Holy ThursdayApril 5, 2011
John 13: 1-15
Ex 12: 1-8, 11-14
1 Cor 11: 23-26
Christian Brothers, St. Joseph’s Home, N.R.
“Before the feast of Passover, Jesus knew that his hour had come to pass from this world to the Father” (John 13: 1).
The Last Supper, depicted in the Tempio di Don Bosco at Becchi (Castelnuovo Don Bosco, Italy)
We begin the Easter Triduum tonite. The Triduum makes much of its being “the Passover of the Lord” (Ex 12:11), the Christian Passover inaugurating a “new covenant” (1 Cor 11:25), inaugurating a new relationship with the Lord for a new people of God.
Our celebration is rooted in our Jewish heritage—our heritage, which underlies our Christian faith, our liturgy, our history—as well as being rooted in what our Lord Jesus Christ said and did on his last nite among us.
Our celebration makes Christ’s Passover a present reality. The Christian mysteries are here with us, and we actively share in them. Once and eternal they are, and we live in the mysteries. We take part in the Lord’s Passover, this “hour when he passed from this world to the Father,” as our Jewish brothers and sisters also every year relive—not re-enact, but are part of—that very Passover recalled in our 1st reading this evening and in another reading at the Easter Vigil (Ex 14:15—15:1).
Our celebration looks forward to the completion of Passover when Christ shall return (cf. 1 Cor 11:26) and we shall join him in the Promised Land, having passed over from death to life, having passed from this world to the Father’s mansions (cf. John 14:2); when we shall feast at the “eternal banquet of his love” (Collect and Prayer after Communion) signified in this sacrament of his Body and Blood.
The 1st Passover involved the ritual slaying of lambs or kids and the painting of the Hebrews’ doorposts and lintels with the blood of those beasts. That nite the angel of death swept over Egypt and struck down the 1st-born of every family not marked protectively by the blood of the lambs or kids. The angel passed over Egypt in full, deadly force the way locusts pass over a wheat field and leave it barren: “On this same nite I will go thru Egypt, striking down every firstborn of the land…, executing judgment on all the gods of Egypt” (Ex 12:12). At the same time, the angel passed over the Hebrews’ homes in the sense of skipping them: “Seeing the blood, I will pass over you” (12:13).
Death of the Firstborn, by Sir Lawrence Alma-Tedema (late 19th c.)Then Pharaoh released the Hebrews from their slavery, and they escaped miraculously thru the parted waters of the Red Sea, which then crashed back upon and drowned their oppressors. The Hebrews passed over on dry land from slavery to freedom as the 1st stage of their journey toward the Promised Land: “You freed the people of Israel from their slavery and led them dry-shod thru the sea” (Exsultet, ed. 1985).
The Old Testament images the New, or in the traditional usage of the Fathers, the OT is a type of the New. Our new Passover Lamb is slain, and his blood paints the cross, the tree that supplants the fatal tree of Eden, and his blood also paints our lips in this Eucharistic sacrament, protecting us from the angel of death, promising us that we are redeemed and shall live.
The Blood of Christ paints the lips of believers...A little known 2d-century Father of the Church, St. Melito of Sardis, writes in a homily used in today’s Liturgy of the Hours*:
He was led forth like a lamb; he was slaughtered like a sheep. He ransomed us from our servitude to the world, as he had ransomed Israel from the land of Egypt; he freed us from our slavery to the devil, as he had freed Israel from the hand of Pharaoh.
He is the One who brought us out of slavery into freedom, out of darkness into light, out of death into life, out of tyranny into an eternal kingdom; who made us a new priesthood, a people chosen to be his own forever. He is the Passover that is our salvation.
He is the mute lamb, the slain lamb…. He was seized from the flock, dragged off to be slaughtered, sacrificed in the evening, and buried at night. On the tree no bone of his was broken; in the earth his body knew no decay. He is the One who rose from the dead, and who raised men from the depths of the tomb.Similarly, as the Vigil liturgy emphasizes, in Baptism we pass thru water, the waters divide (in a sense) as they’re poured over our heads or we are plunged into them, and that baptismal water drowns our sins, drowns our fearsome enemy the devil; it marks our passage from slavery to the freedom of God’s children, as Melito stressed.
Both Baptism and the Eucharist set us off on our journey toward the Promised Land, no earthly paradise but a heavenly one where our “teacher” and “master” (John 13:14) awaits us.
In this Eucharistic mystery we take part in Christ’s sacrifice. We “proclaim the death of the Lord” (1 Cor 11:26), and also his resurrection. We aren’t re-enacting Calvary or the empty tomb; they are eternally present to God, and we become sacramentally present with them, as today’s Jews are spared by the devastating angel and walk safely across the Red Sea with their ancestors in this “perpetual memorial feast” (Ex 12:14). Our Collect this evening reminds us that we are participating in the Lord’s Last Supper.
We join Christ our master also in his self-offering on the cross and are bathed in his life-giving blood, and we rise with him to a life that shall never end. The Prayer over the Offerings will note, “Whenever the memorial of this sacrifice is celebrated, the work of our redemption is accomplished.” Christ lives, and his sacrifice too lives on and on, accomplishing its purpose.
Christ is present and yet to come—that’s one of the themes of Christian liturgy. We “proclaim the death of the Lord until he comes” (1 Cor 11:26), until he returns in all his glory and brings us fully into the Promised Land, leads us from this world to the Father, completing our Passover from darkness into light, from slavery to freedom, from death to life.
* Easter homily, Office of Readings for Holy Thursday, LOH 2:459.