April 6, 2023 // Bishop's Column: In Truth and Charity

Mass of the Lord’s Supper

April 6, 2023
Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, FW

This Evening Mass of the Lord’s Supper begins the Sacred Paschal Triduum, three days in which we celebrate the greatest mysteries of our redemption.  In the liturgies of the Paschal Triduum, we celebrate the memorial of Our Lord crucified, buried, and risen.  Tonight we recall the Last Supper in which, on the night He was betrayed, Jesus instituted the sacraments of the Holy Eucharist and the priesthood.  We also recall Our Lord’s commandment of love and His own humble love and service in washing the feet of the twelve apostles, reminding us that Jesus came (as He said) “not to be served, but to serve.”

During the Paschal Triduum, we are celebrating Jesus’ Passover from death to life. That’s what the word “paschal” means – passage or Passover.  In fact, in Romance languages, the word for Easter conveys this meaning.  Easter in Latin is Pascha.  In Italian: Pasqua.  In Spanish: Pascua.  In French: Paques.  All meaning Passover.

Jesus’ Passover from death to life was foreshadowed by the Old Testament Passover, which we heard about in tonight’s first reading from the book of Exodus.  God told Moses and Aaron to instruct the whole community that every family was to procure a year-old male lamb without blemish, slaughter it, and apply its blood to the two doorposts and lintels of their houses.  (There’s another detail mentioned later in chapter 12 of Exodus – not a single bone of the lamb was to be broken). Then at a meal that same night they were to eat the roasted lamb, along with unleavened bread and bitter herbs.  God told Moses and Aaron that the people were to eat the meal ready to depart from Egypt.  He said: “It is the Passover of the Lord” because that night when the first-born would be struck down, He would pass over the houses marked with the blood of the lambs.  Finally, God instructed them: “This day shall be a memorial feast for you, which all your generations shall celebrate with pilgrimage to the Lord, as a perpetual institution.”  As you know, after the last of the ten plagues that occurred that night, Pharoah let God’s people go and thus began the great Exodus.  God liberated His people from slavery in Egypt and they began their trek to the promised land.

For centuries, the Jewish people did as the Lord commanded and celebrated the memorial feast of Passover every year.  Faithful Jews still do so today.  In fact, every year the Jewish Federation of Fort Wayne sends me a gift bag with all the ingredients to make a Passover seder meal.  This always reminds me of the Jewish roots of our faith and of the Last Supper.

When the Jewish people celebrated Passover, they remembered the past, that night in Egypt when the Exodus began, but they also looked to the future – they looked forward with hope that God would one day give them definitive and lasting freedom.  And that was Jesus’ mission and purpose from the Father: to bring that freedom.  Jesus, the Son of God, was sent by the Father to set us free, to liberate us from the slavery of sin, and to deliver us from the power of death.

Jesus approached the Passover feast with the awareness that He Himself was the Passover lamb foreshadowed in the book of Exodus as a lamb that would be sacrificed.  He went into Jerusalem at Passover time to institute a new Passover and establish a new covenant between God and His people.  At the Last Supper, He gave a new meaning to the blessing of the Passover bread and cup.  The Catechism explains this beautifully: “By celebrating the Last Supper with his apostles in the course of the Passover meal, Jesus gave the Jewish Passover its definitive meaning.  Jesus’ passing over to his Father by his death and resurrection, the new Passover, is anticipated in the Supper and celebrated in the Eucharist, which fulfills the Jewish Passover and anticipates the final Passover of the Church in the glory of the kingdom.”

Jesus inaugurated the new Passover Holy Thursday night with the prescribed unleavened bread and the wine, but there’s no mention of a lamb.  Looking at the details of the Jewish Passover, we see very clearly that Jesus Himself was the lamb at the Last Supper, the new Passover Lamb.  This was foretold by John the Baptist at the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry.  Remember when John saw Jesus approach him at the Jordan River, he exclaimed: “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.”  Like the Passover lamb, Jesus was without blemish.  He was without sin.  Like the Passover lamb, none of his bones were broken at the crucifixion.  Like the Passover lamb, Jesus was sacrificed.  Like the Passover lamb whose blood was poured out on the wood of the houses, Jesus’ blood was poured out on the wood of the cross.  Like God instructed the people to eat flesh of the Passover lamb, Jesus instructed the apostles to eat His flesh when He took the bread, broke it, gave it to them and said “Take and eat.  This is my body which is given up for you.”

Just as God told Moses and Aaron that the Passover was to be a memorial feast, so Jesus established a memorial feast of the New Passover when He said to the apostles: “Do this in memory of me.”  That memorial feast is the Holy Eucharist.  In instituting the sacrament of the Eucharist, Jesus also instituted the priesthood – giving the apostles the sacred power to act in His Person when they repeat His words and actions at the Last Supper, thus transforming bread and wine into His very Body and Blood.

At the Last Supper, Jesus was anticipating His sacrifice as the new Passover lamb the next day and His passing over to His Father by His death and resurrection.  In the course of the meal, as we heard in the Gospel, Jesus washed His disciples’ feet.  This was also an anticipation of His sacrifice on the cross.  By this action, Jesus was displaying in anticipation what would happen the next day on the cross: the cleansing from sin and the incorporation of the disciples into His divine life. That’s why when Peter objected to Jesus washing his feet, Our Lord told him: “Unless I wash you, you will have no inheritance with me.”  The washing of the feet is also an allusion to Baptism which communicates to us the forgiveness of sin and incorporation into the divine life.  Jesus’ washing of the feet of the disciples was a prophetic action, an anticipatory gesture that displayed His saving work on the cross.  He offers us salvation as a gift, a gift that we are called to say “yes” to, as Peter eventually did.

In washing the disciples’ feet, Jesus was also giving us an example to follow.  Jesus said to the apostles: “If I, the master and teacher, have washed your feet, you ought to wash one another’s feet.  I have given you a model to follow, so that what I have done for you, you should also do.”  Since the foot-washing signifies the cross, Jesus commands the disciples to practice the same kind of self-emptying humility and love that He will show them on the cross.  Later, in His farewell discourse at the Last Supper, Jesus said to His disciples: “I give you a new commandment: love one another.  As I have loved you, so you also should love one another.  This is how all will know that you are my disciples.”  These words of Jesus are appropriately sung during the ceremony of the washing of the feet at this Holy Thursday Mass.

The Holy Eucharist is intimately connected to Jesus’ instruction to wash one another’s feet, to love one another as He has loved us.  That’s what the grace of the Eucharist nourishes us to do.  It strengthens us to love.  That’s why Pope Benedict wrote in His great encyclical “God is love,” that “a Eucharist which does not pass over into the concrete practice of love is intrinsically fragmented.”  The saints of the Church are models for us of beautiful devotion to the Holy Eucharist and of witnessing to Christ’s love in their lives.  The two are intimately connected.  Jesus showed us this by washing the disciples’ feet at the same supper in which He gave us the gift of the Holy Eucharist.

I pray that our hearts may be touched anew by the love and humility of Jesus as we enter into the mystery of His passion, death, and resurrection during this sacred Triduum.  May the Lord Jesus, who loved us to the end, who gave us the sacrament of His love in the Eucharist, strengthen us to love one another as He has loved us, so that one day we will share in His banquet of love with the saints for all eternity!


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