Words on the Word
Exodus 12:1-8, 11-14: This day is to be a day of remembrance for you.
1 Corinthians 11:23-26: Every time you eat this bread, you proclaim his death.
John 13:1-15: Now he showed how perfect his love was.
As Catholics, we have a strong, almost fierce, attachment to the Mass. We speak of it as the ‘source and summit’ of our Christian life. We are right to do so. The Eucharist is an inexhaustible mystery. Though it has been the object of exposition and controversy for twenty centuries, we can never fully penetrate its meaning. It takes us to the core of our Christian profession, which cannot be adequately framed in human speech: the union of God and man, transience and eternity. It is important to ensure, though, that sublime theological discourse does not remove us from the sacrament’s rootedness in history. The events we celebrate during the Triduum are deliberately framed. When the Lord tells his disciples, ‘We are going up to Jerusalem’, he designates, not just a place, but a time for his sacrifice. What they went up for was the ‘Paschal feast’. Our Christian celebration is defined by its Jewish setting. If we fail to appreciate what this setting means, we risk missing the point of much that Jesus says and does. He uses the Passover to reveal who he is, to display the meaning of his Passion, otherwise so hard to grasp. It is fitting that on this day, when we re-live the institution of the Eucharist, we re-read the account of the first Passover meal. Let us attend to it with reverence, seeking Jesus in it, through it.
The Passover is kept in the evening that precedes the departure of Israel from Egypt. The Exodus begins in the night. That is a fact we must hold on to. The journey towards freedom asks for courage to step out into the darkness and to walk in it. The Passover marks a new way of reckoning time: ‘This month shall be for you’, says Moses, ‘the beginning of months; it shall be the first month of the year for you.’ This new calendar finalises Israel’s break with Egypt—and ours, too. Time, we are told, is not some immutable force to which we are haplessly in thrall. No, it is a function of God’s saving work in time. Time begins when God says, ‘I will free you’. The lunar and solar cycles are made to accommodate this remembrance of divine intervention. That’s why the Easter date is changeable for Jews and Christians. By keeping it this way, we profess that the rhythm of our lives is defined by our redemption, not by blind cosmic powers.
The Paschal lamb must be faultless. A thing given to God cannot be second-rate. It must be a perfect exemplar. That is ever bit as true for a spiritual sacrifice. When we make a vow to God, it must be absolute. When we dedicate our lives to him, we must do it 100%. That is costly. It should be. What value has a gift if the giving of it does not involve some sense of loss? ‘They shall take a lamb’, Moses ordains, ‘according to their fathers’ houses’, that is, one per family, though the boundary is porous: outsiders are welcome in. In this way, the Passover re-defines the group that constitutes a family. As Christians, we should bear that in mind. When Christ ate with the Twelve in the Upper Room, they became his family, a manifestation of the promised hundredfold: for ‘there is no one who has left brothers, sisters, mother or father for my sake who will not receive a hundredfold in this time.’ By sharing one bread, one cup, we, too, become a family. Such is the essence of the Church; it is no mere institution. When, liturgically, we say ‘brother’ or ‘sister’ to each other, these are not vain words. We are part of one another’s hundredfold.
The lamb is a viaticum, food for the journey, to be eaten in haste, staff in hand, loins girded. The signal to be off might come at any time. The Eucharist, likewise, is food for a pilgrimage that never comes to an end. God always takes us further. When, later tonight, we say ‘Amen’ to the consecrated bread and wine, we proclaim: ‘I am ready to follow, Lord, wherever you will lead me.’ The lamb not only sustains, it also protects. How? Its blood smeared on the lintel is not intended to sate a bloodthirsty divinity. It is a sign that, here, in this house, a family is formed in fidelity to God’s covenant. This sacramental communion is a seal that wards off every onslaught of evil. The Hebrew verb pasach, from which our noun ‘Pasch’ is derived, can mean both ‘to pass over’ and ‘to spare’. By partaking of the Lamb, Israel is covered by the Lord’s protective wing. Unbelieving Egypt meanwhile reaps the fruit of its rejection of God’s word. God blesses those who let themselves be blessed. The Passover is no magic charm. The Eucharist isn’t either. It is a pledge from the Lord and a pledge we give in return: a pledge to be faithful, to conform our lives to grace, to answer love with love. Such is the essence of the sacrament.
The Gospels, in their timing of the Eucharist, follow different traditions. Matthew, Mark, and Luke have Christ and the Twelve take their meal with the rest of the assembly of Israel. John puts it earlier, so that the slaughter of the Paschal lamb coincides, instead, with Jesus’s crucifixion. The contradiction is only apparent. What happens in the Upper Room is a sign of Calvary. Our Passover, too, points forward to a cataclysm: not the killing of the first-born, but the self-gift unto death of the Only-Begotten. The meal we share tonight signs us with the blood of the Lamb who is in fact the Good Shepherd, laying down his life for his friends, for us. May the offering we make in return, the gift of our lives, be perfect, as the law prescribes: unblemished, entire, given in love.