I’ve written of my love for the Jewish faith and its customs before. This admiration is rooted in my love for the Old Testament and the way in which God continually pursued mankind throughout all of history, despite our faults. Today being Holy Thursday, I usually find myself reflecting on the first Passover in Egypt. It’s not an uncommon thing to think about, even the First Reading of tonight’s liturgy highlights the story in Exodus. The Second Reading and the Gospel continue the story, telling of the Last Supper of Christ –which was a Passover celebration that Christ transformed.
To those of us who have grown up Christian, an understanding of the emotional intensity of this meal is often lost to us. To the Jewish people, the Passover was the feast of feasts…the most sacred feast. There is a very specific process to the meal, a specific timeline, a specific time to eat and drink certain things. At this meal — which is most likely not the first time Jesus is celebrating Passover with his apostles (they had been his disciples for three years after all) — Jesus changes things. Internally, the apostles would have been freaking out because, you just don’t mess with Passover! Imagine how we would react if the priest started doing something completely different during the Mass. It was a similar situation.
While the apostles were surely uneasy, they had also grown in their understanding of Jesus. They knew that even when they didn’t understand what Jesus was doing in the moment, they would understand in the future. So while they were probably freaking out, they were also probably paying very close attention to the events that followed.
Now, John the Beloved was the only apostle who was present at both the Crucifixion and the Last Supper. I love Mel Gibson’s interpretation in his movie, The Passion; though John ran from the garden when the soldiers arrested Jesus, he wasn’t running away. John ran to get Mary. Now, we won’t really know if this is true or not until we get to heaven. However, we do know that John was at the foot of the cross, regardless of the fact that, at first, he ran.
Christ and the apostles only drank 3 of the 4 cups of a Passover meal. In Jewish tradition, the meal does not end until the final cup has been consumed. This is a significant detail for the Evangelists to include. Also significant is the fact that John, who was there when Jesus was crucified, is the only Evangelist to record the second-to-last of Jesus’ words, “I thirst” and then to tell us that he finally drank some wine that was offered to him on a sponge as he hung on the cross (John 19:28-29). That final drink, as Scott Hahn so brilliantly pointed out, was the fourth cup, the final cup of the the Passover meal. Jesus had transformed the Passover, offering himself as the sacrificial lamb in order to save us.
The original Passover lamb was only a prefigurement — a foreshadowing — of this Paschal Lamb… the real Lamb that saved us from the slavery of sin and eternal death.
“Ok…why is this so important?” you might be thinking to yourself…
Because it proves that the Eucharist –not just the Cross– is necessary for our salvation.
The Requirements of the First Passover
As you may or may not know, the Israelites were affected by the first 3 plagues in the book of Exodus (the bloody Nile, the frog infestation, and the gnat accumulation). Everything that the Egyptians experienced — the inconveniences, the sickness, the thirst, the bites, the annoyances — the Israelites experienced too.
Before the 4th plague begins, God tells Pharaoh, “…I will set apart the land of Goshen, where my people dwell, so that no swarms of flies shall be there; that you may know that I am the LORD in the midst of the earth” (Ex 8:22). From that point on, God shows Pharaoh that these plagues are not coincidence. God is showing Pharaoh that with or without Egypt’s permission, he will save his people (as he is already beginning to do).
He is also showing the Israelites that they are a people set apart. He is showing them that though they’ve spent centuries in Egypt, they are not a part of Egypt. He is showing them what life is like with him, as well as without him (which is why they experience the pains of the first 3 plagues).
However, when it is time for the final plague, the Israelites have to choose whether or not they want to participate in their salvation. God wants to free them, but he will not free those who do not want to be saved. Thus, the Israelites are given the option to be “passed-over” by the angel of death. Those who wish to be saved are required to slaughter a male old lamb (without blemish) and do two specific things:
- Using a branch of hyssop, smear the blood of the lamb on the lintel and doorposts of their house (Ex 12:7).
- They are to roast the entire lamb and eat it… even the gross sounding stuff, like its head, its legs and its inner parts. None of it can remain in the morning (Ex 12:8-10).
Often, movies focus on the bloody doorposts and the unleavened bread. They fail to emphasize that families had to consume the flesh of the lamb — even though it sounded icky. Both the shedding of blood and the consuming of flesh was required if the Israelites wanted to avoid death. The same is true for us.
The New Passover
Jesus is the Lamb that was slain described in the book of Revelation; he is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. He does this in two ways:
- By shedding his blood for us on the cross; just as in Exodus, the Gospel accounts tell of Jesus’ blood, smeared on the wood of the cross, along with the presence of hyssop (John 19:29).
- By giving us his flesh and blood as food and drink to consume.
We are the Israelites, trapped in the slavery of sin as death approaches. God wants to save us, but he gives us the freedom to choose — just as he gave it to our ancestors thousands of years ago. We have to partake of the sacrifice; we have to participate in our own salvation. We cannot simply be bystanders– or we will not be saved.
This is why the Eucharist is so important, and why it is the source and the summit of our Catholic faith. It is rooted in the Old Testament and it is emphasized in the New Testament because it is necessary for our salvation. God made it so.
“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 on the last day.” ~John 6:53-54
I hope each one of you is showered with grace as we celebrate the Institution of the Eucharist tonight! Have a blessed Triduum!