Msgr. Joseph A. Pellegrino
Holy Thursday Mass of the Lord’s Supper: Consuming Mercy
This evening’s readings began with the institution of the Passover meal. The deliverance of the Hebrew people from slavery in Egypt was the great act of God’s mercy in the Old Testament. God used his Power against the Egyptians, but spared His people. The first reading describes what was happening as the final plague came upon the Egyptians. Moses had given God’s message to Pharaoh. The first born of all the land of Egypt would die unless Pharaoh let God’s people go free to worship him. Pharaoh refused. The Angel of Death was summoned. As the Angel of Death came upon the land, the Israelites ate a special meal of lamb and unleavened bread. They were not to eat this meal in their leisure clothes, or even banquet clothes. They were to be dressed ready for a journey. You remember, blood from the sacrificed lamb was put on their doorposts. As the Angel of Death made its way throughout Egypt, it passed over the homes of the Israelites marked with the Blood of the sacrificed lamb. This is the Passover. The early Church Fathers would ask: “What was it about the Jewish homes that caused the Angel of Death to pass over them? It was the Blood of the Lamb that the angel saw as the Blood of Christ, the Eucharist.” God’s mercy had come upon each house in anticipation of the sacrifice of the Lamb of God.
By Jesus’s time, the Passover took place in two stages. The first stage was the sacrifice of the lamb in the Temple in Jerusalem on the afternoon of 14th day of the Hebrew month, Nissan. The second stage was the eating of the Passover lamb during the supper the evening the lamb was slain. This sacred meal was more than just a remembrance of the meal that took place in Egypt, the first Passover. It became a remembrance of the four most important nights for the Jewish people: the night of creation when God’s light shone in the darkness, the night of Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac, the night of the Exodus from Egypt and the night still to come when the Messiah would lead the people out of darkness.
During the Passover meal Jesus celebrated in the Upper Room, the Lord said, “Do this in remembrance of me.” A new Passover would now take place with a new sacrificial lamb, a new passage into light and a new all consuming mercy.
As I mentioned there were two stages of the Passover meal, the immolation or sacrifice of the lamb in the Temple and the eating of the sacred meal that evening. We find a discrepancy in the time line between the Synoptic Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke and the Gospel of John. John focused on the first stage, the sacrifice of the lamb, the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke, focus in on the second stage, the Passover Meal. For the Gospel of John, the Christian Passover, the Eucharist, is initiated on the Cross. The Gospel of John has a precise count down to the Passover. Jesus dies on the cross on the precise day and at the precise time that the lambs are sacrificed. Like the sacrificial lambs, not a bone was to be broken. Jesus is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world as he is proclaimed to be in the first chapter of John. Jesus came to take away sin; He came to bring mercy.
The Synoptics, Matthew, Mark and Luke, focus in on the second stage of the Passover, the sacred meal. These gospels are not as concerned with the precise time of the death of the Lord. They are concerned with the institution of the Eucharist
during the Last Supper as the supreme symbolic and prophetic action in history. In giving the Eucharist, Jesus announced and anticipated with the sacrament that which would shortly follow: his death for his people and his gift of eternal life through his resurrection. Some of the ancient teachers in the Church, following the Synoptic time line, even counted the three days in the tomb from the Last Supper, “For,” they said, “Christ’s sacrificial death began when he broke his body for his disciples in the sacrament of the Eucharist.”
Historically, there was only one sacrifice of Christ on the cross. Sacramentally, Jesus is sacrificed on the cross as often as the Eucharist is celebrated. When we come to Mass we are present as the Son is offered to the Father to obtain mercy for His people. When we receive communion, we consume this mercy.
The method of the sacrifice, the death of the Lord by crucifixion, was terrible. It demonstrated the extent that hatred and evil will go to destroy love and goodness. But, beneath the horrors of that day was the conscious decision of the Lord to be the sacrificial victim. It is the all consuming mercy of our Lord that made that Friday Good. Jesus Christ came for the forgiveness of sins. He came for mercy. He allowed himself to be sacrificed; he allowed evil to do its worse to him and then used evil’s very actions as a means of redeeming mankind. He conquered death through death. And He did this for us. In this year of Mercy, we remember that Jesus is the Gift of Mercy.
“Daughters of Jerusalem,” he said, “Do not weep for me, but weep for your sins and sins of your children.” It is sin that caused his death. It is sin that was conquered by his death.
Union with Jesus’ suffering, dying, and rising, was given to us at the Last Supper. This is my body which will be given up for you. This is my blood, the blood of the new and eternal covenant, which shall be shed for you and for all until sins are forgiven.
Through the sacrament of the Eucharist that we celebrate every day on our altars, we are mysteriously present at the death of the Lord. The ancient Jews would say on the Passover night, “In every generation let each of us see himself or herself as the one that came out of Egypt that night.” Applied to us Christians, we say, “Yes, I also am present at the New Passover. I am in that Upper Room. I am present when the Lord gives his Body and Blood during the Mass. I am present under the cross with Mary and John.” “Were you there when they crucified the Lord?” the spiritual asks. “Yes,” we reply. “I am there whenever I participate in the mystery of the Eucharist.”
But why “Body and Blood?” Why did Jesus transform bread and wine and specifically say, ‘This is my Body, This is my Blood.” We read in the Gospel of John that the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. The Body is human. The body indicates the whole of life. Jesus gives us his body, his whole life, not just a piece of his life. When we receive communion, we receive the totality of the Lord’s life from his presence within Mary at his conception to his birth in Bethlehem, to his labors during the period of his private life, to his public ministry, his healing and teaching, his warmth and friendship, and to his determination to give all to his Father for his people. The body of Christ is the sum totality of his life.
And the Blood? The Blood is the Lord’s death. In the Bible, flowing blood indicates death. His Blood flows out for us. Jesus dies for us. At the Last Supper Jesus gives us his life and his death. “Having loved his own in the world,” the Gospel of John begins the Passion Account, “he loved them to the end.” When we receive communion we receive the Life and Death of the Lord. Far more than a meal of fellowship, we are in communion with the life and death of Jesus. Hebrews 4 proclaims, “Let us be confident in approaching the throne of Grace, that we shall have mercy from Him and find grace when we are in need of help.”
Come, now, join the disciples in the Upper Room. Join Mary and John beneath the Cross. Join Jesus who emptied himself in humble service. This evening and throughout our Christian lives may we be united to the Tremendous Lover who by his life and death has given us the Gift of Mercy. Come and receive communion. Come and consume mercy.