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Explore the connections between the central liturgical ritual among Catholics, the celebration of the Eucharist, and the Jewish celebration of Passover. This Update examines the meaning of the Last Supper and how both the Eucharist and Passover are celebrations of liberation, life and God's saving love.

Catholic Update

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From Passover to Eucharist: God’s Liberating Love

By Rev. Lawrence E. Mick

The central liturgical ritual among Christians, especially among Catholics, is the celebration of the Eucharist. Among Jews, that title probably belongs to the celebration of the Passover. Since Jesus was a Jew, we should not be surprised to find that there are connections between these two liturgical rituals. Sorting out just what those connections are, however, is not as easy as it might seem. In this Update we’ll try to tackle the task.

At first glance, it seems quite simple. Christians see the first Eucharist as taking place at the Last Supper, the night before Jesus was crucified. The New Testament presents this meal as a Passover meal. So the first Eucharist was a Passover celebration, and the Eucharist is the Christian Passover. There are a variety of problems with that picture, however, as we will see.

A Passover meal?

One problem is that scholars are not sure whether the Last Supper was a Passover meal or not. The Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) indicate that it was, but John’s Gospel places the Last Supper on the night before Passover. In John’s Gospel, Jesus is crucified at the same time that the Passover lambs were being slaughtered at the temple for the meal that would follow that evening.

For many years, scholars assumed that the Synoptic version was more accurate historically, but recently a consensus seems to be developing that sees John as very concerned about dates and times. This view suggests that John’s dating is correct and that the other writers recast the meal as a Passover meal to make a point about the meaning of Jesus’ death and resurrection.

The issue cannot be definitively settled at this point, but it should make us careful about assuming that the Last Supper was a Passover meal. Moreover, the descriptions of the meal that come to us from the Gospels do not sound much like the Passover. There is no mention of lamb, or bitter herbs or any of the other elements that were unique to the Passover. (Actually, we’re not too sure how the Passover ritual was celebrated in the time of Jesus, since the first detailed descriptions we have of the Passover ritual are from a later date.)

To further complicate matters, Luke’s Gospel indicates a different pattern for the meal than Mark and Matthew. Luke relates the sharing of a cup first, then the bread and then another cup, a pattern that matches a common Jewish festive meal, but not necessarily the Passover.

Another key point is that Passover is celebrated only once a year, not weekly as the Christian Eucharist was celebrated from the beginning. It is also instructive to note that the Passover required unleavened bread, while Christians used leavened bread for the Eucharist for a millennium in the West and to this day in the East. Scholars suggest that the Eucharist stems more from the common meals Jesus shared with his disciples, especially after the Resurrection, than from the Passover ritual. Not as simple as it seems, is it!

The Meaning of the meal

Whether the Last Supper was or was not a Passover meal, the early Christians saw it as the fulfillment of the Passover. As we noted above, the Synoptic Gospels cast the meal itself as a Passover supper, while John sees Jesus as the paschal lamb sacrificed on the cross. St. Paul also links Christ’s death and resurrection with the Passover in First Corinthians: “Clear out the old yeast, so that you may become a fresh batch of dough, inasmuch as you are unleavened. For our paschal lamb, Christ, has been sacrificed. Therefore let us celebrate the feast, not with the old yeast, the yeast of malice and wickedness, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth” (1 Cor 5:7-8).

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To understand the Eucharist, then, it is important for us to understand the meaning of the Passover celebration. The roots of this festival are very ancient, even preceding the Exodus of the Jews from Egypt. The later Passover is really a combination of two celebrations: a nomadic tribal sacrifice of a lamb whose blood is sprinkled on the tent pegs to ward off evil spirits and an agrarian ritual marking spring and the harvest of new grain with the use of unleavened bread. As nomads settled among local farmers, these two celebrations were combined.

The Hebrew Bible, however, gives a new meaning to these combined rituals by linking them to the events of the Exodus. As part of that event, God sent a series of plagues to afflict the Egyptians. When the final plague was announced, the death of the firstborn by the destroying angel, the Israelites slaughtered lambs and marked their homes with the blood, thus warding off this evil. Then they fled Egypt in haste, without time for bread to rise, so they ate unleavened bread (see Ex 12:21-36.)

A feast of identity

For the Jews, then, the Passover is a celebration of the Exodus. It is a feast of liberation, rejoicing in God’s wondrous acts on their behalf that set them free from slavery. The Exodus was also the event that established Israel as a people, as God’s chosen people. In the United States, our Fourth of July rituals celebrate our independence and our identity as a nation. Passover had a similar significance for the Jewish people.

In at least one significant respect, though, the Jewish understanding of the celebration was quite different from the way we Americans think of the Fourth of July. We celebrate an event that happened over 200 years ago. We celebrate our continuing freedom, but we think of that past event as long gone and out of reach. Even though some of us may dress up in colonial garb, we don’t really think of ourselves as being present at the signing of the Declaration of Independence or of taking part in the Revolutionary War that achieved our freedom.

For the Jews, on the other hand, remembering the Exodus is more than just a mental recall. The Book of Exodus commands the Jewish father to explain the meaning of the feast this way: “On this day you shall explain to your son, ‘This is because of what the Lord did for me when I came out of Egypt’” (13:8).

All Jews are to celebrate the feast as though they had been alive at the time of the Exodus. They see the feast as somehow bringing them into contact with that ancient event. This is the concept we try to express with the term “memorial” (anamnesis in Greek). Through the ritual observance, the contemporary Jew not only remembers the past but also relives it.

At the same time, the memorial celebration of the Passover also proclaims God’s continuing liberating action on behalf of God’s people in the present day and looks forward to the fulfillment of God’s promises for complete salvation when the Messiah comes. Just as God acted in the past, God continues to act in the present and will act in the future to save us.

Christ’s exodus

Jesus drew on this concept of memorial when he told his disciples, during the Last Supper, to “do this in memory of me” (Lk 22:19). The Church has long understood that the celebration of the Eucharist brings us into contact with the saving actions of Christ. That is the way we are able to share in his sacrifice, his exodus through death to resurrected life.

His sacrifice is not repeated; he died once for all and death has no more power over him. But his sacrifice is also eternal and enacting the ritual of the Eucharist enables us to enter into that eternal act.

Though the Church has long held this basic view that the Eucharist brings us into contact with Christ’s sacrifice, it has not endorsed any theological explanation of how this happens.

One way to understand what happens is to recognize that the core of Christ’s sacrifice was his commitment to the Father’s will, clearly expressed in the agony in the garden: “Not my will but yours be done” (Lk 22:42). This commitment led him to the cross and resurrection at one point in history, but Christ’s will is eternally united with the Father’s will.

Christ is forever victim, forever priest. When we celebrate the Eucharist, we are invited to enter into that eternal act, aligning our wills with the Father’s will as Jesus did. Thus we become one with Christ and share in his sacrificial act. This can help us to realize the breadth of the commitment we make when we “do this in memory” of Jesus.

What did Jesus mean by “this”? What are we to do in memory of him? Pope Benedict XVI addressed this question in a homily at World Youth Day in Germany in August 2005. “Jesus did not instruct us,” Benedict said, “to repeat the Passover meal, which in any event, given that it is an anniversary, is not repeatable at will. He instructed us to enter into his ‘hour.’” The pope goes on to suggest that Jesus’ hour is the “hour in which love triumphs” and that we share his hour if we “allow ourselves, through the celebration of the Eucharist, to be drawn into that process of transformation that the Lord intends to bring about.”

In memory of Jesus, then, we are to be transformed by adopting his attitude of love and his commitment to the Father’s will. We share his sacrifice not only by carrying out the ritual of the Mass but also by living our lives in accord with God’s will.

The Amen that we sing at the end of the Eucharistic Prayer at every Mass commits us to a whole way of life. Our Eucharist is only authentic if it expresses the meaning of our whole lives. What we are to do in memory of Jesus is to live and love as he did.

True Liberation

When Jesus described his ministry in Luke’s Gospel, he quoted Isaiah: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring glad tidings to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, and to proclaim a year acceptable to the Lord” (4:18-19). Those words echo the Passover’s celebration of God as a liberator of the oppressed, and they stand as a challenge to us to embrace Christ’s mission as our own.

Pope John Paul II, in announcing the 2004-2005 Year of the Eucharist—the year that he himself died—reminded us that the Eucharist requires this kind of commitment for its authentic celebration. There is one other point which I would like to emphasize, since it significantly affects the authenticity of our communal sharing in the Eucharist. It is the impulse which the Eucharist gives to the community for a practical commitment to building a more just and fraternal society.

In the Eucharist our God has shown love in the extreme, overturning all those criteria of power which too often govern human relations and radically affirming the criterion of service: “If anyone wishes to be first, he shall be the last of all and the servant of all” (Mk 9:35). It is not by chance that the Gospel of John contains no account of the institution of the Eucharist, but instead relates the “washing of feet” (see Jn 13:1-20). By bending down to wash the feet of his disciples, Jesus explains the meaning of the Eucharist unequivocally. St. Paul vigorously reaffirms the impropriety of a eucharistic celebration lacking charity expressed by practical sharing with the poor (see 1 Cor 11:17-22, 27-34).

We cannot delude ourselves: By our mutual love and, in particular, by our concern for those in need we will be recognized as true followers of Christ (see Jn 13:35; Mt 25:31-46). This will be the criterion by which the authenticity of our eucharistic celebrations is judged (Mane Nobiscum Domine, #28).

From Passover to Easter—to Sunday

Jews celebrate God’s saving action in the Exodus every year at Passover. Christians celebrate Jesus’ passing through death to the new life every year in the great three days we call Triduum: Holy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter. This is the closest Christian parallel to Passover.

Of course, we also celebrate the Resurrection of the Lord every Sunday when we gather for Eucharist, which is why Sunday is sometimes called “a little Easter.”

We don’t celebrate the Passover ritual, but the meaning of the Passover meal and the meaning of the eucharistic meal are related. Our God is a God of freedom and life. Both Christians and Jews celebrate God’s saving love and thus commit themselves to imitating that love. That’s the deepest meaning of both Passover and Eucharist.

Lawrence E. Mick is a priest of the Archdiocese of Cincinnati. He holds a master’s degree in liturgical studies from the University of Notre Dame. He is the author of over 500 articles in various publications. His latest book is I Like Being in Parish Ministry: Presider (Twenty-Third Publications).

NEXT: God Is Love, the Pope’s first encyclical in condensed form

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