holy Thursday

Preached March 29, 2018; St. Peter Catholic Church, The Dalles, Oregon

The Mass is not a re-enactment of the Last Supper. If you want a re-enactment you could go to the ‘Last Days of Jesus’ here in town; they might even give you some bread and wine and call it ‘communion’. The Mass is not a re-enactment, but if it were people might like it better – though they would hardly care to repeat it Sunday after Sunday, much less every day. The Mass is not a re-enactment, but it is something much greater; the Mass is the reality.

We might be able to appreciate better what the Mass is all about if we could understand its relation to the Jewish Passover and to the two principle focal points of Jewish worship in the time of Jesus, the synagogue and the temple.

We heard about the origin of the Jewish celebration of Passover in today’s 1st reading. The Last Supper was held as a Passover Seder. At that traditional celebration there was a passage from the Jewish celebration to the celebration of the Christian Passover, better known in English as Easter. In truth, though the connection to the Jewish Passover comes to the forefront in the Paschal Triduum, we celebrate the Christian Passover in every Mass.

The Jewish Passover commemorates the deliverance of the people of Israel from slavery in Egypt. The Seder meal does not commemorate the first Seder, but the deliverance from slavery in Egypt. At the time of the first Passover, in Egypt, there was first the sacrifice of the lambs, then the sacrificial meal, then the deliverance. Afterwards, the people of Israel commemorated that deliverance with the annual celebration of Passover, the sacrifice and the sacrificial meal.

The blood of the lambs was no longer smeared on the doorposts, but poured out at the foot of the altar. The bitter herbs were a reminder of the bitterness of the slavery; the unleavened bread a reminder of the haste with which they had to leave Egypt.

But what was the meaning of the lamb? That is a good question. Since the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD, the lamb is no longer part of the Seder meal, or at least not a whole roasted lamb of sacrifice. The contemporary Jewish Seder is no longer a sacrificial meal.

At the Last Supper, Jesus first shared the sacrificial meal of the Passover with his Apostles, but then he, the Lord, stepped in and did something truly new: He took bread and gave it to them saying, This is my Body and the wine saying, This cup is the new covenant in my blood. He also instituted the priesthood of the new covenant, commanding them to do this same thing in memory of himself.

So here is a new sacrificial meal with the Body of Christ in place of the Passover Lamb and the Blood of Christ in place of the blood of the covenant.

After instituting the new Passover of the Eucharist, Jesus handed himself over to be crucified, which took place the following day. This was the new sacrifice; on the Cross Jesus became the new Passover Lamb.

The deliverance, however, was accomplished through his Resurrection on the 1st day of the new week, Sunday.

Notice that the order of events is slightly changed. Now, because the priest and the victim are one and the same, Jesus Christ, the original sacrificial meal came before the original sacrifice, then came the deliverance.

This evening we begin the celebration of the Paschal or Passover Triduum beginning with tonight’s Mass of the Lord’s Supper, followed by the Liturgy of the Lord’s Passion tomorrow, and the celebration of the Lord’s Resurrection beginning at the Easter or Paschal Vigil.

Nevertheless, at every Mass, the whole reality of Jesus’ Passover is made present anew as we proclaim the death of the Lord until he comes to bring us the final deliverance of our resurrection. The Mass is not a commemoration of the Last Supper, but of Jesus’ sacrifice on the Cross, presented anew through the separate consecration of Jesus’ Body and Blood.

The only thing from the Last Supper that continues in the Mass are priesthood in the succession of the Apostles and the bread and the wine that become the Body and Blood of Christ through the power of Jesus’ words and the invocation of the Holy Spirit. We no longer eat the Passover lamb, but that which the lamb represented, the Body of Christ.

In the Church the celebration of the Eucharist is set within a new rite which draws from more than just the Passover because Jesus is not only the new Passover, but he is the new Priest, the new Temple, and indeed he brings the whole of the Old Testament to fulfillment in his person.

At the time of Jesus there were two focal points of Jewish worship: the liturgy of the synagogue and the liturgy of the temple. Both of these have entered into the Mass and give its basic structure. The liturgy of the synagogue has entered into the first part of the Mass, the liturgy of the word; the liturgy of the temple has entered into the second part of the Mass, the liturgy of the Eucharist.

The ambo is the focal point for the word that is proclaimed to the people. The altar is the focal point for the sacrifice that is first offered to God, before being received in holy communion. This difference between the liturgy of the word and the liturgy of the Eucharist can be symbolized in a directional fashion, when the word is proclaimed facing the people, while the sacrifice is offered ‘facing God’ as we will do this evening, following the ancient tradition.

This is not a re-enactment of the last days of Jesus, but a matter of entering into the reality of his Paschal mystery, his life, his salvation. We must keep fixed firmly in mind that communion is a sacrificial meal; it means fully sharing in Jesus’s sacrifice; it requires that we first offer ourselves to God, through with and in Jesus Christ, our high priest.

Remembering what Jesus did for us, we offer ourselves to God and then nourished by his love we give ourselves to a life of service according to his example and his command – love one another as I have loved you. (Jn 13:34)

 

 

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Fr. Joseph Levine graduated from Thomas Aquinas College and after a long journey was ordained to the priesthood for the Diocese of Baker, Oregon. He currently serves as pastor of St. Peter Catholic Church in The Dalles on the Columbia River.