Thursday, April 21, 2011

Homily: Holy Thursday

“Christ our Paschal Lamb has been sacrificed. Therefore let us celebrate the festival.”
-1 Corinthians 5:7

My dear sisters in Christ,

1. In the film The Passion of the Christ there is a great scene from Holy Thursday where Mary the Mother of Jesus and Mary Magdelene are sleeping, and Mary the Mother of Jesus suddenly awakens from sleep. Mary Magdelen asks here “What Mary. What is it?” The Blessed mother responds “Listen. “Why is this night different from every other night?” Magdelene looks at her knowing that something is very wrong, and responds saying “because once we were slaves and we are slaves no longer.” This question and its response is one of great importance, because it a question that is asked every time a Jewish family gathers to celebrate the Passover meal. It sets the tone for everything that will transpire during that sacred meal wherein the sacrificial lamb is eaten. The Last Supper, the event that we mystically enter into this evening, is the Passover of the New Covenant, where Christ the Paschal Lamb is sacrificed and given to us as the food of eternal life. So why, my dear sisters, is this night different from every other night? Because once we were slaves and we are slaves no longer.

2. Pope Benedict points out in his latest book, the second part of Jesus of Nazareth, that
in St. John’s Gospel, he goes to great lengths to indicate that the Last Supper was not a Passover meal. On the contrary: the Jewish authorities who led Jesus before Pilate’s court avoided entering the praetorium, “so that they might not be defiled, but might eat the Passover” (18:28). The Passover, therefore, began only in the evening, and at the time of the trial the Passover meal had not yet taken place; the trial and crucifixion took place on the day before the Passover, on the “day of preparation”, not on the feast day itself…According to this chronology, Jesus dies at the moment when the Passover lambs are being slaughtered in the Temple. Jesus dies as the real lamb, merely prefigured by those slain in the Temple. (Benedict XVI, 83).”

In order to grasp the significance of Jesus being the true and final paschal lamb let’s take some time to examine the requirements for the Passover meal, including the sacrificing of the paschal lamb and see just how well Jesus fulfills the law and the prophets.

3. The Passover meal during the time of Jesus had four general steps, although there are many more small steps involved. First, as we heard in our first reading, the father of the family is to procure a male lamb in its prime, one year old, that is without blemish of any kind. It is not to be sick, diseased, or imperfect in any way whatsoever.

4. Second, the lamb was to be sacrificed without breaking any of its bones so that it would be sacrificed in its perfection. In the time of the Exodus it was the father of the household that slaughtered the lamb in virtue of their familial priesthood, but by the time of Christ, it was the priests in the temple who slaughtered all the paschal lambs in the temple, and their blood was poured out at the base of the altar. This is why it was necessary for every Jew at the time of Christ to celebrate the Passover it Jerusalem, since it was only there that the lamb could be sacrificed. Since every Jew who wanted to fulfill the law and celebrate the Passover had to travel to Jerusalem, the streets would be teeming with people, the temple would be filled with men bringing their families lamb to be slaughtered by the priests in the temple. Josephus the great historian of the time of Jesus gives us a fairly detailed description of what it was like in Jerusalem and in the Temple at Passover time. He says

So these high priests, upon the coming of their feast which is called the Passover, when they slay their sacrifices, from the ninth hour (about 3pm) to the eleventh (about 5pm), but so that a company not less than ten belong to every sacrifice (for it is not lawful for them to feast singularly by themselves, and many of us are twenty in a company, for the number of sacrifices as 256,500; which, upon the allowance of no more than ten that feast together, amounts to 2,700,200 persons (Josephus, War 6:423-27).

Another fascinating bit of information about how the paschal lambs were sacrificed in the time of Jesus is that they were, get this, crucified! This is described in a book entitled Jesus and the Jewish Roots of the Eucharist:
As the Israeli scholar Jospeh Tabory has shown, according to the Mishnah, at the time when the Temple still stood, after the sacrifice of the lamb, the Jews would drive “thin smooth staves” of wood through the shoulders of the lamb in order to hang it and skin it (Pesahim 5:9). In addition to this first rod, they would also “thrust” a “skewer of pomegranate wood” through the Passover lamb “from its mouth to its buttocks” (Pesahim 7:1). As Tabory concludes, “An examination of the rabbinic evidence…seems to show that in Jerusalem the Jewish paschal lamb was offered in a manner which resembled a crucifixion (Brant Pitre, 53).

This is also attested to by St. Justin, Martyr and the mystic Blessed Anne Catherine Emmeric in their writings.

5. So, my dear sisters, imagine for a moment what it must have been like to witness this sort of spectacle. Imagine the veritable hemorrhage of blood that would be flowing from altar of sacrifice as the blood of these two hundred thousand lambs was dashed against the altar. Imagine the sound of the sheep bleating as their throats were slit. Imagine the smell of the animals and the blood. Imagine the lifeless, bloodless, bodies of those perfect unblemished lambs on those wooden crosses waiting to be roasted and eaten.

6. This leads to the third step, the roasting and eating of the Paschal lamb. This step was of the utmost importance for the Jewish people, and ultimately for God who commanded them to do this. To just sacrifice the lamb was not enough, it had to be roasted and eaten. In order to be saved from the final plague, the death of the firstborn son, you had to both sacrifice and eat the Paschal Lamb. Again a quote from the book Jesus and the Jewish Roots of the Eucharist will drive home this point. The author says

If they took the lamb, sacrificed the lamb, spread the blood of the lamb (on the doorposts), but did not eat the lamb, what would have been the result? Well, the Book of Exodus does not say. But it’s a good guess that when they awoke the next morning, their firstborn son would be dead. For, as any ancient Jew would have known, the Passover sacrifice was not completed by the death of the lamb, but by eating its flesh…The Passover was not completed by the death of the victim, but by a “communion” of sorts – by eating the flesh of the sacrifice that had been killed on your behalf (Pitre, 49).

7. The fourth and final step is that the Passover was to be repeated every year, it was to be a perpetual memorial of how God had delivered the Israelites from slavery to the promised land. And this memorial was no mere commemoration of a past event, but in the Jewish mind, when celebrating a memorial of this sort, one actually entered into the past event. It was somehow mysteriously made present even though in time it was a past event.

8. So, my dear sisters, what does this lesson on the Passover have to do with anything? It has everything do with Jesus and the great gift which he instituted on this most holy of nights. Jesus, the Messiah, while celebrating the Passover was at the same time fulfilling Jewish law and inaugurating a New Passover, not one that freed us from the slavery of the Egyptians, but one that freed us from the slavery of Sin. Jesus did all of the things required of the law, yet he altered the Passover so as to make it His own, the Passover of the Messiah.

For instance, whereas the Passover usually focused on the covenant with Abraham, Jesus focused on the New Covenant in His Blood. Whereas the Passover usually focused on the body and blood of the lamb of sacrifice. First, the lamb would be slaughtered, and the priests in the Temple would pour out the blood of the lamb on the altar. Then the Jews would bring the body of the lamb from the Temple to the Passover meal, and the father would explain its meaning at the meal. Yet at the Last Supper, Jesus did something entirely different. With his words of explanation, he shifted the focus away from the body and blood of the Passover lamb (of which there is no mention), and turned it toward his own body and blood (Pitre, 58).

When we compare Jesus’ actions to these ancient Jewish traditions, it doesn’t take much imagination to figure out his point. By means of his words over the bread and wine of the Last Supper, Jesus is saying in no uncertain terms, “I am the new Passover lamb of the new exodus. This is the Passover of the Messiah, and I am the new sacrifice.” (Pitre, 59)

9. We also see Jesus setting up this new Passover as a perpetual memorial, one that would allow those who partake in it to enter into the first Passover of the Messiah, the Passover where He, the true Lamb of God is slain to set us free from sin. This Passover of the Messiah began at the Last Supper, and ended as He, the true Lamb of Sacrifice was slaughtered on Calvary. Imagine, dear sisters, how, according to the chronology of the Gospel of St. John, just outside of the gates of the City of Jerusalem, and facing East toward the Holy of Holies, Jesus the spotless and unblemished Lamb of God, without a bone being broken, is nailed to a cross, and his blood is dashed upon the altar of the cross as it flows from His Sacred Wounds. This is the Passover of the Messiah.

10. My dear sisters, tonight we have the privilege of entering once again into that great Passover of the Messiah. Tonight, I, unworthy as I am, will make present that moment when the True Lamb was slain. We blood is poured out. His body is crucified. He gives his life so that we may be set free from the slavery of sin, and it will all happen right here before our very eyes. Then, so that the sacrifice may be complete and we may indeed share in the freedom He is holding out to us, we will eat the very flesh of the Lamb and we will smear our lips with his life-blood. We will become one with the Lamb, and thus it becomes possible for eternal death to pass over us.

11. My sisters, why is this night different from every other night? Because once we were slaves and we are slaves no longer. “Christ our Paschal Lamb has been sacrificed. Therefore let us celebrate the festival.”