Holy Thursday Homily, Mass of the Lord's Supper, April 5, 2007
[Unofficial translation from the Italian text on the Vatican website at: http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/benedict_xvi/homilies/2007/documents/hf_ben-xvi_hom_20070405_coena-domini_it.html]
Dear brothers and sisters,
In the reading from the Book of Exodus that we have just heard, the celebration of Israel's Passover is described as it was set out by Mosaic law. This could have originated as a spring festival observed by nomads. However, it had been transformed for Israel into a feast of commemoration, thanksgiving and, at the same time, hope. At the center of the paschal supper, ordered according to specific liturgical rules, was the lamb, symbol of liberation from slavery in Egypt. Thus, the paschal Haggadah was an integral aspect of the lamb meal: the narrative remembrance of the fact that it was God himself who had freed Israel "with a mighty hand." He, the mysterious and hidden God, was shown to be mightier than the pharaoh despite all the power that he had at his disposal. Israel was not to forget that God personally had taken a hand in the history of his people, and that this history was continuously based on communion with God. Israel was not to forget God.
The words of the [Passover] commemoration were encompassed by words of praise and gratitude from the Psalms. Giving thanks and blessing to God achieved its apex with the berakha, in Greek called the eulogia or eucharistia: blessing God becomes a blessing for those who bless. The offering given to God returns blessed to humanity. All of this fashioned a bridge from the past to the present toward the future: The liberation of Israel was still not completed. The nation still suffered as a small people caught in the tensions between great powers. The grateful memory of God's action in the past simultaneously became both a plea and a source of hope: Bring to fulfillment what you have begun! Give us definitive freedom!
This supper, with it multiple aspects, was celebrated by Jesus with his disciples on the eve of his passion. Based on this context, we can understand the new Passover, which he gave to us in the Holy Eucharist. In the narratives of the evangelists, an apparent contradiction exists between the Gospel of John, on the one hand, and what, on the other hand, Matthew, Mark and Luke tell us. According to John, Jesus died on the cross just at the moment when, in the temple, the paschal Lambs were being sacrificed. His death and the sacrifice of the Lambs coincided. This means that he died on the eve of Passover, and therefore, he could not have personally celebrated the paschal supper [the evening before]; at least so it appears. However, according to the three synoptic Gospels, the Last Supper of Jesus was a paschal supper, into whose traditional shape he inserted the innovation of the gift of his body and blood. This contradiction, until a few years ago, seemed insoluble. The majority of exegetes cautioned that John did not intend to communicate the actual historical date of the death of Jesus to us, but had chosen to give a symbolic one in order to make more obvious the deeper truth: Jesus is the new and true lamb who shed his blood for us all.
The discovery of the Qumran writings has meanwhile led us to a possible convincing solution that, while not accepted by all, has a high degree of probability. We are now in a position to say that what John has reported is historically precise. Jesus really shed his blood on the eve of Passover at the hour of the sacrifice of the Lambs. But he celebrated Passover with his disciples probably according to the calendar of Qumran, thus at least a day before – celebrated without lamb, like the community of Qumran which did not recognize the Temple of Herod and was waiting for a new temple. Therefore, Jesus had celebrated Passover without lamb – no, not without a lamb: in place of the lamb he has given himself, his body and his blood. He had, therefore, anticipated his death in a coherent manner with his statement: "No one takes my life from me, but I lay it down of my own accord" (John 10:18). The moment he offered his body and blood to the disciples, he really fulfilled this statement. He himself offered his life. Only then did the ancient Passover receive its true meaning.
St. John Chrysostom, in his Eucharistic catechesis,* once wrote: What are you saying, Moses? That the blood of a lamb purifies human beings? That it saves them from death? How can the blood of an animal purify humanity? How can it save humankind, have power over death?
In fact, Chrysostom continues, the lamb could constitute only a symbolic gesture, and, therefore, the expression of the expectation and hope for someone capable of completing what the sacrifice of an animal was incapable of.
Jesus celebrated the Passover without lamb and temple, but however, not lacking a lamb or a temple. He himself was the awaited lamb, the true one, as John the Baptist had foretold at the beginning of Jesus' public ministry: "Here is the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!" (John 1:29).
And he himself was the true temple, the living temple, in which God dwells, and where we can meet God and adore him. His blood, the love of He who is fully Son of God and true man, one of us, that blood can save. His love, this love in which he gives himself freely for us, is what saves us. The nostalgic gesture, in some sense lacking in effectiverness, of the immolation of the innocent and immaculate lamb, found an answer in Him who has become for us both Lamb and Temple.
Thus, at the center of the new Passover of Christ, was the cross. The new gift that came from him proceeds from it. And therefore it always remains in the Holy Eucharist, through which we can celebrate with the apostles down the long ages the new Passover. From the cross of Christ the gift comes. "No one takes my life from me, but I lay it down of my own accord." Now, he offers it to us. The paschal Haggadah, the commemoration of the salvific act of God, becomes a memorial of the cross and the resurrection of Christ, a remembrance that doesn't just recall the past, but draws us into the presence of the love of Christ. And therefore the berakha, Israel's prayer of blessing and thanksgiving, has become our Eucharistic celebration, in which the Lord blesses our gifts, the bread and wine, to give himself. We pray that the Lord will help us to understand more and more deeply this wonderful mystery, and to love it more and more and with it to love him more and more. We pray him to draw us more and more to him with Holy Communion. We pray him to help us not to keep our lives for ourselves, but to offer them to him, and therefore to work with him so that all people find life, the true life that can only come from He who is the Way, the Truth and the Life. Amen
[* Webmaster's Note: The allusion here is apparently to John Chrysostom's 3rd Baptismal Catechesis, 14: "What, then, did Moses do? 'Sacrifice an unblemished lamb,' he said, 'and smear your doors with its blood.' [See Ex. 12:21-25.] What do you mean? Can the blood of an irrational animal save man who has reason? 'Yes,' [Moses] says. 'Not because it is blood, but because it prefigures the Master's blood.'"]