Holy Thursday 2021
St. Matthew Cathedral, South Bend
The Sacred Paschal Triduum begins with this Evening Mass of the Lord’s Supper. We enter into the Paschal Mystery of Jesus’ Passion, Death and Resurrection. The word “Paschal” comes from the Greek word “Pascha” which means “Passover.” It was at the time of the Jewish feast of Passover that Jesus celebrated the Last Supper with His disciples. The Passover, as you know, was the celebration of the Exodus from Egypt, when God liberated and saved His people from slavery. In the Old Testament, this is the climactic revelation of God’s love. Our Jewish brothers and sisters are remembering this event at their Passover celebrations this week. Every year, the Jewish community in Fort Wayne sends me a gift bag with all the food and ingredients for a Passover meal. It is a very kind gesture and reminds me every Holy Week of the first Passover and the context of Jesus’ Last Supper with the apostles.
Jesus did something strange on the night of the Last Supper. Rather than talk about the past exodus from Egypt, Jesus talked about what would happen the next day: His suffering and death. So the Last Supper wasn’t an ordinary Passover meal. Jesus was establishing a new Passover: His Passover from death to life. He anticipated this new Passover at the Last Supper. It is the climactic revelation of God’s love in the New Testament, and indeed, in all human history.
To understand the New Passover, we must understand the Old Passover. The first reading tonight from the book of Exodus gives us God’s instruction to Moses and Aaron about how the people were to prepare for the Exodus. Each family was to procure a year-old male lamb without blemish. It couldn’t just be any lamb. It had to be a lamb that was free of any defects. It couldn’t be maimed or lame or diseased in any way. It had to be perfect. Then it was to be slaughtered in the evening twilight. (There’s another detail mentioned later in chapter 12 of Exodus – not a single bone of the lamb was to be broken). After the lamb was killed, some of its blood was to be applied to the two doorposts and the lintel of the house. This was a visible sign of the sacrifice that had been performed. The angel of death would pass over and spare the people in the homes marked with the blood of the lamb. It was also necessary that the people eat the flesh of the lamb, not just sacrifice it, but also roast it and eat it, along with unleavened bread and bitter herbs. Finally, God told Moses and Aaron that the Passover supper was to be celebrated every year as a memorial feast, as a remembrance of the exodus.
Reflecting on the Jewish Passover, we can better understand the new Passover inaugurated by Jesus at the Last Supper. Jesus and the disciples celebrated the Passover Holy Thursday night with the prescribed unleavened bread and wine, but there’s no mention of a lamb. Looking at the details of the Jewish Passover, we see very clearly that Jesus Himself is the lamb at the Last Supper, the new Passover lamb. This was foretold by St. John the Baptist at the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry. Remember when John saw Jesus approach him at the Jordan River, he said: “Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” The people must have been startled when they heard those words. “What does John mean, the Lamb of God?,” they must have wondered. Maybe they thought of the Passover lamb. After all, the people at the time of Jesus were hoping for a new exodus. They expected that God would one day save His people in much the same way that He had saved His people at the first exodus. And, as any ancient Jew would have known, if there was going to be a new exodus, then there would need to be a new Passover as well. That’s what was inaugurated on that first Holy Thursday night, the new Passover in which Jesus is the Paschal Lamb.
It’s amazing to look at the parallels. Like the lamb at the Passover, Jesus was without blemish. He was without sin. Like the Passover lamb, none of His bones were broken at His crucifixion. Like the Passover lamb, Jesus was sacrificed. Like the Passover lamb whose blood was poured out and spread on the wood of the houses, Jesus’ blood was poured out and spread on the wood of the cross. Like the Passover lamb whose flesh was eaten, Jesus gave His flesh to be eaten when He said at the Last Supper: “Take and eat. This is my body which is given up for you.” And just as the Old Passover was to be a memorial feast, so Jesus established a memorial feast of the New Passover, the Eucharist, when He said: “Do this in memory of me.”
The Jewish Passover was both a sacrifice and a meal. The Holy Eucharist, instituted on this holy night, is also both a sacrifice and a meal. It is a sacrifice in that it makes present the sacrifice of the cross. Christ gives us the very body which He gave up for us on the cross and the very blood which He poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. The Eucharist is also a meal. It is the sacred banquet of communion with the Lord’s body and blood. In the Eucharistic feast, we enter into a real communion in the body and blood of Jesus.
At the Last Supper, the ancient Passover acquired a new meaning. The cross is at the center of the new Passover of Jesus. From it came the gift of true freedom, salvation and new life. This new Passover lives on forever in the Most Holy Eucharist, our food for the journey to the new promised land of heaven.
At the Last Supper, Jesus, the new Passover Lamb, washed the feet of His disciples. This was an act of great humility. Lambs are meek and humble animals. Jesus would go to the cross (as Isaiah prophesied about God’s Suffering Servant) “like a lamb led to the slaughter or a sheep before the shearers, he was silent and opened not his mouth.” With meekness, Jesus would surrender Himself to death. The washing of the feet was a foreshadowing of Our Lord’s Passion and Death, by which He, the Lamb of God, takes away the sins of the world. He washes us and cleanses us with the water and blood that flowed from His pierced side. This purification is communicated to us in the sacraments of Baptism and Penance. That’s why Jesus told Peter that he would have no inheritance with Him unless He washed his feet, unless he allowed Our Lord to purify and sanctify him with His love.
After washing their feet, Jesus commands the disciples to practice the same kind of self-emptying humility and love that He will show them on the cross. He says: “You ought to wash one another’s feet.” This command is substantially the same as His command: “Love one another as I have loved you.”
As we celebrate the New Passover during these days of the Triduum, I invite you to reflect on what it means to be disciples of the new Passover Lamb. The washing of the feet teaches us what this means. Pope Francis once said: “To be disciples of the Lamb of God means replacing malice with innocence, force with love, pride with humility, prestige with service.” To be disciples of the Lamb means to live the Eucharist that we celebrate and receive.
Now, before we gather around the altar of the Lamb, we will have the washing of the feet. We do what our Lord and Master has done. This is what Jesus did at the Last Supper when He gave us the amazing gift of His Body and Blood in the Eucharist. We cannot separate the two. The Holy Eucharist is the sacrament of love. In the Eucharist, He continues to love us to the end. And He says to us, as He said to the apostles after washing their feet: “I have given you a model to follow, so that as I have done for you, you should also do.”