Tonight's Mass readings can be found: [HERE]
Tonight, we celebrate an event perpetuated nearly two thousand years ago: the Last Supper our Lord shared with his disciples, before he was betrayed, arrested, and condemned to death.
This Last Supper is often associated with the Passover of the Old Covenant for understandable reasons. The Passover is described at length in the Books of Exodus and Leviticus. But if you’ve seen the film, “The Ten Commandments,” or “Prince of Egypt,” you may have a general sense of it.
About thirteen centuries before Jesus was born, God had afflicted Egypt with a series of plagues, each worse than the last, in order to compel Pharaoh into releasing the Israelites from slavery. For the tenth and final plague, God went forth throughout the land of Egypt and killed the firstborn sons of all the people and cattle, except in those families that took shelter in homes marked with the blood of a lamb.
As we heard in our first reading tonight, God had commanded the Israelites to mark their homes in that way: “Seeing the blood,” said the Lord, “I will pass over you; thus, when I strike the land of Egypt, no destructive blow will come upon you.” That’s the Passover that was inscribed into the memory of Israel and defined them as a people from that time onward. That event was at the heart of their identity, no matter where they would eventually go, or who they would eventually face.
That last night in Egypt, everything changed for Israel. They had been slaves. But that very night, the Egyptians urgently sent the Israelites away in haste with dread fear of the Lord. The Israelites ate Passover lamb while standing: with loins girt, sandals on their feet, staff in hand, like those who are in flight, we read. And flee they did.
The Israelites were banished before their bread could even be leavened, hence the Feast of Unleavened Bread, which persists today for the Jews. Incidentally, it’s why the Eucharist at Mass is consecrated from unleavened bread.
The world and life as Israel knew it was over. They were released from slavery. But with liberation also came uncertainty. They had acclimated to slavery to a degree. They had become accustomed to their bondage in Egypt. That state in life—while an abusive one—was at least known. But who knew where their journey into the darkness of the desert that night would ultimately lead them?
Regardless of when they’d arrive at the land of Promise, or who they’d have to battle, or where they’d have to dwell along the way, the Passover reminded them that God is on their side. The Passover was the sign of the Covenant, through which the Lord established a lasting relationship with Israel. He promised to be their God, and they would be his people. That Passover meal was the foundation of their identity. The entire world as they knew it could disintegrate, but their identity would remain.
Jesus prepared to eat the Passover meal with his disciples. But as we heard in tonight’s gospel from John, it seems as if the Passover meal would have occurred the night following the night of the Last Supper; that is, not on Thursday, but on Friday.
Incidentally then, on Good Friday, when countless lambs were being slaughtered in the Temple in preparation for the evening Passover, our Lord himself, the Lamb of God, was also being slaughtered upon the Cross. And as the paschal lambs were being put into the oven, our Lord at that time would be buried in the tomb.
Nevertheless, our Lord did celebrate a Passover with his apostles on Holy Thursday. He celebrated his own, and a new Passover with them. As with the Israelites nearly thirteen centuries earlier, that very night for the apostles, their entire world as they knew it was about to disintegrate. Their three-year discipleship under Jesus would abruptly come to a violent end, or so it would seem. Before the next twenty-four hours would pass, our Lord would be betrayed, arrested, falsely condemned, executed, and buried.
On the night of the Exodus, the Israelites ate the Passover meal before fleeing into the desert. That Passover meal secured them in their identity as God’s chosen people. Likewise, the apostles ate supper with our Lord before fleeing into the darkness themselves. The Eucharist would secure them in their identity as Christ’s Church no matter the time, place, or circumstance throughout history. They’d come to discover this after our Lord rose from the dead and gathered them together again. That Last Supper begun on Holy Thursday and consummated on Good Friday forever remains in the memory of his Church.
The Lord Jesus, on the night he was handed over, took bread, and after he had given thanks, broke it and said, “This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way also the cup, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.”
If those words sound familiar, they come from our second reading tonight, from the Letter of Saint Paul to the Corinthians. He wrote that many decades after our Lord returned to heaven. We hear those words or similar at every Mass.
When we eat what appears to be bread from this altar, and drink what appears to be wine from this altar, in truth we consume the body, blood, soul, and divinity of Jesus Christ. When we do so, the eternal Covenant between God and his Church is consummated. We are secured in our identity as God’s people.
Like the Israelites in Egypt, and as with the apostles on Holy Thursday, we too cannot predict when our entire situation might come crashing down at any moment, and our entire worldview crumble overnight. But what will never end is the Eternal Covenant that our Lord has established for us.
He commissioned his apostles to perpetuate this Covenant. This is the fundamental commission of priests: Do this in memory of me, says the Lord. The priesthood of Jesus Christ remains. And so, the Eucharist continues to be present in the world; and the Covenant remains.
This holy night, let us cherish the Eternal Covenant, and give thanks to God in Jesus Christ for the gift of the Eucharist. At the end of our Mass tonight, in lieu of the usual final blessing, we end with a Eucharistic procession from the sanctuary to the baptistry of our Church, where our Lord will remain until 10 p.m. This is happening throughout our diocese, but I don’t know when every Church will be closing their doors.
When I lived in Rome, it was a tradition on Holy Thursday after the evening Mass to walk to seven churches and pray before the Blessed Sacrament. I encourage you to take some time tonight to do the same; to spend time with Jesus.
Our Holy Triduum has begun. I pray your Triduum be filled with many graces and blessings. God bless you.
Christ in Gethsemane, by Carl Heinrich Bloch, c. 1880, Brigham Young University Museum of Art, [Public domain]