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Passover and the Mass: Remembrance Meal and Sacrifice

by Brant Pitre October 03, 2019 0 Comments



If we want to understand Passover at the time of Jesus, we not only need to look at ancient Jewish scripture, we also want to pay attention to a couple of ancient Jewish traditions because worship develops over time. Things get added, customs get added over time, and the same thing was true with Jewish worship. So later Jewish tradition at the time of Christ had a few other elements of the Passover meal that I want to share with you in this session — kind of as a preparation for what we’ll look at next time with the Last Supper.

First—this is important. In later Jewish tradition, the Passover was viewed as a special kind of memorial, a special kind of remembrance, because once the Israelites got into to the Holy Land, once they were living in the Land, they would keep celebrating the Passover every year, but time passed, right? Generations went by. Moses, for example, is around the 15th Century before Christ, so they’re living in the land for centuries, over a thousand years before you get to Jesus’ time. Every year when they’re celebrating that Passover, they came to recognize that when we do this memorial of the Passover, we’re not just saying, “Hey, remember what God did way back when for ancestors?” The Jews had a tradition that whenever you kept the Passover, that in a certain sense you went back in time to that original night, that in a sense it spiritually brought you back to the first Exodus.

In the ancient Jewish rabbis, they said this—I’ve got a quote there for you. The rabbis would teach that:

In every generation a man must so regard himself as if he came forth himself out of Egypt, for it is written… “It is because of what the Lord did for me when I came forth out of Egypt” (Exod 13:8). Therefore we are bound to give thanks… (Mishnah, Pesahim 10:5; trans. H. Danby).

What does that mean? In other words, it doesn’t matter whether a thousand years have passed since the Exodus. When you celebrate the Passover, you are remembering what God did for you—like you personally, because when He set your ancestors free, He also set you free in a certain sense. That’s the first point.

Second, in later Jewish tradition, they also added things to the Passover sacrifice, and one of them was blessings over the bread and over the wine. So when families would sit down and celebrate the Passover, the father, who would still act as the leader over the meal, would say certain blessings over the bread and wine that was part of the meal. And here, these are actual ancient Jewish words from these blessings. See if this sounds familiar. When the father would take the bread, he would say:

“Blessed are you, Lord God, who brings forth bread from the earth.” (Mishnah, Beraokoth 6:1)

And when he would take the wine, he would say:

“Blessed are you, O Lord our God, King of the Universe, who creates the fruit of the vine.” (Mishnah, Berakoth 6:1) 

Does any of that sound familiar? Yes, it sounds like the priest’s prayers over the gifts in the offertory of the mass. And in fact, those prayers in the mass are taken directly from these ancient Jewish traditions. By the way, as we’ll see next week, very likely this is what would have been said by Christ himself over the bread and the wine at the Last Supper.

And then third and finally, but no means least significantly, in later tradition, the Passover was also believed to be the time when the Messiah will come. In the first century AD, all the Jews were waiting for the Messiah. “When he’s going to come? When he’s going to come?” Well the Jews had a tradition that on the same night that Israel was redeemed and set free, i.e. the Passover night—on that night they’ll also be redeemed by the Messiah. He’s going to come at the same time, but that when He comes, as we’ll see, He’s going to inaugurate a new Passover.

So sure enough, when we come to the Gospels, what does Jesus do? When He goes to Jerusalem to die, does He do it at the Feast of the Day of Atonement? No. Does He do it at the Feast of Hanukkah? He could have died at Hanukkah. No. Does He do it at their New Year Festival? No. When does He choose to go down Jerusalem? At Passover, and there’s a reason. He, of course, knows the Scriptures, but as a Jew He’s going to fulfill even their traditions about the fact that the Messiah was going to come on Passover night, and He’s going to die just like the Passover lamb died.

The New Testament is really clear that that’s what’s going on. If you look their, the new Passover of Christ, St. Paul actually tells us:

“Christ, our paschal lamb (Greek pascha), has been sacrificed. Let us, therefore, keep the feast...! “(1 Corinthians 5:7-8)

What feast is Paul talking about? It’s the Feast of the Eucharist, which is going to be, as we'll see, the new Passover. Now, before we bring this to a close, let me just make one point of clarification because you might be thinking, “Well hold on Dr. Pitre. I thought the Passover was all about them getting them out of slavery in Egypt and then journeying to the Promised Land.” That’s true, but when Christ celebrates his new Passover, does He set the Jews free and then put them, you know, into like a caravan and then go traveling somewhere? No, He actually celebrates the Passover in Jerusalem, so there’s something different, right? The first Passover started in Egypt with slavery to pharaoh and it ends in the Holy Land. But Jesus’s new Passover—watch this—starts in the Holy Land and where does it end? Where does it lead? Not to the earthly promised land, but to where? To Heaven.

Because, see, ultimately the Passover is a shadow of what Christ is going to accomplish. He doesn’t come to set us free from political slavery to pharaoh. He comes to set us free from the slavery of sin. He comes to set us free from bondage to the devil, right? He comes to break the chains of Satan, to lift the burdens of our sin through his Passover so that we can begin our journey to the true Promised Land, which is the Promised Land of Heaven. Does that make sense? Do you see it?

In other words, all of our lives, our spiritual lives, every single one of us is like a new Exodus. When we were baptized, we crossed through the water, so to speak, of the Red Sea. We were set free from slavery, not to pharaoh but to Satan, and we began our journey to our heavenly Promised Land. What makes that journey possible is the Passover of Jesus Christ, the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. His death is the one that breaks those chains and begins our journey home. Which, you might remember, how long did it take Israelites to get to the Holy Land? 40 years. Now I don't know if you know geography, but it doesn’t take 40 years to walk from Egypt to Israel. It’s not that far, but the problem is we tend to wander, right? We tend to go in circles spiritually. So the Passover here is going to be what renews that Covenant, gets us out of slavery and ultimately brings us home.

And as we’re going to see next time, all that’s going to happen in Christ’s Last Supper. But for now, I just want to end with this one quote from the Catechism about the Eucharist, because if the Eucharist really is a new Passover, then guess what? It means that every time we go to mass, like the Jews, we go back in time to the first Passover of Christ.

And here, I’m just quoting the Church's teaching. In the Catechism of the Catholic Church 1362-1365. I’ve given you the quote on the handouts, so you can see it really clearly. We’ll end with these words. The Church says this:

The Eucharist is the memorial of Christ’s Passover… In the sense of Sacred Scripture the memorial is not merely the recollection of past events but the proclamation of the mighty works wrought by God for men. In the liturgical celebration of these events, they become in a certain way present and real. This is how Israel understands its liberation from Egypt: every time Passover is celebrated, the Exodus events are made present to the memory of believers so that they may conform their lives to them. In the New Testament, the memorial takes on new meaning. When the Church celebrates the Eucharist, she commemorates Christ’s Passover, and it is made present…

Don't you forget that. It’s not just a symbol. We’re not saying, “Oh, remember how Jesus died for me?” What happened at the Last Supper and on the Cross is now being made really and truly present every time we go to mass. It’s really there.

…the sacrifice Christ offered once for all on the cross remains ever present. “As often as the sacrifice of the Cross by which ‘Christ our Pasch has been sacrificed’ is celebrated on the altar, the work of our redemption is carried out.” (CCC 1362-65)

He’s still breaking the chain. He’s still lifting the burden of sin and he’s doing it every single time we’re there at the mass.

Brant Pitre
Brant Pitre


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