Holy Thursday: the Lamb of God rescues us and makes us his own

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Holy Thursday: March 28, 2013
Evening Mass of the Lord’s Supper

Exod 12:1-8, 11-14; Ps 116; 1 Cor 11:23-26; John 13:1-15

Tonight we celebrate the Mass of the Lord’s Supper. This occurred in the midst of the yearly Jewish celebration of Passover in Jerusalem. This past Sunday we heard from the Gospel of Luke: “When the hour came, he took his place at table with the apostles. He said to them, ‘I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer…'” (Luke 22:14-15) And so let us remember what this Passover celebration was; for our Lord Jesus then took it and raised it to a whole new level in himself.

The events that Passover celebrated are recounted in the Book of Exodus: for these are the events by which the Lord rescued the People of Israel from Egypt and indeed truly made them a people, in relationship with him, their Rescuer.

  • For this story begins, in perhaps 1400 BC, with them enslaved in Egypt—forced to do hard manual labor; not free; mistreated, punished, threatened with death. And Pharaoh, the ruler of Egypt, was not persuaded to let the Lord’s People go by Moses’ words or the miracles he performed, including the first nine Plagues.
  • But then came the 10th and final plague. The Passover lamb was sacrificed, and its blood put on the doorposts of the families—as we heard in the first reading—so that their lives were protected, even as the angel of death accomplished the terrible persuasion necessary among the Egyptians.
  • The people were at last set free; and as they left in haste they had to take with them their bread that had not had time to rise; so that they would eat it unleavened.
  • They marched east toward the Red Sea; and Pharaoh changed his mind and sent his army after them. And so they seemed to be caught, with the sea of water in front of them and an army closing in behind. But the Lord parted the Red Sea for them, so that they passed through on dry land; and then he closed the waters of the sea upon the pursuing army, destroying them.

And so it was that the Lord brought the People of Israel from slavery to freedom, by the blood of the Passover or paschal lamb, and the passage through the waters of the Red Sea.

In the Book of Deuteronomy, Moses said to the People:

You are a people sacred to the Lord, your God; he has chosen you from all the nations on … earth to be a people peculiarly his own. It was not because you are the largest of all nations… It was because the Lord loved you and because of his fidelity … that he brought you out with his strong hand from the place of slavery, and ransomed you from the hand of Pharaoh, king of Egypt. (Deut 7:6-8)

The Passover made the People of Israel who they were. And so it was celebrated each year, for a period of 8 days, with the focal point being the Passover meal. The paschal lamb was sacrificed and eaten; as were unleavened bread and many cups of wine. The story was retold in word and song and symbolic foods and actions. And the people knew that this was not only about their ancestors of 1400 years before; the Lord had rescued them, the Lord had chosen them.

But as great and formative as the events of that Passover had been, they were only a shadow of the much greater reality that our Lord Jesus was going to accomplish.

  • For he was not merely a lamb; he was, as John the Baptist proclaimed, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world. (John 1:29)
  • And he had come to rescue us not merely from earthly slavery to an earthly king; but from our slavery to sin and death that dominated our whole lives and had indeed corrupted the entire universe.
  • And it was not merely earthly freedom to which he intended to lead us, but to the life of the Resurrection, transformed, eternal, in the new heavens and the new earth, in which there will be no more death or mourning, wailing or pain, for all things shall be made new. (Rev 21:4-5)
  • To accomplish this, the Lamb of God would shed his Precious Blood;
  • and he would pass, not though the waters of the sea, but through death itself; so that he might also bring us with him, through death into the Resurrection.

And in so doing he made us who we are. As St. Peter wrote:

Once you were “no people” but now you are God’s people; once you “had not received mercy” but now you have received mercy… you are “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people of his own… (1 Pet 2:9-10)

All of this our Lord Jesus accomplished through his Paschal Mystery, that is, through giving his life as the one perfect sacrifice to the Father, in perfect love and obedience, and passing through his Passion and death to become the firstfruits of the Resurrection; and all of this we celebrate during this Paschal Triduum, these three days in which the Lamb of God moved us from death to life, from slavery to freedom, and made us who we are.

And our Lord began it by establishing this meal, this sacrifice, this sacramental means of entering into his Paschal Mystery again and again: the Lord’s Supper, the Eucharist, the Mass. Here the Lamb of God has changed the unleavened bread of Passover into his own body, given up for us; here the Lamb of God has changed the cup into his own precious blood, poured out for us: his very self, given to us as spiritual food.

  • On that first Holy Thursday he pre-enacted his sacrifice upon the cross that he would accomplish the next day, pre-enacted it so that we might re-enact it—as we heard St. Paul explain to the Corinthians in our second reading—so that he might make himself truly present to us upon every altar at every Mass until the end of time.
  • And as he transformed the Passover meal and the sacrificial system, he also transformed the priesthood: establishing the order of ministerial priests under himself as High Priest, beginning with the apostles, who were made servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God (1 Cor 4:1), entrusted with the sacred power and responsibility to make Christ present in his sacraments for the good of all his faithful.
  • And he washed his disciples’ feet in the loving act of a servant, as we heard in our Gospel reading. And surely this act evokes for us the cleansing that we receive in sacramental confession. For, after we were entirely bathed in baptism, when we were washed of original sin and personal sins; then any additional sins we may later commit can be washed away in confession; as Christ, through his priests, lovingly handles our feet, our toes, washes away the accumulated dirt, and makes us clean again.

So let us say yes to this loving invitation that Love himself extends. Our Lord, the Lamb of God, the true Paschal Lamb, feeds us with his own body and blood, and washes us clean—even as he sheds his own blood to lead us from enslavement to sin and death into holiness, freedom, and new life.

Christ, our paschal lamb, has been sacrificed. Therefore let us celebrate the feast… (1 Cor 5:7-8)

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